In the fall of 1994, Michael Jordan was still away from the NBA and the World Series was canceled. For a young Chicago Bulls and White Sox fan, there wasn’t much to look forward to in sports, especially with Horace Grant having just signed with the Orlando Magic in free agency.
Deion Sanders signed with the San Francisco 49ers in September, two weeks after the start of the regular season. He bet on himself with a one-year contract. I became familiar with him because of the “Must be the Money” video with him and a fake En Vogue performing background vocals. Rapping and balling, he was just like Shaq. I immediately became a fan.
Later I noticed the entire 49ers roster. Sanders alongside Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Ricky Watters, and Merton Hanks’ neck would detach and then reattach whenever he felt like it. The 49ers were the first NFL team I ever rooted for as they were on their way to a Super Bowl championship.
That fandom would quickly wane, after several playoff losses to the Green Bay Packers, Garrison Hearst’s injury, and me unfortunately beginning to care more about the local Chicago Bears. By the start of the new millennium, I never again thought that I would care about the 49ers.
These days, I’m a grownup with real bills to pay, no one to scold me for an unkempt room, and the 49ers are piquing my interest again. To be clear, I still don’t care if they win or lose. Hell, I live in California and have never been to that part of the state. However, Deebo Samuel and Talanoa Hufanga have made it so that in the cacophony of NFL football that takes place every weekend from mid-September through the early weeks of the new year, I have entertainment reasons to pay attention to what is happening with a team whose home stadium is now in Santa Clara, Calif.
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In Week 1 the 49ers lost to the Bears — a team that while I care about each Sunday’s result, I refuse to watch them if their record drops to three games under .500. However, the Bears’ season-opening victory introduced me to Hufanga.
I’m not comfortable with how easily the broadcasters are making him Troy Polamalu, Jr. I understand he’s a defensive back making plays all over the field with long hair, yet still, the racial undertones don’t sit right with me.
Still, he is kicking major ass. He jumped off of the screen during that monsoon in Chicago, and has made his presence felt in every game since. Hufanga didn’t drill people in the 49ers’ Week 4 Monday Night Football matchup against the Los Angeles Rams, but he found a way to make one of the most impactful plays of the game. The 49ers were down bad at certain positions, and Robbie Gould missed a field goal in the fourth quarter, but on the Rams’ ensuing drive he took a Matthew Stafford pass to the house for six points. Every week Hufanga gives me something, and as someone who first became interested in football because of an exciting defensive back, I look for a big play from him whenever I watch the 49ers.
I have been a fan of Samuel since 2019, but it was last season when he became must-see T.V. A deep post route, a screen, a counter, a slant, a goal-line run, the play didn’t matter. He was going to put on a show as he was the most effective offensive weapon in the entire NFL last season.
He rightfully held out for a three-year contract extension, which would be guaranteed $58.1 million, and includes incentives he can reach based on his use and effectiveness as a wide receiver lining up at running back Samuel learned from Sanders, who after his one-year with the 49ers signed the biggest deal, at the time, for a defensive player with the Dallas Cowboys in 1995.
The 49ers looked like they got off cheap with the plays that Samuel made against the Rams last night. With the 49ers up 7-6 in the second quarter, he snatched a quick pass over the middle of the field that could have easily been intercepted and spent 52 yards eluding Rams’ defenders on the way to a touchdown. It was the most exciting play of the game, but his best was that screen pass he caught near the goal line in the third quarter. Samuel didn’t score, but he showed why he deserves to be called Deebo when he launched himself into the chest of six-time First-Team All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner, and still managed to fall forward after the high-impact collision.
Jimmy Garoppolo may be far from Steve Young at quarterback, but two playmakers like Samuel and Hufanga are bringing back this 90s 49ers fan. It takes a lot to stand out as a non-quarterback in the NFL, and Hufanga and Samuel make it look like human nature.
I will probably never purchase a scarlet and gold jersey, but I’ll be paying attention to those two game-changers for the rest of their NFL careers.