What it's like to spend a day with the San Francisco 49ers' mascot, Sourdough Sam

It’s 60 and sunny when I cross the county line into Santa Clara, home of the San Francisco 49ers. It’s Christmas Eve 2022, and I’m headed to Levi’s Stadium to watch the 49ers face off against the Washington Commanders.

Well, really I’m there to spend some quality time with Sourdough Sam, the 49ers' beloved but elusive mascot, who has invited me to watch him work.

By the time I park, the tailgate is already in full swing and fans are leaning heavily into the Christmas spirit. Some have decked out the back of their flatbed trucks with stockings bearing the numbers of star players. Others are in full seasonal gear: Santa hats, Grinch suits, a gold sombrero adorned with big-bulbed Christmas lights.

Sam is tall, towering over me at a stately 6-foot-6. His outfit (a full velvet Santa suit) is seasonally appropriate but so warm that Sam has to take 10-minute breaks on the hour. Usually, Sam wears just a jersey and a pair of overalls – he’s a gold miner after all.

Super Bowl 58: Latest news, stats, odds, matchups and more

His name? That’s a nod to San Francisco’s famous sourdough bread. He shared in an email exchange before our meeting that the best place to pick up a loaf in the city is Boudin SF. I think this is debatable.

We meet near the entrance of the stadium where he is posing for photos with game-goers in front of a banner reading ‘Faithful to the Bay.” San Francisco fans are called the Faithful – capital F – a moniker that began in the '80s to sort out bandwagon fans who hopped on to cheer for Joe Montana but hadn't been there for the franchise's dark moments.

Sam motions for me to join him in front of the backdrop. Photo ops are not usually kosher for journalists profiling anyone, but since all other convention has been thrown to the wind, I decide to toss this as well.

He greets me with a silent nod, and then, perhaps aware that I am a bit too uptight for the setting, he tosses the football he’s holding to a fan and turns his palms up so I can put my hands in his. He trains his comically large blue eyes on me and gets down on one knee, feigning a proposal. I look shocked, the crowd breaks into laughter and Sam’s handler snaps a picture.

This guy is no amateur.

Sam pops the question
Sam pops the question

'How many mascots you know who can breakdance?'

After a while, Sam heads inside with kickoff nearing.

As we travel toward the field, we share our only verbal exchange of the day. We’re riding the elevator when Sam looks over and startles me with a low “Hey, how’s it going?” This will be the only time I hear his voice – his mystery remaining alive and well.

He runs out of the tunnel greeting an already half-packed stadium and I run after him, stunned by his athleticism. You would think with his heavy Santa suit and even heavier head, he might have to move slowly. Most of the time, though, I have trouble keeping up  as he shuffles backward, busting a move and scaling the bleachers to greet adoring fans.

We trot along the field’s edge and people yell out, “Sam, Sam, over here!” “Sam it’s my birthday,” “Hey Sourdough.” He fist-bumps and high fives his way through the crowd, turning to me every once in a while as if to say, ‘Are you getting this?’

Men in suits and family members of former players greet Sam like he’s an old friend – their faces lighting up before they pull him in for a deep embrace.

“He’s just a big ol’ teddy bear, a big ol’ sweetheart,” says Alexa McIntyre, the daughter of former 49ers offensive lineman Guy McIntyre.

When I ask what makes him special, she says, “Everything… How many mascots you know who can breakdance?”

Sam can pull off a Jerk like no other but admits via email that wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk could probably beat him in a dance-off.

Meanwhile, Sam is still working the crowd. Clearly #BMOC, everyone wants a piece.

Just as he’s getting ready to head inside, he spots a family in mascot-style costumes and takes off.

Sam meets some fans also sporting mascot costumes in the stands
Sam meets some fans also sporting mascot costumes in the stands

Tony Reyna, 52, bought the costumes for him and his two sons to appear in Christmas parades. They seemed so appropriate for a Christmas Eve game, though, that he couldn’t resist bringing them. Reyna, who says he has been a fan of the team for 40 years, is sporting a Grinch costume while his sons are dressed as a moose and a gingerbread man.

Sam poses for a few photos with the family and doles out some gift-wrapped T-shirts, which his handler has been carrying around. After the photos, Sam takes off his hat, revealing straight orange locks. He quaffs them a bit, evidently feeling himself, and then struts back into the stadium’s interior, leaving me to watch the players warm up and chat with fans.

Sam – he’s just like us

“Please welcome your San Francisco 49ers,” the loudspeaker booms and Sam runs out, chasing after five flag-bearers. He struts toward the crowd and swings his pickaxe before managing a quick two-step in the end zone and removing his Santa hat for the national anthem.

The game is action-packed and the Niners win 37-20, grabbing their eighth consecutive win even without star quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

I mingle with the crowd a bit between quarters. One trio of festively dressed season ticketholders tells me they go to every home game.

“When it comes to the 49er Faithful, we really are family,” says a man who lists his name as 49er Mark (age 49, of course). “We see each other's kids grow up. Weddings. Funerals. Sicknesses. We’re engaged with each other.”

“It’s Christmas Eve, but hey, it’s Niner time,” adds Marlon Allen, 47.

As for Sam, they’re all big fans. “He’s a god,” Allen says, “and he works out hard too.”

Three season ticket holders grab a drink between quarters. From left: Marlon Allen, Jeneen Cox, '49er Mark'
Three season ticket holders grab a drink between quarters. From left: Marlon Allen, Jeneen Cox, '49er Mark'

Throughout the game Sam appears intermittently on the sidelines, drumming his oversized hands across the edge of the red divider. For each touchdown, he runs behind the goal post and removes his hat, catching the football in it.

There are long stretches where he’s nowhere to be seen. Maybe he’s resting from the heat of his costume or maybe he’s keenly aware that his power is best used in small spurts, as a gimmick to rile up the crowd but not to overwhelm them with his cheesiness.

And when he appears, posing for selfies and dwarfing just about anyone he stands next to, he’s paying attention to the fans but always has one eye on the game.

It is perhaps the reason he can connect with the 49ers Faithful the most.

He understands because he’s one of them.

Who has the most Super Bowl rings?: NFL championship records explained

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: San Francisco 49ers mascot Sourdough Sam is man of mystery.