40 Years Ago: ‘The Catch’ Changes Football, and a City, Forever
When quarterback Joe Montana found Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone for a game-winning touchdown in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, it marked significant turning points in the history of the NFL and the city of San Francisco.
During the 1981 season, the 49ers had been surprising juggernauts. Even the most ardent of fans couldn’t have predicted the team, which was 6-10 a season earlier, would suddenly become one of the league’s most talented squads. But the 49ers compiled a 13-3 record in 1981, won the NFC West and defeated the New York Giants in the divisional round.
The NFC Championship Game would pit San Francisco against the formidable Dallas Cowboys, a perennial playoff team that had been to the Super Bowl four times in the previous 10 seasons.
“The Dallas Cowboys had just beaten our brains out for years and years and years,” recalled rocker Huey Lewis, a passionate Niners fan who was in attendance at the 1981 NFC Championship Game. “And then ‘The Catch’ happened.”
Dallas had taken a 27-21 lead with less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Beginning at his own 11-yard line, Montana began methodically leading the 49ers down the field. With a little less than a minute to go, they’d be knocking on the the door of a potential game winning touchdown.
Niners coach Bill Walsh called a play for Montana to throw to wide receiver Freddie Solomon. Clark’s job would be to set a pick, effectively getting in the way of Solomon’s defender to allow him to get open. As it was drawn up, Clark was really only an emergency receiving option should the defense disrupt the play. However, things didn’t go to plan.
“It was the craziest play,” Montana later recalled. “We ran this play so many times before.”
Solomon slipped while running his route, immediately altering things. With rushers bearing down on him and his line of vision blocked, Montana heaved the ball toward the area he hoped Clark would be.
“I was supposed to throw it high but not that high,” the quarterback later admitted. “When I let it go, I didn’t think it was that high.”
The six-foot-four Clark leaped in the air and caught the ball with his fingertips, just landing in bounds to give the Niners the victory.
“I remember thinking ‘I can’t believe we beat the Dallas Cowboys. We finally beat the Dallas Cowboys,’” Lewis recalled. “That was amazing.”
The winning play was quickly dubbed “The Catch” and immediately found sports immortality. Clark’s grab would be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and later included in commercials and TV shows.
San Francisco's dramatic win was the crown jewel in an especially memorable NFL postseason. Just a week earlier, the San Diego Chargers had defeated the Miami Dolphins in a grueling overtime game dubbed "The Epic in Miami," and the same day as "The Catch," the Cincinnati Bengals punched their ticket to the Super Bowl by defeating the Chargers in the coldest game in NFL history, since known as "The Freezer Bowl."
For the NFL, the 49ers victory and ensuing Super Bowl championship proved that a team running a west coast offense - a strategy utilizing short passing routes as opposed to plodding, running plays - could succeed at the highest level. It also ushered in football’s newest dynasty, as the Niners would go on to dominate the ‘80s, winning a total of four titles across the decade.
Still, the biggest ripple effect of “The Catch” wasn’t felt on the football field, but in the city of San Francisco itself. “For San Francisco, it was something we could all be proud [of],” Lewis explained, noting that the 49ers victory ushered in a resurgence for the city following many tumultuous years. “Coming out of the ‘70s were really kind of ugly for San Francisco. We had the Zodiac [Killer], and you had the SLA [Symbionese Liberation Army, known for the kidnapping of Patty Hearst] and you had the Superspade on Haight-Ashbury [the murder of William “Superspade” Thomas]. Haight-Ashbury was all turning terrible, the ‘60s thing had all turned awful, and the 49ers really saved us from that.”
Montana would go on to win two MVPs, earning induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000. He is commonly regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Clark, meanwhile, spent nine years playing for the 49ers before his retirement in 1987. He served as an executive for the team for more than a decade and remained involved behind-the-scenes up until his death in 2018. Less than five months later, the Niners erected a statue at their new home, Levi’s Stadium, immortalizing “The Catch.”
“I always tell Dwight that he didn’t have to make it so dramatic,” Montana said at the unveiling ceremony. “Kick his legs up. Throw his hands out. ‘Just catch the ball.’ And if he was here today, I know what he’d be telling me. He’d be whispering in my ear, ‘You know they didn’t call it ‘The Throw’ for a reason.”