YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The 49ers are not difficult to find on their five-day stopover between their season-opening games in Tampa and Cincinnati.
Exit U.S. Route 422 at Madison Avenue just north of downtown, and they can be found practicing on a warm September afternoon at the fully exposed Youngstown State soccer and track facility.
But don’t expect to be able to watch for too long – or at all. Security members line the perimeter of the field, making sure a passerby keeps passing by. You never know when vital information gleaned from just one play at practice might end up in the hands of the Bengals.
“I’ve done it long enough to realize that you should have some paranoia, not everyone’s like that, but some people are,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “You can never be too safe.”
For more than just a passing glance at the 49ers, it’s a good bet that you can find a familiar face at Handel’s Ice Cream, a regional favorite since it was founded in Youngstown in 1945. There's an ice cream stand across the street from the team hotel in nearby Boardman.
“I went with cookies and cream and a waffle cone,” 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. “Very traditional.”
Was it the best ice cream he’s ever had?
“It was up there, man,” Garoppolo answered. “It was really good.”
The 49ers – just as they did under Jim Harbaugh in 2011 and 2012 – decided to remain on the road between back-to-back games away from the Bay Area. Youngstown has been the choice each time because of its location in the Eastern time zone and its history with the 49ers. The DeBartolos have deep ties to the region, where 49ers co-chairs Denise and John York still reside and remain active in the community.
Youngstown State, with a lower-Division I NCAA program, has facilities worthy of hosting an NFL team.
“It’s impressive,” said Garoppolo, who played at the FCS level at Eastern Illinois. “I’ve told some of the guys, this isn’t your normal I-AA looking school, that’s for sure. The stadium, weight room whatever it is. I’ve been to a number of them, and this is pretty impressive.”
The 49ers will look to open the season 2-0 for the first time since 2012 after a 31-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They return to action in Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Shanahan believes the decision to remain on the road and avoid the back-and-forth travel will enable the 49ers to be more fresh and better prepared.
“I think it’s huge,” Shanahan said. “I’ve learned that the hard way over these last couple of years. Not just the time change, which is very tough going back and forth, especially when you have an early game, but also just the flying, how long it is. And when you play a long game and how much you can swell up on that plane after and having to come back, so I think it’s a huge advantage.”
The 49ers arrived in Youngstown late Sunday night, and Shanahan said he did not go outside until Wednesday. He and his staff have been spending extra hours working on getting the team prepared for the Bengals – without such time drains as dealing with Bay Area traffic on their commutes to and from the team's facility in Santa Clara.
They are basically able to roll out of bed at the Holiday Inn and get straight to work breaking down video and creating the game plan for the upcoming game.
“I think it’s all right for one week,” Shanahan said. “If I didn’t go home for the entire season, my family would definitely kill me. But I’d also end up probably killing myself. I’d be exhausted. You can’t do it too long, but it’s nice for just one week.
“We usually end late at night, but you don’t have to have a drive home, so you kind of hang out there and I think I had to stay up until one to finish the Monday night game. Back to East Coast times, I forgot how late those start out here. That was kind of nice to be able to do that.”
Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon said the team still is adjusting to the time change, but it should be helpful in getting prepared for Sunday in Cincinnati with a kickoff time that is 10 a.m. back home.
“During the week, you stay up late and then in the morning you’re tired, because it’s really like 4 in the morning at home,” Witherspoon said. “So it’s just pushing through and getting adjusted ... It’ll be a help on Sunday.”