More than a thousand of Bill Walsh’s closest friends crowded into the Stanford Memorial Church on Thursday to hear a moving final tribute.
The emphasis throughout was on the 49ers, starting with scripture readings by former player Keena Turner and present coach Mike Nolan.
Walsh’s presence was felt everywhere, for a reason. “He was always prepared for any situation,” noted former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo. “He even planned his own funeral.”
Harry Edwards, a sociology professor who was brought to the 49ers by Walsh during his coaching tenure to counsel players, told of the numerous conversations he had with Walsh about players.
“He told me [Joe] Montana was the most competitive person he ever knew, and that Ronnie Lott was the player most like him, a perfectionist who would not tolerate anything less than perfection.” That, Walsh told Edwards, is why he and Lott so often fought. “I know when he comes in here exactly what he’s going to say,” Walsh told Dr. Edwards.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, then-mayor of San Francisco, told how the 49ers’ Super Bowl win in 1981 energized The City. “We organized a parade and I didn’t know who would come,” she said, “but when we headed up Market Street, there were people hanging from lampposts to see us. There were a half-million people there.”
Walsh, said Steve Young, would ask rhetorical questions: “What were you thinking out there? Why did you do that? Why can’t you do it like Joe?”
Mostly, though, he talked about team unity. “He broke up the cliques, forced us to love each other, because he knew when you’re on the road and trailing in the fourth quarter, talent alone isn’t enough.”
Mike White, who first knew Walsh when they were together on a Stanford coaching staff in the ’60s, talked about what a great friend Walsh was.
White was one of many coaches who Walsh helped get a job, last with the Raiders when they were still in Los Angeles.
Montana was the final speaker, and when we talked at the reception later, he told me how difficult that was.
“I didn’t want to repeat what the others said, but they kept bringing up subjects I’d thought I would talk about,” he said. “I had thought of talking of his accomplishments outside football, but then Dr. Edwards talked about that. I was going to talk about how he stressed the team, but then Steve talked about that. So, I thought I’d talk about his humor. He always had this sly sense of humor, and he was still like that at the end. When I saw him that last Friday, he was awfully weak, but he was still joking.
“And then, when I got up there, I couldn’t even talk.”
That was literally true. Montana acknowledged Walsh’s family and then froze up, speechless for perhaps 30 seconds. But when he resumed, he was terrific, talking easily about how much Walsh cared about his players. As he closed, he said, “The last time I talked to Bill, he said, ‘Just tell the players I loved them.’ So, I’d just like to say to my coach and friend, ‘Bill, we all love you.’”
Then, tenor Gary Wynbrandt followed with an achingly beautiful rendition of “Danny Boy,” and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
God bless, Bill, we miss you.