Good, the Bad, and the Ugly San Francisco 49ers: Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from San Franciso 49ers Historyby Steven Travers, Bob St. Clair (Foreword by)
Genuine fans take the best team moments with the less than great, and know that the games that are best forgotten make the good moments truly shine. This monumental book of the San Francisco 49ers documents all the best moments and personalities in the history of the team, but also unmasks the regrettably awful and the unflinchingly ugly. In entertaining—and unsparing—fashion, this book sparkles with 49ers highlights and lowlights, from wonderful and wacky memories to the famous and infamous. Such moments include “the Catch” and the magic of Super Bowl XXIX, as well as the joke Gale Sayers made of the 49ers defense one muddy day in 1965 and the 1972 playoff loss to Dallas. Whether providing fond memories, goose bumps, or laughs, this portrait of the team is sure to appeal to the fan who has been through it all.
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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: San Francisco 49ers
Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from San Francisco 49ers History
By Steven Travers
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2009 Steven Travers
All rights reserved.
When it comes to the San Francisco 49ers, everything comes down to this day, this game, this moment: the Catch. It is the Holy Grail of the franchise, the parting of the Red Sea by which a flood of glory days follow.
The date was January 10, 1982. It had been an unusually rainy season in the Bay Area. Major floods created havoc on the Russian River and in Marin County just two weeks earlier, but the City was drying out when the Dallas Cowboys rode into town for the NFC Championship Game.
The Cowboys were still the Cowboys. Roger Staubach was no longer their quarterback, replaced by Danny White, but Tom Landry was their coach, and they had all the swagger of the 1970s teams that went to five Super Bowls and won two of them.
Up until that day, the 49ers were suspect. They had been desultory in the mid- to late 1970s. Bill Walsh was a successful college coach, but by no means the Genius. They were coming off a 6–10 year and under Joe Montana had gone 13–3, but Joe was not yet the Greatest Quarterback of All Time.
This was Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Grant taking Richmond, the von Rundstedt Plan in 1914. It was San Francisco's bid for immortality.
While the 49ers are remembered for the offensive exploits of Montana, it was defense that powered them. Jerry Rice was years from becoming a Niner. They had little in the way of a running game. But they had a rookie defensive back from USC named Ronnie Lott, who put the fear of God in opposing ball carriers. Veterans Fred Dean and Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds had come over via trades. Hungry for championships that had eluded them throughout their careers, they spurred the team on.
"Going to the 49ers was like a breath of fresh air for me, a new start," said Dean. "They were underestimated in '81, and we took a lot of teams by surprise. But by the Dallas game, people knew we were for real. That game was important to the franchise. And the Catch? Well, the Catch was the most important play of the season. Getting to the Super Bowl is every player's dream. It was the Catch that put us there."
The Catch was thrown by Joe Montana, whose name resonates in the world of sports and celebrity like that of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Muhammad Ali, and Michael Jordan. But the Catch was made by Dwight Clark. Clark was a Southerner out of Clemson University. Nineteen eighty-one was a particularly good year for him, as his pro team, San Francisco, went all the way the same year his alma mater captured an equally improbable national title.
Clark is an all-time great 49er who went on to a successful front-office career, but unlike Montana, he lives off the Catch above all other accomplishments. He is like Bobby Thomson and his "Shot Heard 'Round the World," or the Craig Fertig–Rod Sherman combination who teamed up to throw and catch the winning touchdown for Southern California, ending Notre Dame's title hopes in 1964.
Clark remembered feeling "very confident," and felt his team matured that day in ways that resonated not just in the subsequent Super Bowl win over Cincinnati, but in the entire Team-of-the-Decade 1980s.
The 49ers had struggled early in the season, although those September struggles were successes compared to the dismal previous eight years. They lost to Cleveland at home in November, prompting a rendition of hometown band Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," as fans filed out of Candlestick. But by that time, they won a defensive struggle at Green Bay and beat the Steelers.
The turning-point win at Pittsburgh, according to Clark, was the game that propelled them to ultimate victory. Pittsburgh was the Team of the 1970s.
