As a kid in the Bay Area in the 1980s, my life was the San Francisco 49ers. My nightstand lamp was a 49ers helmet. Posters of my childhood heroes — Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Ronnie Lott — covered my walls, as did dozens of ticket stubs to games at Candlestick Park.
I went to almost all of those games with my dad. The first was on October 26, 1980, when he bought me a red vuvuzela — the plastic horn that’s been a fixture at sports events worldwide — which I still have.
My dad, Lawrence Margolis, is now 85 years old and has spent months in home hospice care. He’s suffering from a progressive neurodegenerative disorder called multiple system atrophy. As the name implies, your systems fail one by one: your ability to balance, control your bladder, and eventually to swallow. Cognitive impairment and dementia can occur.
I won’t go into personal details to preserve my dad’s dignity, but it’s not a pretty ending. He’s been bedridden for well over a year. He no longer has much to say.
Still, there are joys in life.
Super Bowl Sunday is a big day for us, a chance for the 49ers to win their sixth Super Bowl and first in 29 years. Two weeks ago was a bigger deal, not just because of the 49ers’ thrilling 17-point comeback — I had flown from Boston to San Francisco to watch the NFC title game with my dad. I’m guessing this will be his last football season, and I wanted to share another football memory with him.
Before the Patriots dynasty, the 49ers won five Super Bowls in the ‘80s and ‘90s. For kids growing up in San Mateo, California — like me and Tom Brady — fall Sundays meant being glued to our TVs. (Tom was in eighth grade when I was a high school senior, so our paths never crossed.)
Like many fathers and sons, my dad and I communicated through sports. I had a hard time opening up to my father, sharing my deepest hopes and fears. It was a two-way street. This is not to say we didn’t have meaningful conversations about real issues; we did. But our primary language was sports. And thankfully, we had our Niners.
To the non-sports fan, this may sound silly, perhaps even sad.
But I remember hugging my dad as an 8-year-old, in 1982, when the 49ers made it to their first Super Bowl.
I remember spending hours in the backyard with my dad as he designed plays on his chest, his back turned to the imaginary defense, mapping out a series of zigzags so I could beat the pretend defender for a touchdown. Neither my dad nor I played organized football, but we know the shared joy of connecting through a tight spiral.
I remember being a teenager, and like many 16-year-olds, not wanting to hang out with my parents. It’s not that things were strained, but, well, I was a teenager. Fall Sundays, though, meant three hours with my dad, and my mom, too, for the big games. We bantered, we celebrated, we second-guessed. Simply being in the room together, we were connected in our bond.
I remember being away for college when the phone would ring within seconds of the final whistle of a big game — my roommates knew it was Larry calling to share the moment.
What’s silly or sad about that?
Backing a great team also brings deeper pain when it doesn’t go your way. My dad and I still talk about the hurt from the 1983 NFC Championship Game against the team from Washington. We sat in the rain together in January 1993 and watched our team lose yet another title game, this time to the hated Dallas Cowboys.
But my dad also taught me a valuable lesson through sports: You don’t always get what you want in life. Take your hat off to your opponent and accept life’s setbacks with dignity.
My dad was a radiation oncologist at the University of California San Francisco. His job involved a lot of math and complex strategizing, calculating just how much radiation to administer: enough to kill the tumor, not enough to kill the patient. For him, football was a perfect release, a contest of strategies won on the sidelines. We had Bill Walsh at the helm, a coach nicknamed “the genius” for reimagining football. My dad loved to comment on the complexity Walsh brought to the game, how he transformed football from a contest of brute strength into a contest of the mind.
I’m not going to lie, watching this latest game wasn’t like the old days. My dad had been one of the most outgoing and talkative people you’d ever meet, the guy you did not want to sit next to on the plane if you wanted to get some reading done. Now, he’s tired and disoriented, and has largely retreated into his own world.
I still remember his scream of happiness when the 49ers won their third Super Bowl, in January 1989, a thrilling come-from-behind victory. Two Sundays ago, my dad watched quietly. I’m not sure how much he was processing. But I like to think that he saw my joy and that brought him some joy, too.
Yes, I want my team to win another Super Bowl, but I’m most grateful they’ve played into February so my dad and I could share one more memory together. Win or lose, I’ll call my dad after the game.
I tend to think a lot in sports metaphors. At age 85, my dad is deep into the end of his season, the clock is winding down. No team, no person, beats the clock.
There’s something sad when the football season ends. But there’s also great pleasure in looking back and reflecting on what a wonderful ride it was. That’s a lesson I’m trying to hold onto with my dad.
Jason Margolis can be reached at email@example.com.