The NFL postseason has provided many memorable moments. The greatest of these games/plays generally have nicknames that immortalize them. On Jan. 10, 1982, one such moment took place in the closing moments of the NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys at Candlestick Park. It is simply known as The Catch.
The ’81 NFC title game had all the hype commonly associated with a championship boxing match. It featured the conference’s two best teams: the 13-3 49ers (the No. 1 seed) and the 12-4 Cowboys (the No. 2 seed). The teams were coached by two future Hall of Famers in Bill Walsh (49ers) and Tom Landry (Cowboys). In addition, there were a combined five future Hall of Fame players who participated in the game.
The game was exceptionally close throughout. Dallas had the largest lead after wide receiver Doug Cosbie caught a 21-yard touchdown pass from Danny White to take a 27-21 lead early in the fourth quarter. It appeared the Cowboys were in firm control after 49ers quarterback Joe Montana was intercepted by cornerback Everson Walls on the 49ers’ ensuing drive.
Dallas picked up a few first downs after Walls’ interception but couldn’t close the deal and were forced to punt. The 49ers started from their own 11-yard line with 4:54 left in regulation and all three timeouts.
Montana led his offense 83 yards to the Cowboys’ 6 on 13 plays. After burning their second timeout, the 49ers faced 3rd-and-3 with 58 seconds remaining. Legendary broadcaster Vin Scully was on the call, saying Landry “was six yards away from his sixth Super Bowl” while “the upstart 49ers were six yards away from Pontiac” (Mich., home of the Silverdome and site of Super Bowl XVI).
The official play call of The Catch was Sprint Right Option. The 49ers lined up in a split backs formation with Freddie Solomon lined up in the right slot and Dwight Clark outside of Solomon, wide to the right. It was intended to be a pick-play to set up a quick pass to Solomon, who scored a touchdown earlier in the game using the same play.
“I knew I had a chance to get the ball,” Clark said in an interview on 49ers.com. “But my main job was to help get Freddie open. I didn’t know it at the time, he slipped in the mud there, and it gave his defender a chance to cover him up.”
Solomon did indeed slip while running his route, throwing off the timing of the play because Clark was no longer in position to set the pick. The Cowboys defense was able to take Solomon out of the play. In addition, the Cowboys pass rush collapsed on the 49ers offensive line. Defensive ends Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Larry Bethea as well as linebacker D.D. Lewis chased Montana (who was backpedaling by this point) toward the sideline. It seemed that Montana would either be sacked or forced out of bounds.
At the last possible second, Montana used a pump-fake to get the 6-foot-9 Jones to jump. He then threw a high pass to the back of the end zone that looked like it was going to sail out of bounds before Clark (who was 6-foot-4 and able to dunk a basketball with two hands while standing underneath the rim) leaped to make the touchdown grab over Walls.
“Luckily, Dwight remembered what he was supposed to do—continue along the back of the end-line—and I’m supposed to throw it above his head and so that if he doesn’t catch it, no one does,” Montana said in an interview on 49ers.com. “When I let it go, I thought it was an arm’s length above his head, so I didn’t really see it until we got into the locker room.”
San Francisco won the game 28-27. Two weeks later, they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals for the first of their five Lombardi Trophies in 14 seasons. Dallas reached the NFC Championship Game in the strike-shortened 1982 season, losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins. The Cowboys would not advance that deep in the postseason again until 1992 (four years after the firing of Landry), when they won Super Bowl XXVII.
The Catch was the beginning of Montana’s transformation into Joe Cool. He threw three interceptions and lost a fumble before hitting Clark for the go-ahead score that launched a dynasty.
“When it had to be in a certain spot, with three guys in his face and off his back-foot, Joe puts it in the exact spot that it had to be. Any lower, Everson Walls, who was right beside me, would have gone up with me, and it would have been a much tougher catch,” Clark said. “As Everson looked at it, he thought it was going out of bounds, it was a double-catch. I knocked it down, my hands were flat. It was a perfect throw and just how Bill told him to do it.”
The Catch is one of the most significant plays in NFL history and one of the league’s most indelible images.
Photographers captured Clark’s Super Bowl-clinching touchdown from different angles. An end-zone view of The Catch was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The ’81 NFC Championship Game was named No. 3 on the NFL Network’s Top 10 Games With Names with only the Immaculate Reception and Ice Bowl ranking higher. The Catch was named the No. 1 play in the history of Candlestick Park, which was demolished in 2013.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady attended the ’81 NFC Championship Game as a four-year-old. He has often said it was that game (and The Catch in particular) which made him a Montana fan and started him on the path to becoming an NFL quarterback.
“Yeah, I was. I think four years old and my parents brought me. I cried—I wanted one of those foam fingers and I cried the entire first half. Finally, my dad bought me one to shut me up for the second half,” Brady said in a 2016 interview. “I remember we were on the opposite side of the stadium, and I started crying when everyone jumped up and screamed at the end when Dwight made The Catch. I still have those memories.”
Brady, who grew up in San Mateo, Calif., also got a chance to meet Clark as a youngster because they went to the same orthodontist.
Statues commemorating The Catch were unveiled outside the northwestern gate of Levi’s Stadium in an area accessible to the general public on game days before the 49ers’ Week 7 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams. The first statue features Montana with his arms raised in celebration. Twenty-three yards away is a statue of Clark jumping and making The Catch with a diagram of Sprint Right Option underneath. These statues are the first created by the team placed outside the stadium.
The unveiling was a bittersweet occasion. In March 2017, Clark announced he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, formerly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) two years earlier. He succumbed to the disease on June 4 at his home near Whitefish, Mont. at the age of 61.
Montana remembered his former teammate and the play that etched them into NFL history.
“I always told Dwight that he didn’t have to make it so dramatic and kick his legs up, throw his hands up. Just catch the ball,” Montana said. “But if he were here today, I know what he’d be telling me. He’d be whispering in my ear: ‘I know they didn’t call it The Throw for a reason.’”
The significance of the Catch to the 49ers and their fans cannot be overstated.
“There’s absolutely no question about what the best moment in the history of the San Francisco 49ers is, the best play,” 49ers CEO Jed York said. “The only argument is was it the best play in the history of the NFL?”