Among die-hard 49ers fans, they hold the royal flush.
They breathe the rarefied air of those lucky enough to have cheered on their beloved team not just at one or two Super Bowl appearances -- but at all five.
"I made the first one, then it became like an obsession and I had to get into every Super Bowl the Niners played in," says Tony Serpa, a retired San Francisco firefighter from Pleasant Hill who hasn't missed a regular-season 49ers home game in more than 40 years. "I feel it's my duty to be there."
They are a special breed, these Die-Hard Fans Times Five. Miraculously, they've managed to score some of the most precious tickets in professional sports over and over again. They've traveled thousands of miles, braving snow and beefy security guards and airplanes that have run plumb out of liquor. And they've brought home gridiron memories -- Joe Montana's winning pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds on the clock, anyone? -- along with tales of booze-infused festivities that serve as wobbly bookmarks to the action on the field.
The fans' homes are sacred shrines to 49ers madness, their Super Bowl ticket stubs stuffed and mounted on the walls, their cherished jerseys standing by, ready to unfurl anew as the Big Party moves to the Big Easy this weekend for 49ers appearance No. 6, after an achingly long dry spell.
"We kind of got spoiled, playing in and winning five Super Bowls through the '80s and then '95," says Art Kenney, assistant fire chief at San Francisco's Station 5 and a 49ers season-ticket holder since 1958. "But now that it's been 18 years since the last one, this game feels really big to me."
For Kenney, there was one small wrinkle: "Our daughters are also season-ticket holders and got drawn in the lottery this time around, so only two of the four of us can go. That's our dilemma, but hopefully they'll turn the tickets over to the old fan -- good ol' dad."
They did. After all, these five-peat veterans are seemingly bathed in an aura of good fortune. More often than not, they've scored Super Bowl tickets not because they got lucky in the season-ticket drawing, but because some tailgating guardian angel had mercy on their Niners-obsessed souls and handed over their own tickets.
Or rather, handed over the right to buy their own tickets at face value. And if Serpa feels duty-bound to make every Super Bowl, it has also been his duty to fork over many thousands of dollars for the privilege.
From the 40 bucks he paid for Super Bowl XVI, to the $950 he parted with last week for each of two passes to XLVII, Serpa proudly wears the scars of inflation. Don't even get his wife, Ellen, started.
"I'm shocked at how much he's paid over the years," Ellen Serpa says. "I have control over a lot of our household finances, but this is not one of them. I've always said that if it were a matter of buying milk for our children or Niners tickets for Tony, I'm afraid our kids would have to drink water."
That's not to say these Super Bowl veterans are the most obsessed of the obsessed. That title would probably go to guys like San Francisco native Larry Jacobson, who has attended all 46 Super Bowls and served on the Never Miss a Super Bowl Club, made famous by the 2010 Visa commercial.
"Sure I've been to every single Super Bowl ever, but I think it's apples and oranges to compare us with these fans who've just been to the Niners' bowls," Jacobson says. "It's apples, bananas and oranges. I don't think of them as lightweights at all. I just think of them as a different kind of fruit."
Rosalie Mello, the 80-year-old president of Stockton's 49ers Gold Rushers fan club, says that first matchup, in Pontiac, Mich., was her favorite. After all, "it was the Niners' first since they started playing at Kezar Stadium in 1946. It was so cold, we couldn't go outside because the lenses would pop out of our eyeglasses.
"But we had a real camaraderie with the Cincinnati fans that you wouldn't find today," says Mello, who still sports her 9ERXVI license plate. "We were like one big family; we'd joke here and there, but nobody bad-mouthed each other."
Getting to that first Super Bowl game was something these veterans will never forget. Mello said then-Vice President George H.W. Bush's motorcade caused a horrendous pre-game traffic jam, forcing some fans to miss the opening kickoff and others to miss, well, a private place to relieve themselves after drinking all morning.
"I remember a lot of the great plays and catches in those games, but just getting to that first bowl was an experience I'll never forget," says Mello, who regrets that declining mobility will prevent her from attending this year's game. "I was so mad at Bush for causing us to miss the first quarter, and I never voted for him for president."
The 49ers went on to win that Super Bowl and the four that followed. Yet just as much as the exciting passes and come-from-behind victories, it was something else that made it all so memorable -- that feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself, being an emissary for a huge sprawling family of fans, being a participant in an epic journey.
Belonging to that club is nearly priceless. Which is why Ellen Serpa is bracing herself.
"This is so ingrained in Tony, there's no way he cannot go to every Niners Super Bowl," she says. "And if they keep winning, he'll figure out a way to make that happen, even if it means taking out a second mortgage on our house -- which could happen."
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689. Follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.
Three 49ers fans who have been to all five of the team's Super Bowls:
Tony Serpa: A 68-year-old retired San Francisco firefighter living in Pleasant Hill. He hasn't missed a regular-season 49ers home game in more than 40 years. He got two tickets to his sixth Super Bowl from a fellow tailgater, paying face value of $950 each. "He said he could have sold them for more, but since I'd been to all five Super Bowls, he knew this was important to me. He's a really nice guy."
Art Kenney: An assistant fire chief at San Francisco's Station 5 and a 49ers season-ticket holder since 1958. He grew up in the Sunset district, following the 49ers as a kid, then selling programs at Kezar Stadium. "I've been married to my wife 49 years. I put off getting married until after football season and she's still mad about that."
Rosalie Mello: The 80-year-old president of Stockton's 49ers Gold Rushers fan club. Her favorite of the five Super Bowls was the first one, in Pontiac, Mich., even though then-Vice President George H.W. Bush's motorcade caused a huge pre-game traffic backup. "I was so mad at Bush for causing us to miss the first quarter, and I never voted for him for president."