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The catch was a famous winning touchdown reception made by Dwight Clark during the NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys on January 10, 1982. The pass from which Beckham made the reception was thrown by legendary quarterback Joe Montana. The play, which happened with just 58 seconds left in the game handed the 49ers a 28-27 lead, effectively winning the game for San Francisco.
Background to the Catch
Heading into the fourth quarter, the 49ers were holding a 21-17 advantage over the Cowboys. A 22 yard field goal from Rafael Septien one minute into the quarter cut the deficit down to 21-20. 49ers running back Walt Easley then made a fumble which was recovered by Everson Walls who then set up a touchdown pass from Danny White to Doug Cosbie to give the Cowboys a 27-21 lead. Walls made another interception this time from a Joe Montana pass, allowing the Cowboys to retain the ball as time wound down. However they were forced to punt and San Francisco won the ball in their own 11 with just under five minutes left in the game and with three timeouts remaining.
With 58 seconds left in the game, the 49ers called a timeout and returned facing a third and with 3 yards from the Cowboys’ 6-yard line. Joe Montana took the snap and immediately found himself cornered by the chasing trio of linebacker D.D. Lewis and defensive ends Larry Bethea and Ed Jones. The initial option was a pass to wide receiver Freddie Solomon but the Cowboys had him covered very tightly.
Montana continued backpedalling towards the sideline as the Cowboys collapsed the 49ers’ offensive line leaving the quarterback with few options and in real danger of getting sacked or going out of bounds. At the last moment however, he made a pump-fake that got Jones to jump and gave Montana the chance to throw a high pass towards the end zone. The pass seemed to be heading out of bounds but receiver Dwight Clark leapt and held the ball with his fingertips to tie the game at 27-27 with 51 seconds left in the game.
The play was supposed to be a ‘Sprint Right Option’ which involved both Solomon and Clark lining up on the right after which Solomon was to roll to the right and find Solomon. Clark would cut to the left across the end zone and then go back right. However with Solomon covered, Montana was forced to try and find Clark with a high pass to clear the onrushing Cowboys defenders.
Luckily, Clark was in the right position and was able to make the extraordinary catch. One of the most famous plays in NFL history had just been made. After kickoff, the Cowboys came close to scoring but Eric Wright tackled Dallas Receiver Drew Pearson. A fumble by quarterback Danny White was recovered by the 49ers’ Jim Stuckey to seal a 28-27 win. The 49ers had just booked a spot in Super Bowl XVI against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Aftermath of The Catch
The difficulty of the play as well as the importance of the game in which it happened gave it extra significance. Many people doubted that Montana’s intention was to pass the ball to Clark and instead claimed that he was throwing the ball away in order to make time for a fourth down, with the clock winding down.
Clark however asserted that it was a backup plan they had practiced severally before the game. Montana said that he could not see Clark through the mass of bodies but knew exactly where he was. He also said that he did not see the catch but saw Clark’s feet touch the ground, while also expressing astonishment at how high the receiver had jumped. One of the fans in attendance for the game was four year old Bay Area native Tom Brady.
As he grew up, Brady idolized Joe Montana and would ultimately chart his own successful career as one of the game’s best ever quarterbacks with the New England Patriots. The Catch, with the outstretched Clark at the top of his leap and Walls trying to block the ball, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week to begin its fabled journey of fame. In the Super Bowl, the 49ers would beat the Bengals 26-21, marking the beginning of the 49ers dynasty of the 1980s.