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'The Catch' lands a spot in NFL lore


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 1999

There are instances in which no names, no teams are required to conjure up the most vivid recollections of a moment and its participants.

Instances such as "The Catch." There is only one. Not Willie Mays' in the World Series, not Lynn Swann's in the Super Bowl.

Joe Montana and Dwight Clark might as well apply for a trademark. It is theirs.

On Jan. 10, 1982, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, San Francisco trailed Dallas 27-21 with 58 seconds to play. It was third down, 3 yards to go on the Dallas 6-yard line.

Two legends were about to take flight.

Montana called timeout.

He walked to the sideline in Candlestick Park, the 49ers' home field.

He conferred with coach Bill Walsh.

He trotted back onto the field.

"The play was nothing special," Walsh said after the game. "It's a play we practice from Day 1 in training camp."

Montana rolled out to his right, looking for Freddie Solomon. Then he spied Clark, who had shaken loose from defenders in the back of the end zone.

The Cowboys were closing in on Montana. "I was getting pressured," he said, "but they weren't on top of me."

He had just enough room to slow and throw off the wrong foot. The ball sailed high, and Clark, eluding cornerback Everson Walls, leaped and made a fingertip catch.

"We had double coverage on him in the end zone," Cowboys safety Charlie Waters said. "He made a great catch. I know because I had a great view."

The reputations of Walsh, who took over the 49ers in 1979, and Montana, whom he drafted in the third round that year, had been evolving, one as a genius, the other a magician. When Clark's feet touched the ground with the touchdown pass and Ray Wersching kicked the extra point for the 49ers' 28-27 victory, the coach and his QB became San Francisco saints.

As far as the Cowboys were concerned, the play never should have happened. The 49ers trailed by six with 4:54 to play when they took possession on their 11-yard line.

"We stopped them pretty good most of the game," Waters said. "But that last drive for some reason was unstoppable."

Now it was the 49ers who had to stop the Cowboys. San Francisco kicked off with 51 seconds to play and Dallas started from its 25. On first down, Danny White and Drew Pearson hooked up on a 31-yard pass play to the 49ers 44. "If we had just gotten 15 more yards we could have won the game," White said.

But on the next play, defensive end Lawrence Pillers tackled White, who fumbled. Fellow 49ers defensive end Jim Stuckey recovered.

San Francisco's trip to its first Super Bowl was assured -- and the 26-21 victory against Cincinnati would be the start of the 49ers dynasty.- Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

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