“The Catch” Was So Much More!

We all have that one game that stands out to us. It may have been a great game, a strange game, a disappointing loss. Maybe even a little bit of everything. To me that game was the 1981 NFC Championship game against San Francisco. I recently had the pleasure of reading “The Catch” by Gary Myers. He tells the story of the great NFC Championship game back in 1981, along with other stories in the years leading up to the game as well as stories  years after the game for both the 49ers and the Cowboys.

On the Cowboys side he tells of the relationship that coach Tom Landry had with his players. How he loved his players, but always knew where the line was as far as being too close because after all, this was a business and there was always that chance he would have to cut someone one day.

He tells the story about Danny White and how he could have been considered an elite quarterback in the NFL if he had just won one of the three NFC Championship games from the early 80’s. Also, how he began to lose the respect of this teammates during the 1982 strike when he sided with management.

Said Tom Landry…

“Danny White was probably as fine a winner as we have had in football. He wasn’t gifted as some quarterbacks were, but he knew how to win football games. I don’t think anybody could have followed Roger (Staubach) and done as well as Danny. If we got to the Super Bowl in 1981, we might have won the Super Bowl a couple more times. I think Danny would have gotten us there again. Danny was a solid winner and nobody recognized that too much”

Gary Myers also tells how coach Tom Landry passed on Joe Montana in the 1979 NFL Draft as well as Walter Payton in 1974 and Dan Marino in 1983.

The story of Bill Walsh and how the 49ers organization turned everything around and became the team of the 80’s. The relationship between Joe Montana and Dwight Clark and whether or not Montana really was throwing the ball to Clark on that last touchdown or was he simply trying to throw it away?

All of this and so much more as these were stories that led up to the 1981 NFC Championship game and how the two teams went in different directions after the game. Gary Myers captures it all and brings it all back after 29 years.

As far as myself, this game has always stayed with me. It’s always been a game that I thought the Cowboys should have won. A game that over the years I have also come to realize was one of the greatest games I have ever watched. The Cowboys and the 49ers were the two best teams in the NFL that year. This game was the Super Bowl as far as I’m concerned. They battled for four quarters. Back and forth with six lead changes. And it all came down to one play. Not “The Catch” as it became known as, but “The Fumble” that most fans don’t even remember.

There was only 47 seconds left in the game when the Cowboys got the ball back after Dwight Clark scored giving the 49ers a 28-27 lead. The Cowboys also had two timeouts. Plenty of time for America’s Team. On their first play Danny White connected with Drew Pearson (which was his only catch of the day) for a 31 yard gain to the 49ers 44 yard line. Pearson would have most likely scored, but it was Eric Wright who got hold of Pearson’s jersey and was able to drag him down. That tackle would have been a horse collar today. History would have changed if Pearson could have broke away from Wright’s tackle. Now with 38 seconds left on the clock all the Cowboys needed was another 14 yards to get in range for a Rafael Septien field goal attempt. Only 14 more yards! But on the next play with the 49ers rush all around Danny White, the ball came loose and the 49ers recovered.  White argued that his arm was going forward at the time.

“My arm was going forward. I was throwing the ball. I told Jim (Jim Tunney, who was the referee) , but he said no. He said my arm was coming up rather than throwing. Tony (Hill) was open on the sidelines. I knew the rush was closing in, but I didn’t feel any guy in particular. I didn’t want to take a sack. I was in the middle of throwing when I got hit”

It’s just amazing to think how so many things could have changed in those last 58 seconds for both teams. What if Dwight Clark never caught the ball? What if Drew Pearson was never tackled? What if Danny White never fumbled?

Danny White left the ball on the ground that afternoon as well as the Cowboys dreams of a Super Bowl. The team was in shock as well as the fans. But 29 years later the game is still talked about and is still considered one of the greatest games of all time.

Gary Myers “The Catch” is a book that once you start it you won’t want to put it down. There were many things that Mr. Myers wrote about that surprised me about the Cowboys over those years before and after the 1981 NFC Championship game. Here are a few…

It was defensive coordinator Ernie Stautner who with 4:54 left in the game and the 49ers on their own 11 yard line, wanted to run his nickel defense. It was also safety Charlie Waters who confronted Stautner about what a bad idea it was to be in the Nickel defense with so much time left on the clock. Stautner told Waters…

“Look, we’ll get out of the nickel, but it’s going to be all on you”

…meaning that Waters would have to answer to coach Landry. And Waters responded…

“No thanks”

For the entire 49ers final drive the Cowboys played their Nickel defense up until that last play when the 49ers scored.

Before the 1979 draft the Cowboys had their three quarterbacks (Roger Staubach, Danny White and Glenn Carano). Coach Landry thought Joe Montana was a wasted draft pick, saying…

“If we take him, I’ll probably cut him in training camp”

“I don’t know if initially he will be better than the guys we got”

Back in 1974 the Cowboys traded quarterback Craig Morton to the Giants for their 1st round pick in 1975, which turned out to be the 2nd pick overall. That pick turned out to be Randy White.

Before the 1981 Draft the Cowboys offered the New Orleans Saints who had the 1st overall pick that year, their own 1st rd pick (26th) along with running back Ron Springs, defensive tackle Larry Bethea and linebacker Guy Brown for the Saints 1st pick. The Cowboys wanted to trade up to draft Lawrence Taylor, but the Saints said no and then drafted running back George Rodgers and the Giants of course drafted LT with the #2 pick.

