The San Francisco 49ers are hours away from taking on the Kansas City Chiefs, as the 49ers look to win their sixth Super Bowl in eight tries. I’ve been alive for three of those championships and six of those Super Bowl appearances, and I gladly wave my “Faithful” flag when I take off my sports-journalist hat.
My being a 49ers fan is something of an anomaly. Growing up in Georgia, the expectation dictated by hometown pride would see me throwing that level of commitment behind the Atlanta Falcons or shunning pro football for the college game.
I like the Falcons just fine, but I grew up taking the red-and-gold to heart because watching them was formative to discovering football and cultivating my love of sports.
Players like Joe Montana, Steve Young, Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice, Bryant Young and many others helped teach me the game. More importantly, they came to represent how to play the game. Those were the names that I carried with me as I pursued my dreams of playing football when I strapped on the pads for the first time in elementary school.
But football itself taught me something completely different when I stepped onto the field with poor attempts at emulating my 49er heroes: I didn’t belong.
I’ve always been undersized. I’ve lived with severe-to-bad asthma since an early age, and the steroids I took to treat it as a kid affected my growth, bones and muscle strength. But those factors weren’t what made me feel pushed toward the edges. It was my developing queerness.
The common factors of toxic masculinity, framed against the rural setting of unacceptance in which I grew up, taught me that before I even really knew who I was. Not everyone I interacted with infused those ideals into me. There were a handful of coaches that let me express “unmanly” emotion when I screwed up, but they were the exception to the rule.
My helmeted experience was far more defined by the gospel of toughness, playing through injury even as a middle-schooler, joining my school’s FCA club and postgame prayer circles led by people that I knew utilized religion to oppose LGBTQ people’s existence as “alternative lifestyles.”
I remember slurs being casually thrown around by my teammates in the locker room and on the bench, sometimes directed toward me and sometimes toward no one. Those words were just part of the vocabulary.
While my desire to even microscopically emulate the 49ers I grew up with kept me coming back, everyone around me questioned why I even wanted to be there. I wasn’t out yet, but it was like they could smell it on me, even though I didn’t embody the idea of the stereotypical queer man of the late 1990s and early 2000s. A memory of one player telling me I was only playing so I could “get girls, or maybe guys” after eighth grade football practice continues to surface in quiet moments to this day.
My goals weren’t accepted, and my identity wasn’t accepted before it was even public knowledge.
So I quit. I injured my shoulder during that eighth-grade season and never put the pads on again. I still had a love of the sport and the team that spawned it, but football was something to enjoy from a distance. I was an anomaly who didn’t have a place in the game.
That’s how my relationship with the sport stayed for years, as I eventually moved into the sports media space during college. There were still plenty of factors that reminded me why I felt I had to exist on the edges during that time, but it felt somewhat safe talking and writing about the sport that I felt had rejected me.
Then Michael Sam kissed his boyfriend on TV during the NFL Draft in 2014, and I finally had a presence in football to cling to. Then he never played a regular season down and was labeled a “distraction” for his queerness. Those previous feelings came rushing back.
And that’s how it stayed until I learned that the 49ers planned to establish 49ers PRIDE, an official community for queer fans of the team. It was one of the first of its kind in the NFL, and it was my team that was reaching out to people like me.
All of those negative memories came flooding back, but in a different way. They weren’t there to remind me that I was free to enjoy the game from the theoretical nosebleeds as long as I didn’t do anything gay, but rather to reflect on all the people and experiences from that small chapter of my life that were now cast as wrong by the team that catalyzed the desire that put me in direct contact with them.
They were wrong because the 49ers showed me they were wrong. In a professional capacity, I will tell you that I hope Sunday’s game is a great, competitive one. Personally, I hope the 49ers hoist their sixth Lombardi trophy. I would’ve felt that way even if 49ers PRIDE didn’t exist, but I wouldn’t feel this level of closeness without it even though I don’t live close enough to attend any of the club’s events.
I’ve always looked to the 49ers for something: inspiration, motivation or validation depending on the stage of my life. Hero worship isn’t a tenet I ascribe to despite how that previous statement may sound, nor do I believe fandom should fully fuel self-identity in the same way that one’s queerness shouldn’t.
But that doesn’t mean that people like myself should abstain from drawing power from the things they love, especially when they recontextualize decades of thought that shouldn’t have been there to begin with. That’s what the 49ers taught me when I was three years old, and it’s what they continue to show me more than three decades later. Who’s got it better than us? Nobody.