One hour before kickoff, Margo Winton stood on the dirt and gravel of the outer parking lot at Candlestick Park throwing a football with her mom, dad and cousin — a ritual she has participated in every football season of her life.
The 22-year-old lifelong 49ers fan was among the thousands of people at Candlestick Park for the home opener of the NFL season.
“We want a winning record,” said Winton, who wore a Jerry Rice jersey in honor of the Hall of Famer’s number being retired at halftime. “And pass protection for [quarterback Alex] Smith. I’m ready to root for the red and gold again.”
Before fans funneled into the stadium to watch the 49ers play the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in a “Monday Night Football” game, many gathered in a traditional tailgate party outside. The smell from grills cooking hamburgers, hot dogs and sausages filled the air.
Gary Gomez and son Gary Jr. barbecued ribs before the game with six friends they met doing the same thing through the years.
“It’s like a family out here,” the senior Gomez said. “When we go out to the park, this is the park we go to.”
Gomez said he has been a season-ticket holder for more than 50 years. While Gomez travels from Brentwood and said he’s the “ultimate fan,” it’s his son who knows all the players and can recite their statistics.
The younger Gomez said he had high hopes for this season, but only if the team puts in backup quarterback David Carr, like Smith a former No. 1 overall draft pick.
“Smith hasn’t shown progress,” Gary Jr. said of the starting quarterback, “at least not Super Bowl-quality.”
Just across a gravel row lined with yet more cars with raised red-and-gold flags, Reggie Tomlin sat on the bumper of a black Mercedes enjoying a hamburger before entering his first 49ers game.
The 38-year-old said he’s a lifelong fan, but never had the opportunity to attend a game. He traveled from Sacramento with his friend Javed Rashid, a season-ticket holder.
“He’d never been,” Rashid said of Tomlin. “I thought it would be a good time to go.”
Outside the stadium, the energy of longtime — and even new — 49ers fans was high. That enthusiasm continued inside, with “Let’s go, Niners!” chants and roars from the crowd when the home team scored its first points with 9 minutes, 59 seconds left in the second quarter, pulling the Niners within 9-7 of the Saints.
“We will win,” 32-year-old fan Fernando Martinez said. “And with the entire nation watching.”
Unfortunately for Martinez and 49ers fans, the team lost in dramatic fashion 25-22 on a last-second field goal.