Niners Legends: Made in Brooklyn
Five weeks ago, on the fourth floor of an industrial building in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, an impressive collection of San Francisco 49ers greats was drawn into a most surreal huddle. There were 22 Niners in all, far too many for a live huddle. But these men were long past that. Some were old, others were gone. Their mere assembly was a football miracle—one made possible by art.
These men are statues. And they were made with loving care by a team of 13 artists at StudioEIS, a Brooklyn-based sculpture and design outfit known for ambitious narrative exhibitions like this one, which took 18 months to complete. On this day, those 22 statues were confined to wooden crates and shrouded in plastic like fresh, monochromatic toys.
The lone holdouts were John Henry Johnson, Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny and Y.A. Tittle—the four Hall of Famers who composed the Niners’ fabled “Million Dollar Backfield.” It is just one of the many pieces you’ll have to see, and touch, to believe. The figures' colors—in their clothing, in their flesh—are made uniform by a metallic gray patina. Their vibrancy comes from physical expressions that are so resonant, the subjects seem as if they’d been nabbed unaware by Darth Vader and petrified in a carbon-freezing chamber, like Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.
GALLERY: THE CONSTRUCTION PROCESS
There was Hall of Fame linebacker Leo Nomellini sitting splayed-legged on a bench. At his feet was receiver R.C. Owens twisted on his side in seeming midflight, gathering an alley-oop pass into his chest. And at the edge of the huddle, naturally, there was Joe Montana with a propped-up helmet and his arms akimbo, standing with his back to a view of the Manhattan Bridge. Occasionally a subway train would faintly rumble across, sounding like a distant crowd swelling with anticipation of a last-minute drive.
Paydirt was a long ways away. Two days later, after an 18-wheeler backed into this industrial building’s loading dock at the base of the Manhattan Bridge, the men were rolled onto a trailer and hauled some 3,000 miles to Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers’ new home in Santa Clara, Calif. The statues are the featured exhibits of a 20,000-square-foot 49ers museum that opens to the public this week.
The museum stays open year-round, a wise move considering just how much there is to see and do inside. The hallowed space is a celebration of the team’s innovative spirit, one spanning 11 exhibit spaces. One space offers a 90-seat theater where fans will be able to screen hours of “signature” 49ers film. Another will feature a reconstruction of Bill Walsh’s Redwood City office, the plotting place for the Niners’ first two Super Bowl championships. Yet another space will be reserved for the Denise DeBartolo York Education Center, a STEM learning lab named for the team’s matriarch, which promises to serve more than 20,000 Bay Area children in its launch year.
Most of the statues will take pride of place in the Hall of Fame, where they won’t be hiding behind glass or ropes or any other sort of restrictions. They were designed to stand out in the crowd and invite onlookers to touch and squeeze and even smack them. That includes the statue of former owner Eddie DeBartolo Sr., the man for whom this particular space is named.
GALLERY: FINISHED, AND PACKED FOR SHIPPING
Still, odds are the tactile traffic his likeness will see will pale in comparison to the Million Dollar Backfield. That piece, a dazzling medley of bright smiling faces, is a bona fide selfie magnet. “I think it’s because it’s almost a little goofy,” says Ivan Schwartz, StudioEIS’s director. “And sports is not goofy. I just love this thing.”
The sculpture makes a fitting anchor to this football fun house, which was shepherded by Niners VP of football affairs Keena Turner and championed by CEO Jed York, the team’s resident museum buff. York’s first pilgrimage to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Canton, at age 7 for John Henry Johnson’s enshrinement and a Niners-Chiefs preseason clash in 1987, planted the seed in his young mind for a 49ers hall. The 49ers closely studied museums of the Patriots, Packers and Yankees in planning their own shrine inside the $1.3 billion new stadium.
StudioEIS is family-run production shop (Schwartz, his brother Elliot and sister Debra keep it running) that has spent almost four decades furnishing history museums and stadiums across the country. In that time they have developed a reputation for minding the details—a knack that really comes through in the Niners project. Little things like the creases in the subjects’ skin, the texture of their clothes and, in the case of the owners’ props, the typeface on the Lombardi trophies, were pored over obsessively by StudioEIS’s team of painters, mold and wig makers, sculptors, welders and “people that take casts off of live people,” says production manager B.J. Ervick.
That’s not to say every detail would pass a historical fact check. (Then again, what draft of history would?) Jimmy Johnson, the Niners’ Hall of Fame defensive back, stands a bit more upright in his defensive crouch, to make him appear more imposing at a standstill. Roger Craig, the workhorse back of the ’80s Super Bowl dynasty, carries a football high and tight, even though that was hardly his habit. And then of course, there’s that Million Dollar Backfield again. Everyone in the sculpture is smiling; in the famous picture it borrows from, Johnson is actually not looking at the camera.
These nitpicks aside, the sculptures couldn’t be more true to life. That’s a large credit to the months StudioEIS spent aggregating information on everything from the subjects’ heights and weights to their shoe sizes to the types of shoulder pads they wore. “There are so many nuances that I didn't know, or just pieces that I never connected,” York says. When the 49ers couldn’t provide an answer, the artists found another source that did—eBay. “We would search there for months and months and finally find a pair [of shoes],” Ervick says. “And then sometime we would get ones that look like they were for little kids.”
GALLERY: IN PLACE AT THE 49ERS HALL OF FAME
Those finds weren’t wasted. More often than not, they were used as models from which era-appropriate facsimiles could be created. The real and recreated pads were then embedded inside the sculptures, not that these statues need much protecting. They were built, Ervick says, with a blend of “heavy duty steel armature, polyester resin parts, foam, plaster, plastic—everything” and designed “to be bombproof.” One could scarcely imagine Michelangelo saying the same of his David. “We’ll find out in six months what we have to do to maintain it,” Schwartz says.
Of course, those who engage too vigorously with the statues—like Cowboys or Seahawks fans with an axe to grind—should take note: There’s a jail inside Levi’s Stadium too. “I’m sure there’ll be somebody who wants to come in and put a 12th Man jersey on something,” York says. But the point of the museum isn’t to leave things there. It’s to take something away. Some visitors will get a lot out of this experience—a twinge of excitement, a swell of pride, a timestamp from their own personal history. Others will get even more.
“I can't wait to see the looks on people's faces who are part of the Hall of Fame and the family members of some of our deceased Hall of Famers,” York says. “They're really going to see their father or their husband, somebody who was really close to them, and feel like they’re right there. I'm so excited for that, and for the guys who played before the ’80s who might not resonate with a lot of folks today. We will bring them to life.”
Workshop photographs courtesy StudioEIS.