Eugene Hernandez wants to make clear he wasn’t calling his bookie when caught on camera talking on his phone at the 49ers game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. And he wasn’t calling out of work either.
In the moment that became a meme which went viral on social media almost instantly during the 49ers 42-10 blowout of his Dallas Cowboys, the costume clad Hernandez answered a call from a friend who wanted to tell him they had seen him on TV. The photo has been posted with captions including “Mom, can you pick me up?” and “Yeah, so about that money I told you to bet on the Cowboys for me.” A video of Hernandez was even shared on ESPN’s Tik Tok account, garnering over 80,000 likes.
But Hernandez, a Vacaville firefighter who lives in Lodi, has taken the attention and the jokes at his team’s expense in stride, immediately making memes of his own and starting an instagram account under the handle @Cowboysphoneguy to keep the jokes coming. He said his colleagues at the fire department have been ruthless since he went viral, but the banter has still been fun.
Hernandez said he went to the game at Levi Stadium — hardly a friendly environment for Cowboys fans — with his wife, as well as with his father-in-law and his wife.
“I was one of few Cowboys fans within that area,” he said.
The family have made a point to go to Cowboys vs Niners games over the years, he said, even driving to witness a home Cowboys loss to San Fransisco in Dallas.
“That was a very long 24-hour ride back,” he said.
But the atmosphere at the games, Hernandez said, is incredible.
“Running into other Cowboys fans is great,” he said. “Hooping and hollering, high-fiving each other, the camaraderie is awesome.”
President of the Vacaville Firefighter’s Association Matt Moreno said he was watching the game with his wife, and initially didn’t notice Hernandez because of the elaborate costume he was wearing. Once he did, he took a photo of the TV and sent it to Hernandez, as many others did in the moment.
Moreno said he instantly predicted that this moment would become a meme, and it was taking off online before the game was even over.
“I will say that he couldn’t take this thing any better,” Moreno said. “He couldn’t be a better sport.”
Moreno himself is a Dolphins fan, but many Vacaville firefighters are obviously 49ers fans.
“When your team gets beat by the Niners, when you come to work it’s pretty ruthless,” he said.
But sports banter and fantasy football, says Moreno, give crews something positive to focus on outside of their difficult job.
“It makes everything that we’re seeing and doing,” he said, “it helps make it kind of go away.”
Hernandez became a Cowboys fan because of his grandmother, who moved to Lodi from Texas and raised him as a Dallas fan.
He said he grew up without a lot of advantages, and had lots of coaches and teachers who helped him throughout high school as he worked not to go down a dark path. While he was in college, he said, his father went into liver failure and he was forced to attempt CPR until paramedics arrived. Later, he had to carry his grandmother out of their house to wait for paramedics after she was wounded in an oil fire.
Those experiences were formative for him, says Hernandez.
I reassessed my career,” he said. “Knowing that I wanted to do something with the community and give back, because the community gave so much to me, I found the calling to become a firefighter.”
Moreno said he is uplifted by the chance to work with Hernandez.
“He’s that guy that he had a choice in life to be a victim or be victorious,” Moreno said, “and he chose to be a victor.”
Hernandez saw what was going on around him as a young man and decided on a different path, Moreno said. He’s able to relate to a lot of life experiences, he said, which is helpful to have on the force.
“It’s pretty inspiring to work with a guy like that,” Moreno said, “to see what he could have been, and what he is now”
Moreno said Hernandez’s nickname is El Toro, because he puts his head down and works hard like a bull.
The department is a small one as fire departments in the region go, Moreno said, and they have about 90 members on their suppression staff. Most members are local, and the department is best known for its philanthropic work.
That work develops trust in the community, he said. The department has raised nearly $1 million since 2012.
“That’s what I’m most proud about,” he said. “Is that we’re not just out saving lives but we’re affecting lives on and off duty.”
And like his beloved team this week, Hernandez is looking to shake off the loss and stay in stride.
“I just want to let everybody know that we are still ‘Dem Boys,” he said.