After the Loma Prieta earthquake closed down Candlestick Park, the 49ers went to Stanford Stadium the next Sunday, October 22, 1989, to play the Patriots. Here’s a game preview in the Sacramento Bee:
Once the ball is kicked off and the first block or tackle is made, normalcy might return to the minds of the 49ers and their fans at today’s game with the New England Patriots at Stanford Stadium.
At least that’s the theory and hope advanced by 49ers safety Tom Holmoe.
But does he honestly believe it? Who knows? he said with a sigh. No one here has ever really gone through anything like this before.
This is the earthquake that devastated parts of the Bay Area on Tuesday, killing scores of people and giving athletes pause for thought. How important is a sports event World Series or NFL game in the aftermath of a catastrophe?
The answer, from the 49ers’ perspective, wasn’t much different from that of the A’s and Giants. The event itself doesn’t mean much, really, but if it provides even a brief diversion for the people in the Bay Area, perhaps it’s worthwhile. Theaters continue to operate, and restaurants and night spots remain open.
“We want to portray to the nation that the people of the Bay Area are back together and trying to go forward,” 49ers vice president John McVay said.
Several players, however, admit they’ve been in something of a daze most of the week.
“When I came to practice Wednesday, I didn’t care whether I threw a pass or not, and that’s not normal,” backup quarterback Steve Young said.
“We’ve won the Super Bowl three times, but that doesn’t mean anything to the people laying under that freeway right now,” said tackle Bubba Paris, whose south San Jose home sustained extensive damage. “It makes you stop and think about what’s really important.”
By moving the game to Stanford Stadium from Candlestick Park, where an inspection for structural damage is still under way, the 49ers might wind up playing in front of a record regular-season crowd.
Stanford’s seating capacity of 86,000 is about 20,000 greater than Candlestick’s, and 15,000 additional tickets were put on sale. McVay said the reports he received Friday indicate a turnout of 80,000 is likely, even though refunds were offered to season-ticket holders unable to attend the game.
Then again, some fans might be kept away by the 4.9 aftershock that rolled through the Bay Area Saturday and was felt at Stanford Stadium.
“It’s a terrible tragedy and we all know that, McVay said, referring to the events of Tuesday. But under the circumstances, our owner (Ed DeBartolo Jr.) wanted to stay in the Bay Area and play this game before our home fans, instead of moving the game to New England . The seating will be open and that’s unfortunate, but I think everybody understands this is the best we can do right now.”
The game is remembered not for the 37-20 victory over New England but for Jeff Fuller’s injury. Here’s a San Jose Mercury News day-after report on the injury:
Safety Jeff Fuller’s career with the 49ers could be in jeopardy as the result of a neck injury suffered during a 37-20 victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday.
Fuller was hurt on the game’s second play from scrimmage when he made a headfirst tackle of New England running back John Stephens. Fuller lay motionless on the Stanford Stadium turf for several minutes after the play and was taken by ambulance to Stanford Hospital.
Fuller, 27, who started at free safety, was listed in serious condition in the hospital’s intensive-care unit, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Fuller’s life is not threatened by the injury, said Michael Dillingham, a team physician. Another team physician, James Klint, described the neck injury as fractures of three transverse processes, bones projecting laterally from the spine area.
Fuller also suffered a concussion and nerve damage, Dillingham said. He said some of the nerves running from Fuller’s neck to his right arm may have been pulled apart. If they were, Dillingham said, Fuller may not regain full use of the arm.
”He may or may not regain use of some of the muscles in his right arm,” Dillingham said. “When those nerves are pulled apart, they normally will not regenerate.”
”We’re pleased that we won the game, but our thoughts in the locker room were with Jeff,” Seifert said. “Our concerns now are with him.”
Dillingham said Fuller was unconscious momentarily after the hit, but he never stopped breathing. Fuller was not coherent when he left the stadium, Dillingham said.
Niners wide receiver Mike Wilson, who suffered a neck injury during the 1986 season, said the play was frightening.
”I almost cried on the sideline when we thought for a minute that he might have broken his neck,” Wilson said. “It’s the most scary thing in football when you see guys go helmet to helmet, head to head.”
Niners cornerback Eric Wright said trying to make a head-to- head tackle of the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Stephens may have been a mistake on Fuller’s part.
”With a big guy like that, you’ve got to take him low,” Wright said. “But sometimes you get in a position where you just want to get the guy down and you do whatever you have to do.”
After the play, Wilson said, players simply were hoping Fuller would move.
”We were hoping he’d move and wishing he’d get up,” Wilson said.
Niners strong safety Chet Brooks said Fuller did move slightly but seemed to know he was badly injured.
”Yes, he moved a little,” Brooks said. “He was talking to the doctors, but he was scared. You could see it in his eyes. He was hurt and he knew it.”
Stephens described Fuller’s tackle as clean and hard.
”We just hit helmets,” Stephens said. “I don’t know what happened. I thought he delivered a clean blow. It was a good hit.”
There’s another post elsewhere on the blog on 49ers responding to the quake. Also, here’s a look at Fuller’s status in May 2007, almost 18 years after his career-ending injury, from the San Francisco Chronicle.
