When the San Francisco 49ers made it to the Super Bowl in 2020, it was a culmination of several touching stories. From the resurgence of formal rival Richard Sherman on the defensive end to the emergence of assistant coach Katie Sowers as the first openly gay female coach in the NFL, storylines abounded. Lost in all of this was the story of a grieving 49ers team.
In late 2018, the 49ers family was struck by the death of owner Jed York’s brother. And the imminent grief helped drive the ensuing season.
Death in the 49ers family
In December 2018, the 49ers put out a statement confirming that Tony York, the younger brother owner Jed, had passed away after an apparent suicide at just 35 years of age.
“With deep sadness, we mourn the passing of our beloved son and brother, Tony. Although our hearts are quite heavy at this time, we have so many special memories shared with him to carry us forward. Tony will forever be remembered as a bright, spirited entrepreneur with an unmatched passion to serve others who could brighten a room with his personality and sense of humor. Tony, we love you.”
An entrepreneur, Tony lived in the Bay Area. When he was still in his early twenties, he founded Koda. The company helped kids prepare for careers after graduating college. While his brother owned the team, the 49ers were a family affair in the York family. Fans and players alike knew Tony due to his omnipresent nature.
On top of being an entrepreneur and a philanthropist, Tony’s love for sports began in his younger days. The 49ers let his continue this passion as he got older. He became the face of many of their community-based projects around the world.
The 49ers openly grieved the loss of Tony throughout the season. They dedicated everything they did early on. The team rallied around their owner and promised to do Tony’s memory proud. After a late-season win, Tony’s father, John, spoke to the team to secure their fantastic record. The grieving father spoke about his son’s legacy with the team after they presented him with the game ball.
“Guys, I’ve got to say. Obviously we know why we’re getting these game balls. I wish I’d never had one,” John said (per SF Gate). “We could not have done this without all of you. Coaches were terrific, Jimmy [Garoppolo], this is the best game you’ve ever played. George [Kittle], great at the end. Robbie [Gould], thank you. So congratulations. This is all of us.”
Leading into the Super Bowl, this story fell into the wayside for those who were not privy, but Tony’s memory helped guide the team to the ultimate goal.
The Big Game
The 49ers fought hard to get into the Super Bowl, but unfortunately for them, they came up short. It’s easy to dwell on the big wins and big losses that a football team experiences. But the season they had was a testament to the late Tony York. With many sports in limbo, for the time being, people need to remember that there are human beings behind this.
The 49ers may have lost the game, but they used the opportunity to dwell on all the good that their brother did while alive. Furthermore, they used the unfortunate circumstances of his death to put a spotlight on mental health issues. The team responded to tragedy about as well as anyone could ask for. With that in mind, the season was a success regardless of the outcome of their final game.