The image, forever frozen in the mind’s eye, is the ball in the late Dwight Clark’s fingertips, as he stretches above Everson Walls, who can only reach futilely with his right arm. Too little, too late.
“The Catch,” 40 years ago this week, capped a magnificent 89-yard drive, a breathtaking 6-yard pass play, designed by coach Bill Walsh and executed spectacularly by quarterback Joe Montana and Clark, to make the 49ers NFC champions on Jan. 10, 1982, at Candlestick Park.
The 49ers and Cowboys meet again this weekend in the NFL playoffs, and you’ll likely see and hear a lot about the iconic play.
Here are five things you might not know about the teams, the players, the game and, yes, “The Catch,” from the pages of The Sporting News:
TSN ARCHIVES: Swing right option dooms Dallas
1. The 49ers didn’t expect to have a winning record, let alone be in the playoffs that season.
In their first season under Walsh, Montana and Clark’s rookie year, San Fran was 2-14. Yikes. Their record improved, as did Montana and Clark, in 1980, going 6-10.
Suffice it to say, expectations weren’t exactly high ahead of the 1981 season.
"I would have been happy to be 8-8,” team president Ed DeBartolo Jr. said on the eve of the NFC title game against the Cowboys.
This was a team, Joe Gergen wrote in The Sporting News, that bypassed mediocrity.
2. The 49ers survived a lot of mistakes in the game … a LOT of mistakes.
Montana threw three interceptions, and Niners backs fumbled three times.
Future Hall of Fame DB Ronnie Lott was flagged twice for crucial pass interference calls that extended Cowboys drives.
“Those two calls added up to 10 points,” Lott noted in The Sporting News. “The offense certainly took some pressure off my back.”
"Some people might call it a mistake-filled game,” Walsh said afterward. "I'm sure the Dallas defense is saying, ‘We forced six errors.’ And they'd be right. This is championship football. It's like a championship fight, like Snipes knocking down Holmes."
Wait, Snipes knocking down Holmes?
Holmes, of course, was heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. But Snipes? That would be Renaldo Snipes, who in November 1981 gave Holmes a surprisingly tough bout in Pittsburgh, including, by one account, “a perfectly timed overhand right (that) connected cleanly with Holmes’ chin and caused the champion’s legs to fold up like a defective lawn chair collapsing under an unsuspecting party guest.”
Holmes survived the knockdown, as would the Niners against the Cowboys.
And, in fact, it was the Cowboys who made the final, fatal mistake.
Having taken the lead on Clark’s catch and the PAT, the 49ers saw their defense snuff out a potential miracle Cowboys finish when Lawrence Pillers sacked Dallas QB Danny White, causing a fumble recovered by the Niners’ Jim Stuckey.
3. The game's first touchdown would echo later on.
Lined up in the slot on the right side in the first quarter, 49ers receiver Freddie Solomon took off for the flag as Clark, lined up wide right, curled inside.
Solomon caught a quick sprintout pass from Montana for an 8-yard score.
The play: swing right option.
It’s the same play Niners QB coach Sam Wyche called from the coaches booth on third and 3 from the Cowboys 6 with 58 seconds to play.
Except this time Montana, sprinting right, away from dominant Cowboys pass rusher Harvey Martin, faced a decision.
Wrote Gergen in The Sporting News: Solomon broke for the flag but was covered. Clark curled into the end zone, braked at the end line and looked for his quarterback. Walls and free safety Michael Downs were nearby. Montana was was running out of room on the sideline.
"I thought of throwing it away,” Montana said. "I cocked my arm to do that when I saw Dwight covered. I didn't want to take a loss in that situation. But just then I saw Dwight getting away from the coverage."
Now, Gergen wrote of the play, Montana was throwing “the most significant pass in 49er annals” toward Clark. And high, as the play was intended.
Vin Scully’s call, his last on football for CBS: "Of course for the upstart 49ers they are 6 yards from (the Super Bowl in) Pontiac (Mich.) Third and three. Montana, looking … looking … throwing in the end zone. Clark caught it! Dwight Clark! (Long pause for crowd reaction) It's a madhouse at Candlestick!"
"I thought it was too high," said the 6-3 Clark, "because I don't jump that well. And I was real tired. I had the flu last week and I had trouble getting my breath on that last drive.
“I don't know how I caught the ball. How does a lady pick up a car when it's on top of her baby? You get it from somewhere.”
4. Everson Walls wasn’t the goat.
In fact, before his infamous part in “The Catch,” the Cowboys cornerback had recovered a fumble by the 49ers’ Walt Easley. Four plays later, White passed 21 yards to tight end Doug Cosbie for a touchdown and a 27-21 Cowboys lead in the fourth quarter.
Before that, Walls had intercepted Montana — twice.
The argument could be made that Walls was an indispensable piece of a Cowboys defense that helped the team reach the NFC Championship that year.
A 22-year-old rookie free agent, Walls had led the NFL in interceptions that season with 11 — a mark that went unmatched for 40 years until Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs did it this season.
5. The 49ers became only the second team to reach the Super Bowl coming off a losing season the year before.
The first? The Bengals, who were 6-10 in 1980 and beat them to the honor by about four hours, defeating San Diego Chargers, 27-7, in the AFC Championship.
Montana and the 49ers would defeat the Bengals, 26-21, in Super Bowl XVI.
Not only did San Francisco’s win start a dynasty, but its victory over Dallas also signaled the impending end of another: the Cowboys under legendary coach Tom Landry. It was the second of three straight NFC title game losses for Dallas.