More than 17 years later, Jeff Fuller still cannot use his right arm the way he once did — so he signs autographs left-handed. Fuller cannot throw passes to his 16-year-old son, a star wide receiver — so he helps Jeff Jr. navigate the daunting waters of big-time college recruiting.
Fuller cannot return to that fateful day at Stanford Stadium — so he has come to accept the life-changing price of one wrenching tackle.
“I’m doing as well as you can with an injury of this magnitude,” Fuller said recently. “I’ve met quite a few people with injuries more serious than mine. That makes it a little easier to deal with.”
Fuller, 44, now lives in McKinney, Texas, about 30 miles north of Dallas. The collision with Stephens left Fuller with two fractured vertebrae and torn nerves near his shoulder and neck. His paralysis affects his right shoulder, arm and elbow, and he’s also significantly limited in the use of his wrist and hand.
But any sense of bitterness or anger has evaporated with the passage of nearly two decades. Fuller mostly struck an upbeat tone during two recent telephone conversations, as he recalled his shortened 49ers career and described his life today.
It is a life, physically, unlike anything the once-sculpted defensive back envisioned when he was a rising NFL star. He usually wears a brace from his shoulder to just above his wrist (to keep his arm from flopping), according to longtime friend Chet Brooks, and Fuller has said he often struggles to find a comfortable position to sleep, given the pain in his arm.
Then again, he goes to the gym and keeps himself in shape, mostly through cardiovascular exercise. He can wear a jacket over his brace and strangers have no idea about the lingering impact of that long-ago tackle. Fuller’s injury did not affect his left side at all, which makes regular activities — such as signing his name at a San Jose autograph show in March — manageable.
“Most of the things I get done, I do with my left side,” he said.
There was a point when Fuller did not know if he could adapt so dramatically. He and his now-wife, Leslie, bounced around the country in the four-plus years after Fuller sustained his injury, consulting doctors from Stanford to Duke.
Fuller said “it was almost like we were on tour, looking for a miracle cure,” but the cure never came. His fifth and final surgery, a nerve transplant in 1994, was his “last best shot” to regain movement in his arm. When that didn’t work, Fuller realized he had no choice but to accept his new life.
“From where he was to where he is now, he’s very self sufficient,” said Brooks, one of Fuller’s teammates with the 49ers and a resident of nearby Frisco, Texas. “He’s made tremendous strides. It makes me proud to see it. Some people with that type of injury would have gone into the tank. He found strength in his family.”
As Fuller threw himself into raising his kids — he and Leslie have three daughters in addition to Jeff Jr. — the generosity of former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. helped. DeBartolo paid Fuller’s contract in full in 1990, the season after the injury, even though he was legally obligated for only a small portion. DeBartolo also contributed to an annuity that pays Fuller about $100,000 annually for the rest of his life.
That was important because of the modest disability benefits available through the NFL in 1989. Fuller received a line-of-duty benefit that paid an amount he called “not substantial” for 7 1/2 years. He appreciates what DeBartolo and former coach Bill Walsh did for him in the wake of his injury, but count Fuller among the many former NFL players disenchanted with how the league treats them after retirement.
“A lot more could be done,” he said.
According to a formula provided by the NFL Players Association, Fuller is eligible to receive about $18,000 per year in pension benefits, starting at age 55. He’s also trying to obtain additional benefits through the “total and permanent disability” category.
Fuller had been a training-camp holdout that year, so he wondered, in retrospect, if his timing was off from the relative lack of game experience. Early in the first quarter, Stephens, a 220-pound running back who had made the Pro Bowl the previous season, burst into the secondary, where Fuller brought him down with a resounding and dangerous helmet-to-helmet tackle.
Fuller went down, too, and he didn’t try to get back up. “Immediately after I hit him, I knew I was injured,” he said. “I remember Chet congratulating me and saying, ‘Get up.’ And I couldn’t move. That’s basically all I can remember.”
Said Brooks, who estimated he was three steps behind Fuller at the moment of impact: “I saw his eyes and knew something was wrong. Normally after a big hit, you might be dazed but you’d be trying to get up. His eyes were as big as quarters. Fear came over me.”
As it turned out, playing the game at Stanford worked in Fuller’s favor — it was a short ride to Stanford Hospital in the pivotal moments after the injury. Fuller initially lost all movement in his arms and legs, though movement returned everywhere but his right arm within the first few days.
So now he lives in the Dallas area, where he was born and raised, and spends his time taking care of his family (and living off earlier investments, he said). Fuller misses competing as he once did, but he finds an outlet in the sporting exploits of his son, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound receiver at Boyd High School.
Jeff Jr. will begin his senior season in the fall and has attracted interest from numerous high-profile schools — one recruiting Web site lists LSU, Notre Dame, Ohio State, USC and Texas A&M among those he’s considering. Jeff Sr., who played at A&M before joining the 49ers, supervises the recruiting madness.
He obviously will do so with some insight into the process — but without any special concern for his son’s safety on the football field, despite what befell him.
“This may sound strange, but I really don’t worry at all,” Fuller said. “I just let him get out there and compete and enjoy the game. There wasn’t a day I didn’t enjoy the game until the day I got injured. What happened to me was very unique.”