Artifact of the Game: 49ers vs. Cardinals

Thursday, September 18, 2014

By Joe Hession, 49ers Museum historian

The 49ers and Cardinals have met in half-a-dozen cities since their first game in 1951. The Cardinals played out of Chicago in the 1950s, relocated to St. Louis in the 1960s, then finally settled in Arizona. But the two clubs made one historic journey together in 2005.

This Sunday the 49ers relish a short road hop to University of Phoenix Stadium to face  their NFC West rival. Nearly a decade ago both franchises paved a new path for the NFL when they traveled to Mexico City to play the league’s first regular season game outside of the United States.

Mike Nolan SuitMike Nolan was in his rookie coaching season in 2005 when San Francisco and Arizona squared off in front of 103,467 fans at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca. It was the largest crowd in NFL history at that time.  

The 49ers entertained the curious crowd with an odd pair of early touchdowns. They scored on two first quarter fumble returns before even completing a pass. On the initial play from scrimmage 49ers DE Bryant Young sacked Cardinals QB Josh McCown. The ensuing fumble was recovered in the end zone by LB Derek Smith. Minutes later 49ers DB Derrick Johnson scooped up a fumble and raced 78 yards for another score. The highlights ended there though. Arizona rolled off the next 31 points to win 31-14.  

The two leading receivers that day were current 49ers wideouts Brandon Lloyd, who had seven catches for 102 yards, and Anquan Boldin, who was wearing a Cardinals uniform that season. Boldin notched eight catches for 116 yards and one touchdown.

Although the Mexico City matchup was the NFL’s first regular season game on foreign turf, the 49ers participated in several overseas exhibition contests prior to 2005. In fact, the NFL established the American Bowl series in 1986 to help promote football around the world. Because of their popularity, the 49ers were natural ambassadors for football and appeared in eight of those games. During their travels to London, Berlin, Tokyo, Vancouver and Barcelona, San Francisco’s players were treated like rock stars. On one occasion, however, they were upstaged by the biggest name in the music industry.

While preparing to play the Miami Dolphins at Wembley Stadium in 1988, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and the rest of the 49ers crew, checked into a London hotel that was housing an even brighter star. Michael Jackson, the 1980s “King of Pop,” was in the midst of his London tour. At the hotel, Jackson grew friendly with several 49ers players, took pictures with them, and provided team members with concert tickets and backstage passes. Miami won the game, 27-21, but several 49ers watched from the wings one night as Jackson moonwalked across a London stage.

The 49ers were on the cusp of history again when they traveled to Berlin, Germany for the 1991 American Bowl. The Berlin Wall had fallen less than two years earlier and East and West Germany were in the process of reunification. The 49ers and Chicago Bears supplied a semblance of normalcy during those turbulent times when they played at Berlin’s Olympiastadion. The stadium was originally constructed for the 1936 Olympics and survived WWII largely unscathed. San Francisco beat the Bears 21-7 on the same site that Jesse Owens won four gold medals for the United States.

Artifacts from the 49ers overseas games, including a piece of the fallen Berlin Wall and a cap from a Berlin security agent (who was willing to swap it in exchange for a 49ers jersey and a Joe Montana photograph) are on display at the 49ers Museum presented by Sony. Fans can also see a specially designed Reebok suit worn by Coach Mike Nolan and the cleats worn by Frank Gore in 2012 when he established the club touchdown rushing record against the Cardinals. For more information on Museum tickets, hours and content, visit

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