The former 49ers president, who witnessed four Super Bowl wins back in the team’s heyday, prepares to join local greats, from Joe Montana to Joe DiMaggio, in the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. “This award,” he says, “adds true value to my legacy.”
By Tom Molanphy
An architect behind the San Francisco 49ers’ dominance three decades ago, Carmen Policy’s name was always outshone by the talent on the field, a revolving dream-door of powerhouses like Jerry Rice, Joe Montana and Steve Young.
But later this month, the spotlight will shine upon Policy, formerly president and CEO of the Niners, as he joins Rice and company in the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame for his own contributions during their streak of Super Bowl titles in 1985, 1989, 1990 and 1995. At its annual Enshrinement Banquet in the Westin St. Francis hotel on April 24, the Hall of Fame, a nonprofit which donates proceeds from the hot-ticket event to local youth sports programs, will formally induct the NFL front-office veteran and four athletes—jockey Russell Baze, University of San Francisco basketball legend Bill Cartwright, Olympic gold-medal volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings and Giants third baseman Matt Williams. “I’m humbled and honored to be at even the very bottom of that list,” says Policy, referencing past Niners inductees like Ronnie Lott, George Seifert and Dwight Clark.
Looking back on those glory days at Candlestick Park, he remembers: “Steve Young used to come up to our offices and tell us, ‘Don’t take too good care of that field. Let the fog come in and get it soggy and wet. It’s a home field advantage.’”
In 2013, the team moved to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, where fans’ shivers are less fog-related than a reaction to reconciling ticket prices with the Niners’ disappointing results. It’s a fact of which Policy is painfully aware, though he’s encouraged by recent moves. “We got some inside information on [new general manager] John Lynch when he played at Stanford about how special an individual he was. He’s made some good changes, trying to establish a spirit there.”
As for advice he’d give to Niners brass, Policy—who now runs a Napa Valley vineyard, Casa Piena—falls back on some of the hard lessons he’s learned as a wine producer: “Don’t take anything for granted. If you have a great vintage, be sure to savor it. You don’t know what the batch is going to be like next year.”
Policy’s time in his Yountville vineyards—“Don’t use the term retirement because my wife has a heart attack when she hears that”—hasn’t mellowed his appetite to talk football. He’s charming, chatty and full of stories, including a favorite memory about Montana’s famous pass to Clark during an NFC title game in 1982 that led the team to the franchise’s first championship—a Super Bowl victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. As Policy tells it, Niners owner Eddie DeBartolo had been down on the field, trying desperately to follow the action, but missed “The Catch” because San Francisco Police officers on horseback obstructed the view.
“Joe’s dropping back, and this policeman’s horse puts its rear end right in front of Eddie, and he hears the crowd roar but can’t see, so he yells up to the cop, ‘What happened?’ and the cop says, ‘Clark caught the ball!’” he says, laughing. “There he was behind a horse’s ass and he never saw one of the greatest plays in his franchise’s history.”
During his years with the 49ers, Policy never blocked a 250-pound linebacker, played with a separated shoulder or absorbed a concussion from a free safety for the sake of six points. But he took a mammoth hit for the team that few players, fans or even foes of the team could bear when he traded a legendary quarterback to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993.
“The trade of Joe Montana was one of the most stressful times of my life,” Policy recalls. “We didn’t know if his elbow would hold up, and Steve [Young] was showing, shall we say, ‘strained’ patience.”
One day, while surrounded by paperwork in his office and losing sleep over the painful but unavoidable decision, Policy heard a rap on his door. “And there was Joe. He said, ‘I know what you must be going through. We’ll work this out so it works for both of us.’ That’s the kind of professional Joe Montana was.”
Though Policy shares this story to highlight Montana’s grace, it also reveals the respect many 49ers, from the front office to the locker room, felt toward the executive. When he left in 1998 to join the Cleveland Browns amid a bitter feud with DeBartolo, team executive and ex-wide receiver Dwight Clark remarked, “Our group upstairs just lost their Jerry Rice.”
Policy, who’s almost maddeningly humble during an interview, finally conceded that his Hall of Fame honor was worth crowing about: “This award is part of a great legacy to pass on to my children and grandchildren as well as all the people of the Bay Area. In my humble opinion, this award adds true value to my legacy.”
Hall of Fame boss Kevin O’Brien is equally excited about Policy’s induction into the nonprofit founded in 1979 by Lou Spadia. The late 49ers president, who died in 2013, wanted to give back to the community and preserve what makes sports more valuable than any billion-dollar arena: the belief that those who work hard and play by the rules should get a chance to win. Spadia described the Hall of Fame to O’Brien as a giant washing machine, a cycle that helps the next generation: If disadvantaged kids get the advantages that will level the playing field, then perhaps someday those kids will become Hall of Famers themselves. Over the years, the group has donated more than $3 million to 500-plus youth organizations in the region. It was Spadia’s dream, says O’Brien, “to help make the big dreams of local kids possible.”
Meanwhile, any bad blood between Policy and DeBartolo is water under the bridge. Last year, Policy supported his longtime friend while he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. This month, back in San Francisco, DeBartolo will return the favor. Says Policy, “The fact that Eddie is presenting me for induction to the Hall of Fame will bring our circle of friendship and family to a point of perfect closure.”