With the San Francisco 49ers earlier this week being named as the host team of Super Bowl 50 in 2016, it brings to mind a story of the last time the Niners played in a Super Bowl close to home. It involves Stanford Stadium, Joe Montana, the Pope and some divine intervention. Just add flying Ewan MacGregor and we have a Dan Brown novel.
So I was swapping 49ers stories with a friend recently, and he told me about the time that former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo visited the Vatican.
It was the early 1980s, and DeBartolo was accompanied on the trip to Rome by Monsignor Peter Armstrong, who was team chaplain for the 49ers at the time. Armstrong, who passed away in 2009, was known as the Pigskin Priest — he presided over the weddings of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, counseled many of the players, and was even instrumental in the effort to get the Astroturf removed from Candlestick Park and replaced with natural grass.
He was the team chaplain for all five of the 49ers’ Super Bowl victories, and as such received five Super Bowl rings, which he kept in a display case in his office.
And for one of those Super Bowl wins, he was even more influential than many people knew.
So, my friend proceeds to tell me this story:
“DeBartolo visited the Vatican one year, and Monsignor Armstrong accompanied him. They had an audience with the Pope, and DeBartolo had some rosaries to be blessed. And right before the Pope blessed them, the Monsignor handed him a 49ers schedule, and DeBartolo slipped it underneath.
“So the Pope blessed that too. And that was the season the 49ers won their first Super Bowl.”
My friend’s dates may be a little off, but that’s basically all true. We have corroboration from this Oct., 1984 story in the Extra Points section of Sports Illustrated:
Last July, DeBartolo visited the Vatican and had an audience with Pope John Paul II. “There I was, standing before him, waiting to be blessed,” DeBartolo says. “I had about 50 of my family’s rosaries in my hand. And right before he laid his hand down to bless them, I slipped the 49ers schedule on top.”
And, just in case that wasn’t enough, “I was also holding the cloth Monsignor Peter Armstrong uses in our pregame prayers,” DeBartolo says. “It was about 105 degrees, and the Pope wiped his forehead on it. Hey, that has to cover us.”
And it did. The 49ers went on to beat the Dolphins in the 1985 Super Bowl at Stanford Stadium, which is the closest an NFL team has come to winning the Super Bowl in their home city (Palo Alto is about 30 miles south of San Francisco).
Your move, Jim Harbaugh. Flights leaving for Rome several times per day.