The play shouldn’t have worked. Every time Joe Montana and Dwight Clark ran the Sprint Wide Option in practice, they could not convert. But it only needed to work one time. That one time became one of the most famous plays in NFL history. In an instant, the 49ers changed their fortunes forever. The Cowboys had to wait a decade to rediscover theirs.
1. Not too long before Montana threw the ball up in the sky, nobody believed he or Clark would make any sort of impact on the football field. Today “The Catch” is one of the first football highlights that comes to mind.
Dallas could have had Joe Montana in 1979. Months before the draft, Montana toppled Houston by leading a 22-point, 4th quarter comeback in the Cotton Bowl. Tom Landry liked him, but he didn’t really like him. “If we take him, I’ll probably cut him in training camp,” the Hall of Fame coach said. Nevermind that Montana was the highest player on the ‘Boys board, and since when did Dallas not take the best available? (10, Catch)
The phone call Dwight Clark got wasn’t even for him. Bill Walsh called to see Clark’s roommate work out. It just so happened that Steve Fuller wasn’t ready, and Walsh did not want to be kept waiting. He watched Clark work out instead. Leading up to the draft, Walsh kept hearing that Clark would go undrafted. Selecting him would be a waste. Walsh listened for a while, but he eventually went against his advisors. Montana and Clark, the two afterthoughts, were destined to be forever remembered together.
2. You might as well be in the backfield during the fateful drive, thanks to Myers’ narration.
Montana’s end zone heave to Clark was exactly what every boy thinks about before he goes to bed. In San Francisco’s version, the Niners found themselves trailing by one point on the six-yard line with 58 seconds on the clock. “[Montana] was the calmest in the huddle when he should have been the most nervous,” Clark said. “The moment was not too big for him.” (216)
The Sprint Wide Option play call from Walsh never worked in practice. Heck, Clark wasn’t even Montana’s first choice. The ball was supposed to go to Freddie Solomon. That’s how it was supposed to go in the 1982 NFC Championship Game too. Instead, as the make-or-break play unfolded, Solomon slipped. Montana was well aware of Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Larry Bethea and D.D. Lewis coming fast and furious toward him. Clark couldn’t see Montana, but the QB kept his eye on the receiver the whole time. All he could do was throw it up, wait for the beating and leave it to the crowd to tell him whether Clark made the grab.
3. Bill Walsh and Tom Landry are two legends in their own right and central to this story.
Bill Walsh was 47 when Eddie DeBartolo Jr. hired him. Walsh looked like he was 57, so he was all-too aware that the pressure was on. He didn’t start well (8-24 first two seasons.) Initially Walsh didn’t know whether to yell, bully or plead. Apparently he learned, as he’s been likened to Vince Lombardi.
Walsh became a players’ favorite. Landry didn’t allow himself to have those sorts of relationships, though the Cowboys head man made sure to let his players know he cared about them. Landry was stoic and didn’t need words to get his point across. He was old-school, Myers wrote. That, and “The Catch” were two significant reasons why Landry was relieved of his duties. Landry went from feared to misunderstood by new-school players.
Sadly, both Landry and Walsh died of leukemia. What a legacy they left, forever linked by “The Catch.”
Sam Miller is the founder of Sam’s Dream Blog. A graduate of the University of Illinois, he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. At the University of Illinois, Miller regularly wrote feature stories about the football team. He has also served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.