During the 1988 season (before Jerry Jones came to town), Tex Schramm wanted Jimmy Johnson to be the Cowboys defensive coordinator in hopes that he would replace coach Landry when he retired. This was mainly because the Eagles were interested in Johnson as their head coach in 1989. Of course we all know what happened after the 1988 season ended.

The difficult times of Drew Pearson as he lost his father before Thanksgiving in 1980, but still played in the Thanksgiving Day game. Then in 1984 the car he was driving crashed into a truck killing his younger brother. Pearson to this day has no idea what happened. The accident also ended his football career due to a lacerated kidney. His depression from the loss of his brother and his family never telling him that he was not to blame. Then on Christmas Eve 2001 teammate and best friend Harvey Martin passed away. Pearson stayed with Martin instead of going to see his mother for Christmas and a month later his mother passed away. All these things and more that he still lives with today.

The special friendship between Everson Walls and Ron Springs. The decision by Walls to give up one of his own kidneys to save Springs life. Also, how he lived with being the defender on the Dwight Clark touchdown pass. How he never put much thought into it being such an historic game.

“The Catch” has all of this and so much more. Gary Myers takes you back to one of the greatest games ever played and also takes you down roads that you have never been down before. Although the game still hurts 29 years later, it’s still one of the greatest games between two great teams. Thank you Gary Myers for writing such a great book.

After All These Years…Everyone Still Talks About “The Catch”…

The six most important yards in 49er history were gained in a way that was awfully close to poetic. Even a cynic would have to admit that much.

Joe Montana rolled right, holding the ball, tapping it once or twice. You’ve seen it, over and over and over. Dallas Cowboys linemen in pursuit, the fans in the orange Candlestick background standing with their mouths open and their hearts firing like a Briggs and Stratton.

It was called Sprint Right Option, and it was third and three from the six-yard line, with less than 90 seconds to play in the 1981 NFC championship game. The 49ers trailed the Cowboys by six points, and Montana was rolling out so deliberately that the sideline became a concern.

To the untrained eye, it appeared Montana was wandering right, hoping more than devising, maybe even looking for a way out. But by that time, with Montana and the 49ers proceeding deep into their first — and most improbable — Super Bowl run, everybody had learned to admire and not question.

He threw it, finally, off his back foot and slightly across his body. His flamingo legs scissored a little from the torque, and it looked for the entire world like a throwaway, with everybody walking back to the huddle to confront fourth down.

But Dwight Clark caught it. He reached above the unfortunate immortality of Everson Walls and caught the ball in the back of the end zone. Those faces in the stands thawed into a delirium of incredulity and joy. Back then, the idea of a Super Bowl was new and unexpected. 

Clark seemed to spike the ball before he landed. Clark later said “his mind raced with disbelief and excitement”. “The thought that we were going to the Super Bowl was incredible”. He was so excited that he didn’t realize they had to kick the extra point to win the game. He just figured they had scored and it was over.

At the time, no one had any idea what it would come to mean. Nobody did. Nobody realized how bitter the San Francisco fans were toward the Cowboys. No one paid any attention to what happened in the early 1970’s.

There was some history lurking in the background of “The Catch”, as well. In the 1980 regular season, the Cowboys beat the 49ers 59-14, scoring until they simply could not score again. Then, in the ’81 regular season, the 49ers beat the Cowboys 45-14, prompting the Dallas players to say the real Cowboy team didn’t show up.

The Cowboys were looking forward to seeing the 49ers again. Once again it was the same result.

Clark was not the primary receiver on what became the signature play of the Montana legend. In fact, the 49ers had scored a touchdown in the first quarter on the very same play — Sprint Right Option — when Montana hit Freddie Solomon, the first option. But this time Solomon slipped coming off the line of scrimmage and Montana’s assignment — as per the intricate dealings of Bill Walsh — called for him to continue to roll out, and continue to hold the ball until Clark could slide into position.

The play was designed so that by the time he threw it, the ball either goes out of bounds or is caught. The now 49ers’ Director of Player Personnel has been asked many times. “Was Montana trying to throw the ball away”? Clark simply answers, “No, it was a spectacular throw, made under duress.” “It was thrown exactly where it needed to be thrown”.

When Montana threw the ball, Walls had to think it was out bounds. When Clark slid back there, Walls was right beside him, in the only spot he could have been.

Walls ended up being helpless, both then and on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In much the same way as “The Catch” is seen as the catapulting force for the 49ers dominance in the ’80s, Walls’ helplessness is seen as the symbolic anchor drop of the Cowboys’ fall.

Mostly forgotten is the drive that preceded “The Catch”. It started at the 49er 11-yard line and began with just under five minutes to play.

During the TV timeout, the 49ers didn’t know if they had time for it. They just kept saying “we can do it”!  

So, I wonder if after all these years, you think new head coach Mike Singletary will show the team the clip of “The Catch”.

After all these years there is still some legend. The drive ended with Clark and Montana covering the six most important six yards ever traveled by the 49ers. You could make the case that those six yards made everything that followed possible.

“I think that whole season was the end of the bad old days”, Clark says. “And judging from the way it’s still re-lived, that one play is seen as the culmination”.

Go Cowboys!!

Cowboys 31-14