Ready to fight for fan safety

Manuel Austin shows the injuries he sustained during an attack

Manuel Austin’s first trip to a San Francisco 49ers game in more than seven years didn’t go as planned. Now, with his head still aching from what he says was a vicious, alcohol-fueled attack at the hands of fellow red-and-gold-clad fans, it will be much longer than that before he sets foot in an NFL stadium again.

“It’s like the Wild West, and it’s out of control,” said Austin, 66, a former U.S. Marine from Los Gatos who lost four teeth and suffered a black eye during the skirmish moments before the 49ers’ Monday night showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers Dec. 19.

The 49ers’ storybook season ended Sunday at Candlestick Park with a 20-17 overtime loss to the New York Giants – leaving San Francisco one win shy of its sixth Super Bowl appearance. But for Austin, the mission to “end fan violence” is just getting started.

And this is one fight he’s willing to pick.

“I’m not afraid of taking on the big organizations. Other people have been wronged. Other men, women and children,” said Austin, who runs a distribution service that includes delivering the Gilroy Dispatch, Morgan Hill Times, Hollister Free Lance and The Pinnacle. “And I’m not OK with it. I’ll do whatever I have to do. However high the mountain, I am willing to climb.”

Austin has written a letter to 49ers owner Jed York asking that the team adopt and publicize a no-tolerance policy on violence in the stands. He wants to meet with York to address ways the team can make the stadium more family friendly, including public service announcements from 49er players saying they don’t support violence in the stands.

“People come to see the games, so they shouldn’t be warring in the stands when the game is going on. It’s a disgrace to the players,” Austin said. “Right now, you can’t bring children because everyone is cussing, upset and drunk (at the games).”

Austin’s new-found mission escalated because of what happened mere minutes from kickoff that infamous Monday night, when he and another man started to argue after Austin asked him to sit down so his family could see the game. Austin was at the game with his wife, son and daughter-in-law.

“I said, ‘Excuse me, the program is about to start, will you please be seated?’” Austin recalled.

Austin said the man had been drinking and became belligerent, hurling multiple expletives before Austin hurled one of his own, causing one of the man’s nearby cohorts to land a hefty punch on Austin’s left eye.

The three men, who, like Austin, were rooting for the 49ers, continued to pummel Austin even as he fell to the concrete floor between the seats, Austin said. One of the alleged assaulters, identified by the SFPD as Mendocino County resident Mark Bollock, 57,  was cited for assault, though he told the San Francisco Chronicle that Austin was the aggressor and he only acted in self-defense.

Austin stands by his story.

“The police got it right,” he said.

SFPD Sgt. Michael Andraychak said Monday the incident remains under investigation, and only Bollock was cited. No charges have been filed, Andraychak said.

Austin and his family missed the game as they spent roughly 90 minutes talking to police before spending more than an hour at the stadium’s first aid center. In addition to losing four teeth, Austin still experiences pain in his left orbital bone, has diminished hearing in his left ear and his mouth remains sore.

He hasn’t been back to work since the attack, as his schedule is flooded with doctors visits: neurologists, internists, MRIs, CT scans, audiologists and an ear, nose and throat doctor.

Not to mention some dental work that’s still needed.

“It will cost $24,000 to restore my smile,” he said.

Austin has reached out to Congressman Mike Honda, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, the San Francisco Police Department and California Attorney General Kamala Harris in hopes of streamlining ways to prevent fan-on-fan violence in professional stadiums and identify, eject and prosecute rowdy, boozy fans.

Jack d’Annibale, Honda’s communications director in Washington D.C., says Honda and Austin have spoken about the issue, stating, “the Congressman is concerned, and interested that all Bay Area stadiums are safe for all sports fans.”

Austin is even inviting others who feel they’ve been victims of stadium violence to send him their stories, from which he’ll compile a detailed incident database. He says he has more than 200 signatures from friends and neighbors who want to assist him in his efforts.

“I have a great interest in making this happen,” Austin said. “My commitment is to do this forever.”

Larry Minasian, 49ers director of stadium operations, said Austin has contacted the team about his anti-violence efforts, though correspondence between the two sides is in its infancy.

“We’re certainly receptive of whatever we can do to make this a better environment for everybody,” Minasian said. “Every effort that we make is geared toward eliminating, to reducing fan violence.”

Minasian cited “extraordinary” security measures during Sunday’s NFC title game, and said the team would likely continue similar efforts moving on to next season.

“We went further than what the NFL had recommended (for security),” he said. “Unfortunately, you get a couple high-profile incidents and it sometimes kind of negates all the good we’ve done.”

Violence at sporting events isn’t new for Bay Area fans, especially in the last year.

Santa Cruz paramedic and San Francisco Giants fan Bryan Stow suffered brain damage after he was beaten by two men outside Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles last March. Several 49ers games this past season, including a preseason matchup against the cross-Bay rival Oakland Raiders and a second-round playoff win against the visiting New Orleans Saints, were the scene of dozens of fan fights and arrests, prompting 49ers officials to adopt stricter security measures and additional personnel for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game. Some SFPD officers even went undercover dressed as New York Giants fans to catch unruly spectators.

Still, not even game goes off without a hitch, Minasian said.

“When you get 65,000 people in here and it’s emotionally charged, it’s difficult to guarantee you won’t have incidents,” he said.