As elated 49ers fans high-fived on their way out of Candlestick Park last Saturday exulting in a historic win, one black-and-gold Saints fan stood alone at the top of Section 17, crying.
Sure, Renee Peck was upset Drew Brees had taken his last snap of the season, but the tough Cajun was brought to tears by what she described as a torrent of drunken verbal abuse by San Francisco fans.
In the upper deck, Suzzy Mitchell, of San Jose, who remembers rooting for Y.A. Tittle with her father as a kid, spent the third quarter searching for cotton swabs for her husband's ears. When the couple had asked a drunken 49er couple behind them to stop yelling and swearing so loud because of Bill's tinnitus, or ringing of the ears, they were treated to a peanut shell shower.
In what has been one of the most memorable seasons in the storied franchise's history, the 49ers find themselves -- again -- answering questions about Candlestick fan behavior as they prepare for another home game Sunday that could thrust the team into the Super Bowl for the first time in 17 years. Is it safe to attend a 49ers game wearing an opponent's jersey? Has the crowd atmosphere changed from the Super Bowl teams of the '80s, when fans were sometimes criticized for being too laid back?
At the Saints game, San Francisco police made 23 arrests, including a felony battery where the victim suffered a broken nose. The issue has drawn the attention of the NFL's chief of security, who vowed there will be a "robust" security presence and zero tolerance for Sunday's NFC Championship game against the New York Giants at Candlestick.
"There were a lot of fan conduct situations that were not acceptable that we will address," said Jeff Miller, who will attend the game. "There were a small number of people at the game last week that interpreted their presences there as to be an intimidating factor for fans rooting for the opposing team.
"We work really hard to create the kind of environment for fans to root for their team, whatever team that is."
Miller expects a large contingent of New York fans at Sunday's game.
"I think 49ers fans should welcome Giants fans into your house," Miller said. "Yell and cheer, but don't make personal attacks."
Security will target troublemakers early, he said, and he hopes fans will text, call or find security or police to report bad fan behavior.
San Francisco police have increased staffing by 25 percent for the playoffs.
"Fans need to make it a good experience for everybody regardless of who they are rooting for," Sgt. Michael Andraychak said.
Damage control started for the 49ers in August, after a fan was knocked unconscious in a men's restroom and two others shot during and after a 49ers-Oakland Raiders preseason game. YouTube videos and fan testimonials portrayed a raucous, booze-fueled parking lot and stadium.
Team owner Jed York asked the NFL to indefinitely suspend all future "Battle of the Bay" games between the cross-Bay rivals. The team apologized to fans and implemented policy changes, such as plugging beer taps in the fourth quarter -- or earlier if the crowd is unruly -- and banning tailgating during and after games.
Police promised to set up DUI checkpoints outside the stadium and to beef up police presence in the stadium and parking lot.
Some 49ers fans say this year was indicative of a changing atmosphere at Candlestick from the stereotypical wine and cheese fan base of the '80s.
"In the Super Bowl days, I remember hearing there was a wait list for season tickets," emailed Francisco Abrego, 34, of Walnut Creek, a season-ticket holder for five years. "I feel the drive to make money off resale of tickets increase and bring in a different type of fan."
Abrego throws a big tailgate party with friends every home game at the J pole. At Saturday's game, Abrego invited a half dozen Saints fans to hang out. He watched as 49ers fans continually insulted them, with one thrusting his middle finger in their faces as he passed.
"None of our Saints fans were talking trash or trying to stand out to deserve any of the comments that they were being given," he wrote. "I even apologized to them saying how a few people ruin the experience for others and give our fans bad reputations."
While Miller only began policing NFL games in 2008, he agrees that 49ers crowds are different today from past generations.
"I think the demographic has changed a bit, but just because it's a different crowd, that doesn't mean it has to be a bad crowd," he said. "I go to plenty of stadiums with large blue-collar fan bases, and they are very good at supporting their teams."
The 49ers did not return a phone call or email seeking comment for this story.
49ers fan vs. 49ers fan
Peck and Mitchell say they will not step foot in Candlestick again.
"I really felt like I needed to call police. What if we had won?! Would I be dead?" asked Peck, 58, over the phone from her New Orleans home. "It made me cry. I sat there in tears, and that's just not like me."
Peck, a longtime Saints season-ticket holder with her husband Stewart, enjoys friendly ribbing when she follows the Saints around the country and even peppered a 49er tailgater: "Hey, what y'all cook out here? Tofu burgers?!"
She said there was nothing good-natured in return, and her daughter reported that some fans launched Hurricane Katrina slurs. Peck was so incensed she wrote a scathing letter that was published in a Bay Area newspaper.
"I'd tell Giants fans (on Sunday) stay in numbers, and I pity the poor Giants fan who gets separated from his or her pack."
Mitchell, attending her first NFL game, was wearing red and gold and still felt uncomfortable. She described a volatile parking lot with drunken fans fighting and port-o-potties surrounded by vomit and other bodily waste.
"What gives football a green light for such a rampant display of public drunkenness?" the 48-year-old asked.
"Tickets aren't cheap," said Mitchell, who paid more than $300 to a friend for two seats. "We're the 99 percent, and we're not going to keep getting tickets unless we have a really, really great time. ... It was such a fantastic game, but that was really a damper."
Other 49ers fans say Saints fan complaints were a case of sour grapes after losing a tightly fought game.
"When I think back, I don't think I ever saw a fight once!" Woody Mosqueda, a 40-year-old 49ers fan from San Jose, wrote in an email. "I think if the Niners lost, it would have been a different story. With the Niners winning, there was a collective basking in glory all around."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.
The San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers hosted NFC playoff games last weekend. Here are the arrest and ejection comparisons:
Candlestick Park; 49ers-Saints
19 misdemeanors, 4 felonies
candlestick vs. lambeau
The San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers hosted NFC playoff games last weekend. Here are the arrest/ejection comparisons:
Candlestick Park; 49ers-Saints
19 misdemeanors, 4 felonies
Arrest total: 23 (19 misdemeanors, 4 felonies)
Arrest total: 11 (all misdemeanors)
autopsy of a past nfc championship GAME
Wondering what security challenges an NFC Championship game poses? In the 2009 game between the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles, 69 people were arrested, including seven fans running onto the field, a mooning and a man beating up someone in a wheelchair. Three people were Tasered, another 57 ejected, and 59 people were treated medically. View the 14-page Glendale Police Department After Action Report online at www.contracostatimes.com.