- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2005

Once and for always, thanks to TV replays, Dwight Clark made and keeps on making the Catch.

The nice thing about sports competition is the lack of ambiguity. You step up under pressure or you don’t. You get it done or you don’t. You win or you lose.

On the chilly afternoon of Jan.10, 1982, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, the ball floated toward the end zone, receiver Clark leaped as an out-of-position defender reached for him and … instant sports history ensued.

Later, as vice president of first the San Francisco 49ers and then the expansion Cleveland Browns, Clark lost his jobs because of executive power plays. But 23 long NFL postseasons ago, he had all the power in his fingertips.

Quarterback Joe Montana was anything but a legend and the 49ers never had won a championship until that moment. The Dallas Cowboys were leading 27-21 in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game, but the 49ers had driven from their 11-yard line to the Cowboys’ 6. Now it was third-and-3 with 58 seconds remaining.

The play was called Sprint Right Option in coach Bill Walsh’s ultimately famous West Coast offense. The 49ers’ leading rusher, Ricky Patton, was injured, but the team’s ground game hadn’t produced much all season anyway. So this was Montana’s game to win or lose.

Over the next decade or so, he would become noted for clutch heroics as he led the 49ers to four of the franchise’s five Super Bowl victories. But as he lined up on third down against the Cowboys’ “Doomsday Defense,” he was just another good quarterback from Notre Dame.

Montana took the snap and rolled right as prescribed, knowing he could throw the ball away if his receivers were covered and take one last shot on fourth down. Freddie Solomon, flanked inside Clark on the right side, was the primary receiver. Clark’s job was to clear out defenders underneath — and, if Solomon was covered, to move laterally from right to left in the end zone and then double back.

Now, though, linemen Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Larry Bethea were closing in on Montana, and he was out of time. From near the right sideline, he flung the ball off his back foot and waited for the crowd’s reaction to tell him what had happened because his view was obscured by Jones’ looming 6-foot-9 figure.

Here’s what happened: Clark was in his designated area, a step or two clear of rookie cornerback Everson Walls, who already had intercepted Montana twice and recovered a fumble. Walls only could watch as Clark jumped in the back of the end zone, caught the pass on his fingertips and held on.

The Catch.

You’ve seen it countless times. It landed Clark and the hapless Walls on the cover of Sports Illustrated in a memorable photo. But the funny thing is, it didn’t win the game — not by itself. The teams were tied until Ray Wersching kicked the extra point to put the Niners ahead 28-27.

Nonetheless, Clark’s catch went down in history. And how did he manage it? Well, he said afterward with becoming modesty and a strange comparison, “You get it from somewhere. How does a mother pick up a car that has her baby trapped? You just get it from somewhere.”

It’s fascinating to realize, given its ultimate import, how close the play came to being an afterthought. Although the 49ers had stunned the NFL with a 13-3 season, Tom Landry’s favored Cowboys had made the playoffs in 15 of the 16 previous seasons and weren’t about to fold against an upstart opponent that had gone 2-14 just two seasons earlier. With seconds remaining after the kickoff, Dallas quarterback Danny White hit Drew Pearson on a post pattern, and for a moment the receiver looked as if he might break the play.

“I remember trying to get to him and getting hit by one of our guys,” said Ronnie Lott, the Niners’ superb defensive back. “It was like the Keystone Kops. The next thing I know, he’s past me, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh-oh, there he goes …’”

But not all that far. With Pearson about to get into the open, cornerback Eric Wright dragged him down with one hand near midfield. On the next play, defensive lineman Lawrence Pillars hit White, fellow lineman Jim Stuckey recovered the resulting fumble and it was over.

So, too, ultimately, was the 49ers’ 35-year title drought in the old All-American Football Conference and the NFL. The Niners, whose squad included 13 rookies, nipped the equally surprising Cincinnati Bengals 26-21 in Super Bowl XVI and won three more with Montana during a run of success that made this season’s 2-14 collapse hard to believe.

And all that success, as well as the ascension of Walsh and Montana to NFL demigod status, was built on a one-play foundation.

The Catch.

“Without a doubt, beating the Cowboys exorcised a lot of demons,” Lott said years later. “Had it not happened, especially to a young team, we may have wound up wondering, ‘How do we get over that [championship] hurdle?’ Who knows, we might have needed a witch doctor.”

But all they needed were Clark’s fingers.

“The thought that we were going to the Super Bowl was incredible,” he recalled. “I was so excited, I didn’t realize we had to kick the extra point to win the game. … At the time, I didn’t have any idea what it would come to mean.”

Established thusly an NFL biggie, the 49ers added Super Bowl victories in XIX (over Miami), XXIII (Cincinnati again), XXIV (Denver) and XXIX (San Diego), with Montana yielding to Steve Young for the last one.

Some years ago, when Clark was still in the 49ers front office, coaches showed the team a tape of the NFC title-winning drive. Said Clark, who had never seen the entire sequence: “My hands were sweaty watching it — and I know the outcome.”

Luckily, his hands weren’t sweaty when he made the Catch.

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