Legendary players recall glory days of Rams-49ers rivalry
As a child born in Santa Clara in 1963, Brent Jones grew up hating the horns.
From his start of elementary school until the end of high school, his San Francisco 49ers were 3-19 against the Los Angeles Rams.
“The Rams used to be the team that would squash any 49er dreams throughout my childhood,” Jones said. “I grew up and the Rams were the unbeatable force.”
The pendulum swung in dramatic fashion, however, and the 49ers exacted their revenge. From 1981 through ’94 — with Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young — the 49ers were 13-1 against the Rams at Anaheim Stadium.
“To finally be a part of a team that would just pound L.A., it felt good,” said Jones, who won three Super Bowls as a 49ers tight end from 1987-97. “And it felt a little bit better for me in the locker room. For all the born-and-bred San Franciscans and Bay Area folks, it’s just a little, `Yeah, take that. Finally, we’ve got something to talk about.’”
More than bragging rights are at stake as the Rams (3-2) and 49ers (4-0) enter Sunday’s showdown at the Coliseum. Not only is it the defending NFC champion versus the NFC’s only undefeated team, but the game marks the first time since December 1989 the 49ers and L.A. Rams have met with winning records. The 49ers have a narrow advantage in the series record, 69-67-3.
“I’m fired up right now just talking about it,” said Dennis Harrah, a Rams offensive lineman from 1975-87. “I’m here wanting to kick somebody’s [butt] in my little Chevy Volt. But that’s me. I had no trouble turning the switch on. I probably had more trouble turning the switch off.”
That passion is a hallmark of a supercharged NFL rivalry, one the league hoped would be reestablished when the Rams returned to Southern California in 2016. Until this season, it looked as though it might be lopsided for a while. Whereas the Rams had righted their ship under coach Sean McVay, getting to the Super Bowl last season, the 49ers hadn’t posted a winning record since 2013 and were 4-12 in 2018.
Rams running back Todd Gurley will not play against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, putting added pressure on quarterback Jared Goff.
But with victories over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Cleveland Browns, the 49ers are on a roll. The Rams, meanwhile, are looking to regain their equilibrium after a 3-0 start followed by consecutive losses to the Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks. They have never lost three in a row in McVay’s two-plus seasons.
“I think the rivalry is back,” said LeRoy Irvin, a Rams defensive back from 1980-89. “It’s only a rivalry when both teams are playing well. Now the 49ers are playing as good as they played since the late 1980s. I think the rivalry will rear its head again because the Rams are coming off the Super Bowl last year. It’s going to fuel the fire.”
Throughout the years, that intensity crackled both on the field and in the stands, where 49ers-Rams was emblematic of the competition between the two halves of the Golden State. The Rams or 49ers won the NFC West every season from 1970 to 1979 and 1983 to 1990.
“It’s been that way since I was 18 years old,” said Ronnie Lott, who starred at USC but crafted his career as a Hall of Fame safety with the 49ers. “If you come up north or go down south, there’s a certain attitude in both places. It’s like two different states — definitely on game day.”
Former NFL linebacker Gary Plummer had a Thomas Guide of a football career, playing collegiately at California, then for the USFL’s Oakland Invaders, before spending eight seasons with the San Diego Chargers, and four more with the 49ers, where he won a Super Bowl ring.
He remembers playing the Rams in Anaheim, and to him, the place felt like Candlestick Park South.
“When we went to Anaheim, they announced us on defense, and running out on the field, [I saw] literally a sea of red in the stands,” Plummer said. “It was awesome. Usually, it didn’t really affect me, but the crowd being so pro-49er was such an amazing boost.”
When the Rams visited Candlestick, home for the 49ers from 1971-2013, their welcome was as warm as a San Francisco summer.
“I’ll never forget [Coach] John Robinson, when I was a rookie and we were playing there my first time,” former Rams running back Eric Dickerson said. “He said, ‘Look, this is a big game for a lot of the older players. And when you go there, be prepared. [The fans are] probably going to throw stuff at you… When you go on the field, keep your helmet on and your head down.’”
Dickerson was incredulous. That couldn’t be true. Then, he got there.
“Man, he was not lying,” said the NFL’s all-time single-season rushing leader. “They were throwing stuff at us. Fruit. Hard dog bones… They were like a bunch of gangsters. I thought they were Raider fans.”
The objects weren’t the only things hurled. The insults rained down too.
“Like we used to say, they knew more about our mothers than we knew,” former Rams quarterback Jim Everett said.
No one escaped unscathed. Even when the Rams played at home.
“They’d be yelling stuff at your own stadium,” recalled 5-foot-8 Tony Zendejas, who kicked for the Rams from 1991-94. “They’d be calling me all kinds of names. ‘Hey, you midget. Hey, Tony, stand up.’ They would be ragging me the whole game. They’d come up with some good stuff. I’d just laugh.”
Those blowhards didn’t have much to say during the first decade after the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, when the bullies from L.A. dominated.
“It wasn’t bitter it was intense,” Tom Mack, a Rams offensive lineman from 1966-1978, said of the rivalry.
