Friday, September 11, 2009

Football and Flying

One of the perks I received while working in San Francisco was the opportunity to fly on a team charter with the San Francisco 49ers. This was rarified air indeed and despite being a Dallas Cowboys fan I wasn't about to pass a chance like this up!

On this particular occasion the Niners were scheduled to play the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte at the then new Ericsson Stadium. The team owners did it in style in those days, insisting on flying out on Fridays for games instead of the standard day before. This, they felt, along with the DC-10 United Airlines was contracted to provide, made the difference in the team’s performance on Sundays given the distances a west coast team has to travel.

Fine with me! In the two-cabin widebody the front office and coaching staff would be seated in First Class, the media and guests on the all-male charter – the only “distractions” allowed were the hand-picked flight attendants – sat in the middle of the plane in the first coach section while the players themselves all sat in the back, curtained off from the rest of the plane. Each coach passenger had two assigned seats to themselves and I reveled in my window and aisle set just in front of the wing.

Among the other charter rules besides no contact with the players was that they were off-loaded first in to the lead two of five buses for immediate departure to the team hotel. Guests were not allowed on their floor and no begging for photos or autographs unless they were in the lobby where, if they so chose, they were fair game. Team events and even the game itself were optional but miss the charter and you’re on your own. Oh, and no rooting for other teams!

Sports rivalries aside, we might as well have been a diplomatic delegation on a state visit. Charters like this pull out all the stops with First Class dining throughout, private motor coaches and even a police escort to our hotel that evening. This was going to be a great weekend!

Steve Young, above, was gracious enough to stop for fans the Saturday before the game in the lobby after team meetings. At the game itself on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, seats for charter guests are not what you would call premium. Visiting teams receive tickets for family, friends and guests who are expected to simply enjoy being at the game and not necessarily to have a luxury suite or sideline passes. In most stadiums you can always tell where the charter guests are, usually clumped together in the upper stands, a huge patch of opposing colors all seated together and hoping for the best.

They got pasted, 23-7. In their early years the Panthers had the Niners' number, giving them a beating on nearly every occasion. They dialed up another one that Sunday afternoon, packing us off to the airport for a long, six hour flight back to where we came from.

I learned a final lesson on that flight as the plane droned on in to the westbound night sky: One of the inflight games they like to play after a win is "Apple Ball," where apples are rolled along the floor to see which one travels the farthest before getting lodged under a seat. After three hours of unimaginable physical exertion, when the team loses they don't have much of an appetite for apples or food of any other kind.

What an adventure! I tried to hide the smile on my face which was not because they lost. I ate in silence, alone in my thoughts. Despite the loss these charters are special - routine business for the team, maybe, but clearly once in a lifetime for civilians like me.

This was not a Learjet, Paris or even the playoffs, much less the Superbowl. In fact, the entire event barely registered in American sports history as anything more than another day at the office but for an airplane geek and a diehard football fan this package was a behind-the-scenes peek in to life on the road with backstage passes.

It was only the wrong team short of the Holy Grail!

Gotta go!

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