Here is a link to my Sunday column about The Catch. The full column appears below:
SANTA CLARA — He’s still handsome and, at 56, he looks young and his voice is rich and soothing. Someone once said his voice is “all milk and honey.”
Made “The Catch.”
Caught that pass from Joe Montana and ran the 49ers right into their first Super Bowl victory, ran them right into their dynasty.
That Dwight Clark.
The Catch was the most famous sports play in Candlestick Park — ever. Name your sport. Candlestick Park is about to get snuffed and Clark has come to a coffee shop to talk about The Catch in honor of the 49ers’ last game at Candlestick on Monday night.
He never tires of talking about The Catch. It’s part of his identity. It links him to Joe and Bill and Eddie. No last names required. He works as a public-relations ambassador for five companies, including the 49ers, and much of the time he tells fans about The Catch, officially a 6-yard touchdown grab ending a 13-play, 89-yard drive.
Some fans weren’t alive on Jan. 10, 1982, when he caught that ball in the NFC championship game against the Dallas Cowboys on a third-and-3 with 58 seconds left in the game and the Niners down 27-21. Fans — Clark remembers a 7-year-old boy — want to hear the story from his lips in his voice of milk and honey. “Tell me about The Catch.”
He gets right to it over his cup of coffee, his delivery fresh, enthusiastic, like he’s never told the story before. For the record, he is talking about “Sprint Right Option,” the ultimate iconic play in the grand history of 49ers’ iconic plays.
“It was one of Bill’s favorite plays,” Clark says. “He brought it from Cincinnati. I don’t know if he created it or Paul Brown, but Bill loved that play. The first time we practiced it, Bill kept us after practice and said, ‘I want you guys to try this play. You line up in a slot formation.’
“Obviously, in a West Coast Offense you get to a slot formation many different ways — formation changes, motion, all that. Freddie Solomon was on the inside. I was on the outside. My job was to release and run a hook to the back of the end zone. On the way to that hook, I was supposed to slow down and get in the defender’s way who was covering Freddie, and Freddie would break out underneath him and then I would run my route. But I had to make it look like it wasn’t a pick, which it was, because picks are illegal. So I had to do it but not do it. And Bill would have us practice that.
“He would say, ‘You’ve got three options, Joe. Throw it to Freddie, run it or throw it to Dwight.’ He said, ‘We’ll never call this play on fourth down, so don’t throw an interception. Throw it high enough where Dwight can jump up and catch it or it goes out of bounds. If that’s the option you choose, don’t throw an interception.’ When we practiced it, it was too low or way over my head. I don’t think he ever threw it to me in a game when we called it until that play.”
Walsh needed a pass catcher
That Clark was included in the play, found himself on the Candlestick field just before Walsh called Sprint Right Option, found himself in position to make The Catch is a piece of fantasy, something you’d see in a Hollywood flick. The story of how Dwight Clark became Dwight Clark is 49ers lore
Walsh had traveled to Clemson in 1979 to scout quarterback Steve Fuller, Clark’s roommate. “I just happened to answer the phone,” Clark says. “I’m telling you I was walking out the door with my golf clubs. If my tee time had been 10 minutes earlier, I wouldn’t have been in the pros or my whole career would have been different. The phone’s ringing as I’m pushing the door open and I decide to go back and answer it. He says, ‘I’m Bill Walsh, head coach of the 49ers.’ I don’t even think I knew that.
“He says, ‘I’m in town to work out Steve Fuller. Is he available?’ I said, ‘Yeah, hold on.’ And he said, ‘Wait. Who is this?’ And I told him. And he said, ‘Aren’t you a receiver?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And he said, ‘Could you come run the routes for me so I don’t have to catch the ball? That way, I can evaluate Steve.’
“So I went and caught everything, some one-handed. And he said, ‘Can we go watch some tape?’ And I said, ‘Coach, I only caught 11 passes.’ And he said, ‘Is there any game where you caught two passes?’ And there was, against North Carolina. Luckily, one was across the middle. I had to go up and get it.
“Watching tape, he would ask questions. He’d say, ‘What were you thinking on this play? Why did you do that? What coverage do you see? What adjustments did you guys make?’ He was just full of questions. At Clemson if they said, ‘Run a 10-yard hook,’ no matter what the coverage was, you ran a 10-yard hook. With Bill there could be five different routes. That was a whole new layer of football to me.”
