Niners getting down and dirty

January 08, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SAN FRANCISCO -- The future Hall of Famer sprinted across the end zone, zeroing in on his target.

It wasn't a touchdown pass Jerry Rice was after.

It was Shaun Gayle.

The rest of the San Francisco 49ers followed, an "angry crowd coming toward me," the Chicago safety recalled later.

Gayle needed to be punished.

Gayle had taken a cheap shot at Steve Young.

"We're a very close team now," Rice was saying yesterday after the 49ers' 44-15 playoff victory over the Bears.

"We're not going to be intimidated. If you want to play us like that, we're going to play you like that. That's the bottom line."

Got that, Dallas? These aren't the 49ers of old, all precision and finesse and California cool.

This team will get dirty.

This team will take a stand.

"I can get in any fights I want, with that kind of backup," Young said.

Cocky free agents like Deion Sanders make a difference, and so do brash rookies like William Floyd. But in the end, the Niners are defined by Rice and Young, and even those consummate professionals are turning ornery.

Rice is so gifted a receiver, so graceful an athlete, people sometimes forget his toughness. He'll block you. He'll out-muscle you. And, as the Bears and a national television audience discovered yesterday, he'll fight you, too.

Young was 2 yards into the end zone when Gayle drilled him. Only 1:17 remained in the first half. Young had just scored on a 6-yard run to give San Francisco a 30-3 lead.

Rice was the first to reach Gayle, but that didn't impress every Niner.

L "He's faster than most of us," center Bart Oates deadpanned.

Oates got there eventually, and so did everyone else. Floyd, a 242-pound fullback, tossed down 285-pound Alonzo Spellman. Young received a taunting penalty for spiking the ball at Gayle's feet.

"I didn't mean to do it right at him," Young said, smiling. "But I guess, when I saw the films, it really was."

Young laughed off the entire incident, calling Gayle "an old friend" and saying, "If I were him, I would have taken a shot at the quarterback, too."

Gayle, however, said that wasn't his intent, claiming he had "no idea" Young had crossed the goal line, accusing him of a "good acting job."

"Steve Young ran into the end zone and Shaun hit him," Spellman said. "Isn't that football? It's not two-hand touch out there."

No, it isn't, but Young had taken a questionable hit from Spellman earlier, and Gayle had knocked Rice out of the game briefly on the game's very first play.

Poor Gayle couldn't get a break.

Rice wouldn't accept his apology.

"Here I am, gasping for wind, hurting and he's going to say, 'I'm sorry?' " Rice said. "If you take a shot at me, somewhere down the road, I'm going to take a shot back."

So will the other Niners.

"It was ludicrous," Oates said of Gayle's hit on Young. "I don't know what the intention was, but from looking at it, it was a malicious hit. That was my perception.

"You can't just sit back and let them take these shots at your franchise player. It's absolutely ridiculous. And all 10 guys were right there saying this is not acceptable, we're not going to tolerate it."

Not from Chicago, not from any team, including Dallas. Michael Irvin has already promised the Cowboys will win their third

straight Super Bowl. Who is he kidding?

The Cowboys should beat Green Bay today, but no way they're winning next Sunday at Candlestick. San Francisco is a team on a mission, a team that wants to prove it can win a Super Bowl without Joe Montana.

Young obviously has the most to prove in that regard, but the free agents were brought to San Francisco for one purpose, and they share the burden.

Sanders, Gary Plummer, Richard Dent -- they're all pointing toward one goal. So is the Niners' talented rookie class, led by Floyd, who scored three touchdowns yesterday, and defensive tackle Bryant Young.

It's a wonderful mix, a winning mix, and a wilder mix, too. Guard Jesse Sapolu, a 12-year veteran, always considered himself a quiet player. This year, he actually finds himself talking trash.

"The 49ers teams of the past were always reserved," Sapolu said. "This team has a certain amount of flamboyance. George [Seifert] has let us show our emotions a little bit more."

Yesterday, they not only showed their emotions, they showed some punch. As tight end Brent Jones put it, "We were more or less letting them know, 'We're not going take any [stuff] from you guys.' "

It's not enough that they were only the fifth team since the merger to average more than 30 points per game. It's not enough that they've won 11 of their last 12 games, their only loss coming in a meaningless regular-season finale.

Now, the 49ers have an edge. And Jerry Rice has a new job.

"Steve," Rice said, "just hired me as his bodyguard."

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