TAMPA, Fla. -- Everson Walls saw a familiar face when he walked onto the field at Candlestick Park Sunday -- Dwight Clark.
"I think they had him out there just to kind of psych me out a little bit. You come right out of the locker room and all you've heard about is 'The Catch' and then as soon as I come out, there's Dwight," Walls said yesterday.
Walls added with a smile, "It looked like he'd gotten taller."
Nine years ago on that same field, Clark -- now a 49ers front-office executive -- made a leaping catch in the end zone that is now part of football lore.
It gave the San Francisco 49ers a 28-27 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the 1981 National Football Conference championship game and sent them to the first of their four Super Bowls.
The cornerback covering him was a rookie named Everson Walls.
That catch kept Walls out of the Super Bowl, and he didn't make it during his 10-year career until the New York Giants upset the 49ers Sunday, 15-13, in the NFC title game.
Walls has seen the replays of the catch that cost him so heavily more times than he'd like to remember.
"At the time, it was really heartbreaking," he said.
Walls, though, has learned to shrug it off.
"My sensation is pretty much numb to the event right now. I see it here. I see it there. I see pictures. It's almost funny now. It's almost hilarious," he said.
Walls still contends that quarterback Joe Montana was trying to throw the ball away when he lofted the high pass while scrambling to his right.
"I thought he was throwing it away. I heard he admitted it to one guy, a former player at some banquet, but every time the cameras are rolling, he says he was trying to hit it. Hey, if I could be associated with a play like that in a positive manner, I'd tell them I meant to do it as well," Walls said.
The memories of that play are one of the reasons Walls is savoring the Giants' trip to the Super Bowl as much as any player on the team.
To come back almost a decade later and beat the same team on the same field added an extra touch.
"I never thought the scenario would be that sweet. You can never erase . . . the catch by Dwight Clark. But to come back 10 years later and have the sweet revenge was pretty sweet," he said.
If the Giants hadn't rallied to win on Matt Bahr's field goal on the final play of the game, Walls would have been haunted again by the 49ers because his gamble cost the team the only touchdown the Giants' defense gave up.
He tried to intercept a pass that John Taylor caught and turned into a 61-yard touchdown play.
Walls said his teammates helped him cope with that mistake.
"Once the initial shock was over, no one on my bench really said any type of doomsday [things] to me. We went out and continued to shut them down," Walls said.
Walls said even after "The Catch" and the loss to the Washington Redskins in the 1982 NFC title game, he never gave up hope he would eventually get to the Super Bowl.
dTC "I always felt like we had a chance each training camp because there was always so much optimism when you've got a coach like [Tom] Landry and players with a lot of talent," he said.
But the players grew old, the Cowboys kept misfiring in the draft and by 1988, the team sank to 3-13.
Jerry Jones then bought the team, fired Landry and installed his college roommate, Jimmy Johnson, as head coach.
During Johnson's nightmarish 1-15 first season, Walls didn't fit in. Johnson was going with younger players and he blew up when Walls talked with Roy Green of the Phoenix Cardinals on the field after a game.
"I think that was the beginning of the beginning for me," Walls said with a smile.
Walls said the last time he saw Green, he thanked him "for putting me on my way."
After being dumped, Walls talked to the 49ers and was interested, but they signed two other veteran defensive backs, David Waymer and Hanford Dixon, so Walls went to the Giants.
Dixon retired at the end of training camp and Walls worked his way into the Giants' starting lineup.
"My whole career has been pretty much Cinderella since coming out of college," he said.
He made it with the Cowboys as a free agent out of Grambling with his hometown team and then found a second career when his hometown team let him go.
Walls will play a big role in the Super Bowl against the Buffalo Bills because he'll be calling the defensive signals against Jim Kelly's no-huddle offense.
"You have to recognize the offensive personnel and the formations and you have to know all of that within a split second. We're thinking about coming up with something special. I may be directly involved in that," he said.
For Walls, just playing in the game will be something special.