All hail the chain gang – an unsexy, underpaid and nonetheless crucial job in football.
Back in the early 1900s, football bigwigs met in New York and decided, among other things, that marking plays should be done with “two light poles or rods about 6 feet in length, connected at their lower end by a stout cord or chain 10 yards in length.”
Since then, the equipment has changed a bit – the poles are more padded, partly due to the Baltimore Colts’ Bubba Smith getting impaled on a metal one in 1972 – but the job basically remains the same. The chain crew runs along the field measuring the first down to the line to gain, while keeping tabs on the line of scrimmage, to help decide plays in this so-called “game of inches.”
Chain-gang members earn pennies compared to the coaches and players they’re surrounded by and are typically superfans with day jobs. But it’s a coveted role – members are given the leeway to hire family, passing this work through multiple generations.
So it was with Kurt Braunreiter, who followed in his dad and uncle’s footsteps working the NFL chains on the San Francisco 49ers. He spent more than 30 years on the gang – many of them while commuting from his current home near Denver to the Bay Area at his own expense – and says he’s currently listed as a reserve.
Braunreiter took the time to talk about life on the gang and his favorite memories while lounging on a Hawaiian vacation, and he spoke rather frankly. “The 49ers can’t really do anything about it, because I’m basically retiring with this phone call,” he cracks.
(This interview was edited for brevity.)
Q How’d you get this gig with the 49ers?
A One of the guys my dad coached with – that’s how he got on the gang – got sick, so I took his place. A lot of the guys who are doing it now, their fathers or grandfathers worked the chains (for that team). That’s kind of how you get it. People ask me, now that I’m in Denver, “Can I get on the Broncos?” I say, “No, that’s not how it works, man.”
Q What was your first game like?
It was 1988, when Bill Walsh was coaching against the Vikings, when (backup quarterback) Steve Young came in and played. I was the unofficial first down marker. And Walsh goes, “That (expletive) Steve takes his eyes off the (expletive) receiver and doesn’t (expletive) know where to go with the ball? What are we (expletive) going to do with this (expletive) guy?” He said it very Bill Walshish – didn’t scream it, just said it in a very intense voice. And two plays later, Young runs 49 yards for a touchdown. It was funny.
But I was in awe, because I was a 20-something-year-old kid, looking at Bill Walsh (expletive) swearing.
Q What’s the attraction of the chains?
A It’s just a joy getting together with your buddies and being able to stand on the sidelines and watch a game. If you’re a football fan at all – and of course, we all were 49ers fans – how cool was that to stand next to Joe Montana and Bill Walsh?
Back in the day at Candlestick Park, they’d just give you a credential. I’d give it to a buddy of mine and tell them, “I can get you on the sidelines. Just don’t look at anybody, don’t talk to anybody. And if anybody asks you, say you’re part of the field crew.” I still remember my buddy telling me – he was a Cowboys fan and we beat the Cowboys in 1994 – he said that was the greatest day of his life. He was standing next to his wife, and his wife goes, “What? What about your kids?”
Q Do you need a lot of officiating experience?
A Not really. One of the guys who is still doing it right now is from Ireland, and he had no idea what American football was. I got him on the chain, because he was just such a fun dude. I was running it then, and he was just one of the good, cool people that were fun to work with. I remember his first few games, when they kicked off, you started at the 20, and that guy stood at the 20 the entire drive until they switched. And him, the idiot dunce, didn’t know football. He’d just be standing there looking at the crowd when they’d already exchanged punts. I’d have to go scream at him.
Q What’s security like?
A Every few years, you have to get a background check to make sure you’re not a gambler or something. They’re very concerned about gambling. But we have passes: We show up with a picture pass you wear around your neck on a lanyard and just walk in and go wherever you want. You have full access to the stadium, or at least we did before COVID.
Q Have you ever gotten clobbered?
A I only got taken out the one time, and it was embarrassing. It was a Giants championship game during the Jim Harbaugh years. Near the end, there were all these old Giants guys on the sidelines – Lawrence Taylor for instance. And one guy was in a wheelchair. I landed in his lap. That was the hardest time I got hit.
We used to put in 20 bucks apiece with the ball boys and the chain gang every year. You got somebody’s name, and if that person got decleated you won the pool. We were playing the Saints – it was Mike Ditka’s coaching time – and Ricky Williams came running down the sidelines. Two guys from the 49ers hit him, and he shot so fast at us, he scraped me and his shoulder pad cut my arm. But he hit (the guy I had in the pool), who was 250 pounds and about 6’3” like me, and knocked him back – he just went flying. I couldn’t stop laughing, because I’d just won the pool.
A Yeah. You had to be decleated — you had to be knocked off your feet in order to win. You always got smacked a little bit, but decleated was a cool one.
Q What do they pay you for this?
A Before Levi’s (Stadium), you had free tickets and your parking pass. After taxes, you made about $110 a game or something. Now you still make the same, but at Levi’s, you have to buy your own tickets now. Half the time the seats were so (bad), you couldn’t give them away.
Q Do you ever worry chain gangs will get replaced by technology – a chip in the football or a laser or something?
A We wondered about that. I mean, they have the cams. But I think as long as they still have real-person referees, I don’t see that in the future. Because you need that chain. It’s a game of inches, they call it, so you actually need somebody on the field to show where the first down marker is. Third and goal, third and six. Until they make some kind of magical thing that shows up on the field, there’s no way in hell.
Contributed by local news sources