The City Honored a Real Hero in Its Ticker-Tape Parade

This was Joe Montana's football season, and Dan Marino's, and Eric Dickerson's and Walter Payton's.

But for one shining moment a week ago, it belonged to Wendell Tyler. And for what he did, Wendell gets my vote for MVP--Most Valiant Parader.

Here's what happened:

The day after the 49ers won the Super Bowl, with Tyler playing a minor supporting role after a superb season, the city of San Francisco held a downtown parade for its heroes.

Wendell showed up and rode in the parade.

This probably doesn't sound particularly heroic, until you put it in perspective.

To the San Francisco football fans, who are as loyal, numerous and crazy as any in the land, this parade was a big deal, an exclamation mark at the end of a wonderful story.

Flushed with victory fever, the fans had torn the town to shreds Sunday night, but they weren't quite finished being delirious. The parade was their time to celebrate with the players (who partied in private Sunday night), to salute their heroes in a more up-close and personal manner than is possible at a stadium.

In the sporting world today, however, such events tend to mean more to the fans than to the players. When the Raiders won the Super Bowl last year, team officials nixed a parade through downtown Los Angeles. When the city held a public rally for the Raiders, the owner, quarterback and star wide receiver didn't show.

Sports heroes these days seem not to get real excited about rubbing shoulders with the masses. You don't hear stories any more like the ones about Babe Ruth hanging out for hours with kids, talking and signing autographs. Or Willie Mays, when he was a young superstar with the New York Giants, coming home from games and playing stickball with kids in the streets.

Players today tend to live behind high walls and appear in public only when it's unavoidable, or financially rewarding.

There are rare exceptions. The San Diego Padres players made headlines when, after winning the pennant, the players left their clubhouse for a few minutes to mingle outside with the fans. Actually, it wasn't exactly mingling; the players were separated from the fans by a fence. It's the thought that counts.

But back to Wendell Tyler.

Wendell was one of 10 49ers chosen for the Pro Bowl, a coveted honor. Tyler has played eight NFL seasons and this was his first Pro Bowl selection.

The problem was that all Pro Bowlers were ordered to be in Honolulu Monday night at 7 p.m. for the first team meeting, or be fined $300. For the 49er players, this meant they would have to catch a Monday morning flight and miss the parade.

"I'd seen Wendell the night before, after the game," said Rodney Knox, the team's publications coordinator. "He said he'd like to be in the parade. I tried to persuade him to be on the plane to Hawaii.

"I saw him the next morning and he said, 'I can't give it (the parade) up.' I told him, 'Don't do this, it's your first Pro Bowl and you don't want to get off on the wrong foot over there.' But to him, being in the parade was part of being a world champion."

So Monday morning, as Joe Montana and eight other 49er heroes were winging over the Pacific Ocean in a jet plane, Wendell Tyler was cruising down Market Street on the back of a flat-bed truck.

This is not to condemn Joe Montana and the other parade-skippers. In the militaristic world of football, they were good soldiers mindlessly following orders from Gen. Rozelle to report to the Hawaiian front. My guess is only one player, Wendell, even thought about disobeying orders.

I phoned Tyler in Hawaii last Wednesday. Had he been court-martialed for arriving late? Would he really be fined $300 for missing a meeting where probably all they did was issue leis and snorkels?

"I really don't know (about the fine)," Tyler said. "No one said anything. I'm just over here having fun."

Making up for that day he lost, no doubt.

What about the parade?

"It was nice to go see my fans, the ones who supported me all year," Wendell said. "I wanted to enjoy the whole realm of the Super Bowl. I always wanted to be in a ticker-tape parade."

Tyler didn't seem interested in pursuing my hero angle. Heroes are like that. As for his nine teammates who stiffed the victory parade, Wendell excused them by noting: "The majority of them had already been in a parade (after the 1982 Super Bowl)."

Thereby fulfilling their lifetime quota.

Anyway, I salute Wendell Tyler, and it will be a long time before I make fun of him for fumbling and carrying the football as if it were a twitchy porcupine. He's a hero in my book.

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