Growing up in an Atlanta suburb, a young Sean McVay was drawn to the 49ers for obvious reasons.
His grandfather, John McVay, was a longtime executive with the club. He served instrumental roles as a personnel man and voice of reason, often becoming a diplomat in conflicts between owner Eddie DeBartolo and coach Bill Walsh. McVay is enshrined in the 49ers Hall of Fame.
Sean McVay recalls sitting on the bus with offensive lineman Jesse Sapolu as the 49ers received a police escort to a Saturday walk-through to the Georgia Dome during a time when San Francisco and the Atlanta Falcons played twice a year as members of the NFC West.
The year was 1994, and McVay vividly recalls wearing a Deion Sanders jersey.
“This organization is something that’s very special to my family because of my grandfather’s history,” McVay said this week on a conference call with Bay Area reporters.
Kyle Shanahan, six years older than McVay, was a freshman at Saratoga High. His father, Mike Shanahan, was offensive coordinator of a dynamic, star-laden team that was on its way toward winning the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl.
The 49ers fashioned throwback jerseys for most of the season after coach George Seifert was quick to make a direct correlation between his team’s winning streak and the uniform style. Shanahan not only wore a Sanders jersey, he practically lived in his authentic red No. 21.
“I think I wore it for 60 straight days,” Shanahan said on “49ers Game Plan,” which airs Saturday at 7 p.m. on NBC Bay Area (Ch. 3). “I had a superstition with it. I never took it off. People at school started to make fun of me for it.”
Shanahan said he never washed the Sanders jersey, either.
“It was too nice to wash,” he said. “It was the real jersey. I wore undershirts. I was young. I didn’t smell that bad. I don’t think I’d matured, yet. I think they were jealous I had it. Then I always wore it, so I started to get made fun of. They won the Super Bowl, so I like to think it was because I wore the jersey every day. So I didn’t feel too bad about it.”
Only 16 years later, Shanahan and McVay began working together in the NFL on the Washington staff of Kyle’s father. Kyle was the offensive coordinator. McVay worked under him as an entry-level assistant tight ends coach.
Now, Shanahan, 38, and McVay, 32, are in their second seasons in their jobs as head coaches of the 49ers and Los Angeles Rams. Their teams meet Sunday afternoon for the third time, as McVay brings the league’s last unbeaten team into Levi’s Stadium to face the struggling 49ers, losers of four consecutive games.
It just so happens the 49ers will wear all-white 1994 throwback jerseys. The organization’s last Super Bowl-winning team will be featured as honored guests during the annual alumni weekend.
Shanahan and McVay still consider each other among their closest friends in the NFL, but there are now distinct lines drawn in the relationship.
“Our conversations have changed a little bit,” Shanahan said. “He’s always one of the first guys I’m going to call when I get to the combine to go out and have a beer and hang out.
“Most of my conversations with my friends involve a lot of football. Sean is one of the guys that we can talk football forever. I’d say in the last year that’s changed a little bit because we’re definitely not going to give each other secrets. We got to cut those conversations off a lot. It’s harder to talk, but we’re still close, and we always will be.”
The 49ers and Rams split their two meetings last season. McVay rested many of his starters in their Week 17 matchup before opening the playoffs as NFC West champions. The two young coaches figure to face each other many times in their careers, and that is part of the job McVay said he would rather avoid.
“I wish he wasn’t in our division and we didn’t have to play twice a year, so that we could be a little more open with our dialogue,” McVay said. “And I feel the same way I do with a lot of those coaches that I have close relationships with on (the 49ers) staff. We’re fortunate to even be in these roles, so we’ll take it. But I’d prefer to not have Kyle Shanahan in our division, if you ask me.”