Monday, January 10, 2011

January 10, 1982: Montana to Clark

SAN FRANCISCO - One play, so much on the line. Third and goal from the 6, 58 seconds to play, Cowboys leading 27-21. Joe Montana calls the play in the huddle: Red Right Tight, Sprint Right Option. The 49ers had scored on that play earlier in the game when Montana had found Freddie Solomon. They were trying it again.

Montana took the snap and rolled to his right, as designed. This time, Solomon was covered. Montana is running out of space, getting close to the sideline. Ed "Too Tall" Jones was closing in on him. Then, the pump fake. A short fake pass that cased Jones to jump, rather than keep chasing Montana out of bounds. That short fake bought Montana just enough time to be able to fire the ball out of the back of the end zone and move on to the fourth-down play.

Except he wasn't throwing it away. That's a common misconception about the play, that it was intended to be a throw away. No, Montana was doing what the 49ers had practiced a lot - if Solomon was covered, throw it to the back of the end zone for Clark. So he did. He couldn't see Clark - he couldn't see the end zone at all because of Jones - but he knew where his receiver would be, so he threw it.

Clark knew the ball was coming, too. Running along the back of the end zone, he jumped high, as high as he possibly could, and reached up, reaching as high as his arms would allow. He caught the ball with this finger tips at the height of his jump, came down with both feet in the end zone, then non-chalantly spiked the ball behind his head.

Tie game. The extra point made it 28-27.

And it almost didn't matter. On the ensuing possession, Dallas' Drew Pearson appeared to have broken free on a long pass play. San Francisco's Eric Wright caught him from behind and pulled him down by the collar - a play that's illegal now, but was perfectly legal then. Wright's tackled saved the game, and after Dallas fumbled on the next play, the 49ers were going to their first Super Bowl.

The touchdown would have been famous enough standing on its own, but it's also famous because of what it stands for. It marked the end of the Dallas Cowboys' dynasty of the 1970s, and the beginning of the 49ers' dynasty of the 1980s. Take the clutch nature of the catch, the pure athletic ability needed to make it, and the historical significance, and you have a catch turning into The Catch.

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