SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The biggest, most high-stakes gamble inside the 49ers' organization didn't involve a quarterback. It involved the franchise.
That's what was at risk when Jed York took out $850 million in loans two years ago, betting he could build a stadium on an empty parking lot by 2014. It was tantamount to shoving every chip to the center of a green-felt table and waiting for the last card to be flipped over.
The loans — plus another $200 million from the NFL — were more than the 49ers were worth at the time.
Lose the bet, and York could lose the 49ers.
If he failed, there was a real possibility he would be forced to sell the franchise his grandfather bought and his uncle made famous — York's legacy and his infant son's legacy — to the highest bidder.
York, of course, not only won the bet. He doubled down.
His 49ers are heading to their sixth Super Bowl, the under-construction stadium already dominates the South Bay landscape, and the future seats — expensive seats — have been gobbled up by eager fans. The events are all related, and they all lead back to York.
The 49ers' trip to New Orleans comes as York's uncle and the team's previous and still-beloved owner, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., is being considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
DeBartolo predicted success for his nephew, who takes after him in so many ways, when York took over day-to-day operations of the 49ers in 2008. But DeBartolo also said York, only 27 at the time, would have to "get a little bloody" before he found his footing.
He did. He had to fire Mike Nolan a week earlier than planned during the 2008 season after word leaked to ESPN that the decision had been made. York quickly hired Mike Singletary as the replacement, only to regret it a year and a half later.
York was seen as too young and too green to run the organization, and he was urged to hire an experienced hand to help mind the shop.
Today York's youth seems like an asset.
He's the most technology-savvy owner in the league, which is reflected in the stadium and recent additions such as Gideon Yu, the former chief financial officer for Facebook and YouTube. Yu is a co-owner and the team's president.
York also has mastered Twitter, sending out more than 1,000 tweets over the last two years and endearing himself to nearly 38,000 followers. One of his Monday messages included a picture of him holding his 3-month-old son, Jax, in the Georgia Dome a day earlier when the 49ers were trailing 17-0.
It's also difficult to see an older, established owner getting a stadium built as swiftly.
York canvassed neighborhoods and knocked on doors when he was trying to get the stadium measure passed in 2010. Would an older man have had the energy and stamina?
York sat in hundreds of living rooms and listened to countless gripes. Would an old-guard owner have had the humility?
Most of all, York has a younger man's optimism.
The Bay Area business community and the media, which had watched as DeBartolo and then York's father, John, failed to get beyond the blueprint phase, were doubtful the stadium project could be pulled off.
For York, it was a clear-eyed gamble based on numbers and research and calculations. But it also was about dedication and instinct and faith.
The loan payments were contingent on selling season tickets and seat licenses, which depended on a winning football team.
So much could have gone wrong, from recently hired Jim Harbaugh being a bust to the price of steel to a rare salamander being discovered on the stadium site.
Harbaugh is another one of York's successful gambles.
In just under two years, he's coached the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
And in just under five years, York has returned the organization to the lofty place his uncle had it.