Now they were facing America's Team, Dallas.
"I could never describe in words what it was like," Clark recalled. "At the time, it happened so fast, it's hard to put into words. On the other hand, I look back, and everything happens in slow motion. My friends always kid me that the play could have been 'the Drop.'"
Football fans watching on national television got a good look at the contrast in climate between the Midwest and the Pacific Coast. The early AFC title game featured the warm-weather San Diego Chargers almost freezing to death in their loss at Cincinnati to a Bengals team that probably would not have beaten Dan Fouts & Co. on a neutral field. After that "ice bowl," the relatively sunsplashed Candlestick looked like paradise. It at least offered even playing conditions.
San Francisco started things in good form when Montana hit Freddie Solomon for an eight-yard touchdown pass 4:19 into the first quarter. Dallas clawed back in with a field goal. A 49ers fumble set up a two-play drive. Ex–Arizona State quarterback White hit Tony Hill from the 26: 10–7, Dallas.
San Francisco sputtered as the two teams settled into trench warfare, but the Niners' historian-coach, Bill Walsh, knew he needed a football version of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in order to give his team confidence that they could beat Tom Landry's Cowboys. Unable to move the ball on the ground, and with the vaunted West Coast offense out of sync, he called for a big play and got it: Montana bootlegging to the right, finding Clark deep for 38 yards. But Dallas met the challenge and held. Sixty thousand fans groaned, and "it could be heard for miles down the Bayshore Freeway from the Stick," wrote Michael Tuckman and Jeff Schultz in The San Francisco 49ers: Team of the Decade.
"That was a little depressing," said linebacker Keena Turner.
Back to the trenches. On Dallas' next possession, San Francisco won the battle. With field position shifting in their favor, Montana knew he needed to take advantage of it. Starting at the Dallas 47, he put it all together in the style that he would come to be known for. Montana could overcome confusion, replacing it with vision, like no other. The result this time was a four-play touchdown drive, with Joe scrambling out of the pocket to his left, mostly avoiding Everson Walls (whose interception interrupted the last drive). With Dallas committed to the rush, Clark was wide open if only Montana could unload it, which he did, but not without paying the price in the form of some 1,000 pounds of blue-and-white Dallas beef on top of him. When the crowd went wild, Montana — under the pile — knew he had succeeded, and perhaps those Cowboy pass rushers knew that the man buried beneath them was truly special.
"I kinda like when that happens," Montana said.
America's Team had no intention of relinquishing the throne easily. After an 80-yard drive, their own Hall of Famer, running back Tony Dorsett, scored from the 5, and they led again, 17–14.
Ronnie Lott made a rare mistake when he was flagged for pass interference to help Dallas keep the drive alive. Later, Lott questioned the call, as did Walsh. Walsh saw that the game would be won not by the infantry but by the air force. After the half, he had tried for a big strike, but Montana was intercepted. So was White. It was not a perfectly played game, but the adrenaline was at a fever pitch with the realization that the struggle would go on to the end.
San Francisco struck with a two-yard Johnny Davis touchdown run to lead 21–17, but nobody felt safe.
"Going back and forth like that with the score, it must have been fun to watch," said Turner. Maybe for fans of the Bears, or perhaps Bengals supporters already secure in their team's Super Bowl fortunes.
A slight 49ers edge was gained when Dallas was held to a Rafael Septien field goal, cutting it to a razor-thin 21–20. When San Francisco fumbled in the fourth quarter and Dallas converted it into a 21-yard touchdown pass from White to tight end Doug Cosbie, the game had all the earmarks of past 49ers horrors: blowing the 1957 NFL playoff game to Detroit; letting Roger Staubach destroy them in 1972. Their opponents were the masters of the fourth-quarter comeback, the two-minute drill, the thrill-a-minute comeback.
But this time, the 49ers had Joe.
"They took the lead, and a big hush came over the crowd, and it was as if the coffin had closed on our season," tight end Charle "Tree" Young, now a preacher who speaks in a dramatic pulpit manner. With Montana, however, "We rose to the occasion. Nothing could stop us."
