Good songs finish with a spectacular climax. Good meals gradually build to a savory end. Good shows leave their audience laughing, entertained or emotionally drained as the curtain closes.
If this was the end at Candlestick Park, it delivered to its final heartbeat.
Its closing performance – or was it? – ticked to its conclusion Monday night at 8:46 p.m. Matt Ryan’s desperation pass bounced to the end zone turf as 69,732 generated a sound not unlike a jet at Mach 4. The San Francisco 49ers somehow scraped by the Atlanta Falcons 34-24 and earned a playoff berth while the 49er Faithful didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or continue the party in the parking lot.
They probably did all three.
Really, what more could you want from the final scheduled game at Candlestick, the quirky center of the Northern California sports universe for the last 53 years? All sides played their respective roles like pros – the Falcons, 4-10 but mistake-free until crunch time, the 49ers sluggish and almost drowning in all that nostalgia for a half.
Then the 49ers (11-4) and Colin Kaepernick, their mercurial quarterback from Turlock, awakened in the second half. This was the 49er team we’ve witnessed most of the season, explosive at the right time, decisive and single-minded.
But it wasn’t going to be a conventional 49er victory. No, that wouldn’t match up with what Candlestick was all about. This always was a place of nuance – great teams that somehow couldn’t grab the big prize (the 1960s Giants), a bayside venue shaken but not beaten by an earthquake almost at the second the World Series returned here for the first time in 27 years (1989), and special athletes somehow slugging through the bulk of their career in mind-numbing wind and cold (Willie Mays and others). And then there were the 49ers, the Super Bowl-winning counterpoints to all that heartbreak.
No, the farewell act here required something unexpected, out-of-the-blue and impossible to predict. Like an 89-yard pick-6 by linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
The Falcons, trailing 27-24 and at the 49ers’ 10-yard line, were poised to steal the win, the mojo of this night and perhaps the entire season from the 49ers’ grasp. They had a tying field goal and overtime in their pocket, along with a white-hot quarterback closing in on the win.
Seconds before, an onside kick bounced Atlanta’s way. Surely every seasoned 49er fan remembered Preston Riley’s bobble of an onside which tumbled the 49ers’ back into the NFL pack in the early 1970s. Was this a sorry reprise?
And guess what: Atlanta’s stealing this win also would have fit the plot. Perhaps we would have looked back on it as Candlestick’s football version of another windblown popup dropping helplessly between three Giants, the swansong slap-in-the-face from this often maddening playground.
Instead, the scriptwriters provided the hometown-approved finish, the play no one who’s ever walked through the Stick’s turnstiles will ever forget.
The pass was a fortuitous carom off 49ers defender Trumaine Brock and Falcons receiver Harry Douglas, a kiss from the football gods straight to Bowman. Down the 49er sideline he stepped, past his ecstatic coach Jim Harbaugh and his teammates joining in the dash.
Harbaugh, a football lifer hardened by all the highs and lows the game can drop on a man, knew what he had witnessed was not normal. He turned 50 on Monday, and the guy whose team had reached the Super Bowl less than a year ago figured this play – Bowman’s Bounce – was about as good as the genre gets.
“Best thing I’ve ever seen happen in a football game that happened to our side,” he said. “Best birthday present I’ve ever gotten.”
Kaepernick, not sharp during the first half, energized the 49ers with his arm and those flashy legs toward the team’s 31 second-half points. More fell onto his shoulders due to the season-ending injury of fullback Bruce Miller and the absence of injured wide receiver Mario Manningham. He seemed to figure it out after halftime.
After all, he orchestrated San Francisco’s rally from a 17-0 deficit against Atlanta in last season’s NFC Championship Game. It’s still another reason why the 49ers settled on him over Alex Smith. The 49ers are not 18-7 with Kaepernick at QB by accident.
“I think that’s the loudest it’s every been at Candlestick since I’ve been here,” Kaepernick said. “I got my start here. I’ll be the last quarterback for the 49ers to play in this stadium so that’s another thing that’s going to be very memorable.”
There were other factors at work here, however, events that can’t be explained. An era closed in a manner that can’t be passed off as human drama. It all seemed to be preordained – 49ers fall behind, take charge, come within a play of blowing up the whole story, and, then, magic.
When it ended, thousands remained and sang “Lights” (When The Lights Go Down In The City) by Journey and celebrated the fireworks that followed. They then filed out, and even if fate brings them back here for a playoff game, they’ll remember Candlestick and how this worn-out stadium gave us one more hard-to-believe exclamation point in its final spasm.
Levi’s Stadium will be nice, but how can you top all that was Candlestick?