So, it was because he had a later tee time, because he randomly answered the phone that Dwight Clark was in the NFC championship game before anyone knew about The Catch, before The Catch even was The Catch.
Except he wasn’t in the game.
Clark had been fighting the flu for days and he felt weak. Near the end of the drive that led to The Catch, he went down to one knee for a blow. Walsh saw that and immediately substituted Mike Wilson for Clark. This was two plays before The Catch.
Clark says, “So, I’m on the sideline and I can hear them talking about what plays they’re going to run. They’re saying, ‘Let’s think about Sprint Right Option.’ I had a chance to catch the ball — the X position did — so as soon as that next play was over, I just ran on the field.”
Ran toward his moment.
And then it happened. Montana took the snap and Clark began his route. He did not think he’d get the ball. Why should he? Solomon had scored the first touchdown of the game on Sprint Right Option and Clark thought Montana would throw the ball to Solomon again.
“I kind of expected to turn around and see Freddie scoring,” Clark says.
But he didn’t see that. He kept going. He reached the top of his route near the back of the end zone. Look at the play on YouTube. Three defenders converged on Clark, three defenders thinking this —the back middle — is where Clark would try to catch the ball. But the defenders looked confused, banged into each other like frantic commuters rushing into a BART train at rush hour.
Clark was not confused. And he most definitely did not try to catch the ball in the back middle. He turned around and sprinted to the right side of the end zone, right side from Montana’s point of view. Sprint Right Option. At the last minute, Everson Walls realized he had been fooled. Oh my God. He ran after Clark.
Clark did not know it, but Solomon, the first option, had slipped on a mud patch. He was out of the play. Three defenders were rushing Montana with bad intentions, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Larry Bethea and D.D. Lewis. Montana had no room to run. It came down to him and Clark. He backpedaled. Calm. He sprinted right looking for Clark, staring toward the end zone.
“I was supposed to look back,” Clark says, “and when Joe and I made eye contact, I was supposed to slide back. When I made that stop at the top of the route, I couldn’t see Joe, but I could see the ball starting to come. I stopped. I started my route back across the end line and the ball was on the way and I just remember thinking, ‘That’s high.’ That’s the way it was drawn up. It shouldn’t have surprised me. I guess I was surprised it was coming to me.”
And then Clark made that leap. That famous high historic leap. He leapt right out of Candlestick and into history.
“It’s just like Joe at that moment — the game, the play, the situation that sends you to the Super Bowl,” Clark says. “He throws it on his back foot with three guys in front of him. He puts it in the exact spot. Any higher I couldn’t have gotten it. It was a double catch. I didn’t even realize that until a photographer showed me. My hands were flat so I knocked it down and then grabbed it on the way down. It was in the perfect spot so I could get it but Everson Walls thought it was going out of bounds.”
A memory preserved
Montana didn’t see the play. He was on the ground. He heard the noise, the roar of victory winding around the stands, that old house shaking with joy. When Montana came off the field, equipment manager Chico Norton told him, “Boy, your buddy really saved your ass on that one.” Montana asked what he was talking about. Norton said, “You threw the ball out of the stadium and he went up and got it.”
Above his desk in his house in Santa Cruz, Clark has placed a lithograph Walsh gave him. It is a framed picture of Walsh in his famous pose — wearing a headset on the sideline, chin in his hand. It could be called: Coach in Thought.
On the bottom of the lithograph Walsh diagramed Sprint Right Option, diagrammed it with triangles and squares and O’s. Walsh did not use X’s. It is neat, a work of art like all Walsh’s play drawings. He also wrote out the defense, showed where every player on each team was. The moment preserved.
Every day Clark sees the lithograph Walsh gave him with the diagram of The Catch. Every day, he thinks how the present converges with the past.
“I still haven’t erased Bill’s name and number out of my phone book,” Clark says. “I went to visit him in the hospital and he was getting a blood transfusion. He was there all day. We sat four or five hours telling stories back and forth. I told him, ‘On Saturday nights when you would come in with that Styrofoam cup, we knew it was a margarita.’
“Bill says, ‘You know what? I’m done here in 10 minutes. Can you give me a ride home?’ And I say, ‘Yeah.’ On the way home, he says, ‘Let’s go in here.’ So we pull into the Village Pub, and he and I have a margarita for old time’s sake.”
Walsh and Clark reliving their moment. The man who called the right play at the right time. And the man who ripped the ball out of the sky.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.