What is often forgotten, however, is that Montana did not lead San Francisco to victory right after Cosbie's catch. He threw a seeming game-breaking interception. Landry decided that their infantry would close it out. For nine excruciating plays, Dallas held the ball, the lead, and time of possession. There was no room for error; a Septien field goal would ice it. The big crowd expected the worst. After all, this was San Francisco, not across-the-bay Oakland where the comeback win was as commonplace as it was in Dallas.
But San Francisco held. Solomon fair caught Danny White's punt at the 49ers' 11 with 4:54 to go. The lights were on in the January gloaming; a crowd begged, a nation waited to see the presence of greatness. Montana had shown more than glimpses of it on national TV before: in 1977 when he led Notre Dame to the national championship; in 1978 in a noble defeat against USC; in 1979 against Houston in a college performance perhaps unrivaled in history.
Walsh kept it short. The West Coast offense churned up yards — and time — to midfield. With two minutes left, they were in Cowboys territory. Dallas, like the Romans more than 2,000 years earlier, were determined to keep the modern version of Hannibal in the Italian countryside. Montana was determined to be the Carthaginian who broke through the gates. The duel was personal on the sideline; the defensive mastermind Landry versus the new passing guru of the West, Walsh.
Solomon gained 14 on a reverse, Clark caught a 10-yarder, and then Solomon caught a 12-yarder to the Dallas 13. A timeout was called with 1:15 to play. The field was now narrowed to the defensive advantage.
Montana threw an incomplete pass, but Lenvil Elliott gained seven on a sweep to the 6. Another timeout was called. Faced with defeat or glory, the two legends-to-be, Montana and Walsh, decided to go for Solomon in the air. Walsh told Montana to hold on to the ball until the last possible instant, looking for the speedy Solomon, but if he was covered, the secondary receiver should be Clark. If the Clark option was exercised, however, "hold it or throw it high" so that "it'll be thrown away" instead of intercepted, with another play to go to if this failed, according to Walsh.
According to offensive tackle Keith Fahnhorst, the huddle was bristling with confidence, which no doubt can be attributed to Montana and also to Walsh. "Sprint right motion" was set up for Clark to line up slot on the right, run an inside hook, with Solomon taking three steps and then heading up the sideline. Walsh wanted something that would be deep in the end zone for either man. Landry gambled that his rushers would get to Joe before he could find Solomon or Clark. With almost any other quarterback, he would have been right.
Ed "Too Tall" Jones, however, "looped" around the linebackers, recalled Fahnhorst, but when Earl Cooper blocked his man, he also knocked Fahnhorst down. Solomon slipped, and Clark was double-covered. Montana sprinted to the right, chased by Dallas defenders like giant policemen hoping to bring down a robber. D.D. Lewis was a few feet from Montana. The sideline approached dangerously, looking like the ground approaching a skydiver whose parachute was not yet open. Montana kept his cool. He had an extra play if he had to go out of bounds or throw it away, but he did not want to waste the play unless he had to. If he went out of bounds or was sacked, the loss of yards would be an obstacle almost impossible to overcome. Instead of giving up, Montana then backpedaled a few feet. Solomon was covered, but Clark broke free.
Montana unloaded one for the 6'4? Clark, tossing it high enough to avoid an interception but seemingly beyond Dwight's reach. Montana later said he was surprised that Clark had to "jump that high," disputing the notion that it was a throwaway, and thus a fluke.
Montana, sitting under some 520 pounds of high-priced Dallas defense, did not see it, but observed replays, marveling at Clark's leaping ability. As great as Montana was, it is called "the Catch," not "the Pass," because it was Clark's superlative leap and sure hands that brought it down.
"I thought I had jumped too soon," recalled Clark, but he came down with it.
The Stick went utterly ballistic. All-Pro center Randy Cross had been knocked on his keister and was a spectator.
"I saw the whole thing," said Cross. "It was really pretty."