From 1971-79, the Rams swept the season series every year but two.
“I can remember when a trip to the Bay Area was not to play the 49ers for the Rams it was to go up there and decide which restaurant we were going to eat at the wharf,” said Jackie Slater, an offensive lineman for the Rams from 1976-1995.
Richard Sherman’s veteran presence has helped the 49ers to a 4-0 start as they prepare for NFC West showdown with Rams in his hometown of L.A.
The 49ers split the series in 1975 and ‘76. Both of those San Francisco victories came at the Coliseum.
“We sat in this little box [at the Coliseum] and we weren’t very good, so they had their way with us,” recalled former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo.
“Coming out of the Coliseum tunnel, I’d walk out before the game, and the place was massive. Being in the Coliseum, we felt like, `'Where are the Romans? Where are the lions?’ Then, they moved down to Anaheim, and we had our way down there.”
Like Sunday’s matchup features young head coaches and friends McVay and Kyle Shanahan of the 49ers, the spotlight in the 1980s was trained on John Robinson of the Rams and Bill Walsh of the 49ers. They stood on opposite sidelines as college coaches.
“Bill Walsh was a friend of mine — that made it more interesting,” said Robinson, who coached the Rams from 1983-91. “We competed against each other when he was at Stanford and I was at ‘SC, so it was a real memorable experience.”
Walsh, who wound up in the Hall of Fame, was an offensive pioneer. In addition to that, a difference-maker was a gangly quarterback from Notre Dame who wore No. 16.
“When they got that boy Montana, things changed around then,” legendary Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood said, laughing.
“He was the early [Tom] Brady. What used to drive me crazy was they had those plays where he would get out of the pocket and buy himself so much time.”
Fittingly, Brady grew up a Montana fan in the Bay Area, two decades before he realized such phenomenal success as quarterback of the New England Patriots, leading his team to a record six Lombardi Trophies.
“I guess you could say they were the current-era Patriots at the time,” Everett said of the 49ers of the ‘80s. “They had all these Super Bowls, they were stacked on defense, had an offense that was explosive.
“Their fans were cocky and rightfully so. It’s like New England fans nowadays. They’re on a different level when it comes to talking smack, and they’ve got the team to back it up.”
Along with the animus between the Rams and 49ers, there were equal amounts of admiration and respect.
The Rams had their share of budding superstars, beyond Dickerson. For Jones, a relentless linebacker with flowing blond locks stands out.
“I remember playing against a guy that nobody knew was amazing,” Jones said. “I remember thinking, `Man, I hate going against this guy. How does nobody else know that he’s unbelievable?’ The guy just happens to be in the Hall of Fame now: Kevin Greene.
“I remember thinking, not only is this guy great, but he’s a wild man. He used to yell and scream on the field. If I had a good block on him he’d be like, `'Great block, Jones!’ And I’m thinking, `'Who is this guy? This guy is crazy.’”
On the wall of his home office, Dickerson has one of his favorite photos from his Rams days. He’s about three feet off the ground in the shot, football in his right hand, with a would-be 49ers tackler sprawled beneath him. You can see him peering downfield through those familiar goggles.
“Ronnie Lott is coming fast and hard at me, and I’m trying to get my feet back on the ground,” explained Dickerson, who vividly remembers the moment even after 35 years. “He caught me in the ribcage, but I wore a flak jacket, and he said, `'I got you!’”
“You didn’t get me,” Dickerson snapped back after climbing to his feet.
“Yes, I did!”
Veteran Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has been in this boat before, another slow start at 2-3, and knows playoff chances hinge on a fast recovery.
“No, you didn’t.”
The Rams star made his way back to the huddle, where quarterback Vince Ferragamo promptly barked out a running play. Dickerson had to come clean.
“No, dog, I can’t run it,” he told the quarterback. “You have to throw it. He got me.”
Youngblood, whose grit was the stuff of lore, still remembers an earth-shaking collision with a star 49ers running back.
“Roger Craig, in our era he was one of the guys that I liked, and at the same time we tried to kill each other too,” Youngblood said with a laugh. “He hit me in the sternum. Actually, what he was trying to do was chip me, and he came out and was stinkin’ strong. He didn’t look like he was strong, but he was.
“He hit me directly between the 8 and the 5 in my chest and knocked all the wind out of me. I was fortunate enough to be able to laugh about it at the end of the ballgame.”
Recalled Craig, who gained 1,553 all-purpose yards and gained 12 touchdowns in a decade of games against the Rams: “I had to play like Superman. It was crazy. They’d hit me hard, and I’d get back up and run them over.
“Whenever I see the Rams, I feel like running over somebody.”
No one on either side would fault him for that feeling.
“It wasn’t a coincidence that our first game back as the Los Angeles Rams was against the 49ers on `'Monday Night Football,’” said Kevin Demoff, the team’s chief operating officer, who saw his team lose that road game, 28-0. “Despite the outcome of the game, I remember at kickoff the `'Beat L.A.’ chants ringing through Levi’s Stadium, and it felt like the rivalry was back.”
California torn asunder, if only for a day.
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