The Catch triggered reversal of fortune for 49ers, Cowboys

SEIZING A NEW ORDER

January 17, 1993|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

The play is etched indelibly in Charlie Waters' mind. Even now, he can still see it unfold with freeze-frame clarity.

There was the sprint right by the quarterback, the desperate pursuit of the defensive charge, the sideline drawing close, the pass angling toward the end zone, and then, finally, The Catch.

A wrenching, agonizing catch for one team. An unbelievable, exhilarating catch for the other.

Dwight Clark towered over Everson Walls in the end zone to spear the pass from Joe Montana that was headed for the cheap seats of Candlestick Park. It was a play that unleashed a chain reaction of history-making events.

With that pass, the San Francisco 49ers were able to defeat the Dallas Cowboys, 28-27, in a monumental playoff game on Jan. 10, 1982. With that pass, reputations were forged, careers forever altered, one NFL dynasty launched, another pushed to the precipice.

Waters, a free safety in the final game of a distinguished career with the Cowboys at the time, remembers it as a "horrible, monster nightmare." He drifts between past tense and present tense, between angst and admiration for Clark and Montana, as he dives back through time.

"I saw him scrambling," Waters said of Montana. "I saw the ball in flight. I calculated the trajectory. In my mind, I was already working on the next defensive call. I saw Clark bounce off the trampoline they had hidden under the turf . . .

"I fall to my knees, bury my face in green kitty litter."

Pause.

"It still bothers me."

It took Dallas a decade to recover from the loss. Banks failed, the oil business dried up, and the Texas real-estate market collapsed before Jimmy Johnson arrived on the scene in 1989 to re-create the America's Team phenomenon. It took the 49ers years before they realized what they had accomplished in the swamp that passed for a football field that day. Four Super Bowl trophies later, they know now it was the beginning of a glorious era.

Eleven years after the 49ers defrocked the Cowboys in that NFC championship game, history has a chance to come full circle. When the two teams meet in another Candle stick quagmire this afternoon -- and another NFC championship game -- they will play a game of role reversal.

Now it's the 49ers who represent the NFL's shining franchise. And it's the Cowboys who saunter in as the young team on the rise.

A memory that doesn't fade

The Catch has taken on a life of its own. It was immortalized by Kodak and NFL Films. The ball that Clark caught that day rests inhis Redwood City, Calif., restaurant -- Clark's By the Bay -- along with blown-up pictures of the play. There is rarely a public occasion where Clark isn't asked about The Catch, or reminded of it.

It outlasts the memory of the 49ers' 26-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI two weeks later. Randy Cross, a CBS analyst now and an offensive guard for the 49ers then, remembers that Super Bowl as "almost a letdown."

"That game was a validation," Cross said of the victory over Dallas. "I grew up watching football. To play the Dallas Cowboys in your stadium for the NFC championship. . . how excited can you get playing the Cincinnati Bengals two weeks later? But there was so much tradition [in the Dallas game], a passing between eras. I was as excited as I've ever been."

But even after Clark capped an 89-yard, 13-play drive with his catch, the 49ers needed more heroics to secure the victory.

They needed Ray Wersching's extra-point kick to break the 27-all tie with 51 seconds left.

And they needed a game-saving tackle by rookie defensive back Eric Wright, who caught Dallas wide receiver Drew Pearson at the San Francisco 44 after a 31-yard pass play moments later.

Quarterback Danny White hit Pearson on a crossing route as defensive backs Ronnie Lott and Carlton Williamson collided in the secondary. Pearson had an open field in front of him when Wright dragged him down from behind with 38 seconds left.

"It was a great play," Lott said. "I knew Eric would catch him on that field. The key was to bring him down. I just said to myself, 'I hope he holds on.' "

Wright, now an assistant 49ers coach, did. "He was gone if I hadn't got him," Wright said. "I got him right in the back, put up one hand and pulled him down. I caught him right back in the pads."

The 49ers didn't put away the Cowboys until defensive end Lawrence Pillers sacked White on the next play and forced a fumble. The 49ers' Jim Stuckey recovered at the 50 with 30 seconds left and Montana kneeled twice to close out the game.

The game was not without debate. To this day, the Cowboys believe Montana was actually trying to throw the ball out of bounds on third down. Montana insists the pass is in the 49ers playbook.

"He'll never admit it," said Waters, "but Joe was throwing it out of the end zone."

Waters is right. Montana doesn't admit it.

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