The extra point gave San Francisco a 28–27 lead, but the collective conscience of millions pictured Dallas making a patented Cowboy comeback to win on a field goal by the reliable Septien. When the kick was returned to midfield, it looked somewhere between possible and probable, but White was not Staubach, and San Francisco held.
Rookies Lott, Eric Wright, Carlton Williamson, Lynn Thomas, and second-year man Montana represented an incredible future. Clark was now an instant legend.
"That one play didn't make me financially wealthy or anything," said Clark when his No. 87 was retired on "Dwight Clark Day" at Candlestick in 1988. "I didn't all of a sudden get a ton of commercials. But not a single person who knows anything about football doesn't know about the Catch."
BIRTH OF A DYNASTY
The San Francisco 49ers' victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan on January 24, 1982, at first appeared to be just another surprise world championship by a previously bad sports team. Obviously Bill Walsh was the "flavor of the day" among coaches, Joe Montana was an emerging star, and Ronnie Lott had the makings of greatness; but overall there was scant evidence that a dynasty was in the works. They had little running game and did not have the star power of the great teams of the 1970s: the Steelers, Cowboys, Raiders, and Dolphins.
But as it turned out, San Francisco's victory served as harbinger of more than simply the franchise's ascendancy. It was a paradigm shift in Bay Area sensibilities. Up until 1982, virtually all sports greatness in Northern California resided in Oakland. The Giants had made their bid in 1962, falling just short, but in the 1970s they were a joke, playing in dilapidated Candlestick while their rivals, the Dodgers, rose to a position of glamour; winning pennants in front of capacity crowds and an admiring Hollywood crowd at beautiful Dodger Stadium.
Oakland billed itself as the "Home of Champions" for good reason. The A's captured three straight world championships (1972, 1973, and 1974), the Warriors one NBA title (1975), and the Raiders two Super Bowl victories (1976 and 1980). San Francisco had lost the Warriors to the East Bay in the early 1970s. The Rams dominated San Francisco and played a "hometown" Super Bowl at the Rose Bowl in 1980. USC and UCLA just killed California and Stanford. Los Angeles was seen as the most trendsetting American city, surpassing crime-infested New York with no competition from San Francisco. In 1982 they "stole" the Raiders.
The City was at a low point. Political power resided in the Southland, where Los Angelenos Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had ascended to the White House. San Francisco's national image was one of corruption and ineptitude, its streets dirty and filled with the homeless. In 1977 Superintendent Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were shot to death by a colleague who avoided a murder conviction using the "Twinkie defense," but later committed suicide. Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry series did little for the City's image. San Francisco's Financial District lacked the panache of Wall Street. Its restaurants and nightspots were "so yesterday." Tourists and suburbanites found little appeal. Strip clubs were controlled by organized crime. Broadway was dangerous. Polk Street was a haven for "anything goes."
San Francisco Bay Area sports fans resorted to class envy and boorishness. Cal students dumbly waved credit cards in an effort to "mock" the rich USC kids, who just laughed at them. Giants fans showed up for the Dodgers and little else. They threw garbage at Tommy Lasorda, soiling the air with foul epithets, impressing nobody who counted.
When the San Francisco 49ers won the 1982 Super Bowl, however, it all started to change. Thousands of people descended on the City. Cars jammed the Broadway tunnel, and people celebrated at the Triangle in the manner of patriots on V-J Day. It was this event that created the birth, or renaissance, of the trendy, yuppie Marina District, Cow Hollow, and Pacific Heights areas. In conjunction with the computer revolution, it led to the gentrification of Broadway, the growth south of Market, and eventually the building of Pacific Bell Park in 2000.
Excerpted from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: San Francisco 49ers by Steven Travers. Copyright © 2009 Steven Travers. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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Meet the Author
Steven Travers is a sports historian and sportswriter who is the bestselling author of numerous books—including One Night, Two Teams and Barry Bonds—and has also written for StreetZebra magazine, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Los Angeles Times. He is a former professional baseball player with Major League Baseball teams the St. Louis Cardinals and the Oakland Athletics. He lives in San Anselmo, California. Bob St. Clair is a Pro Football Hall of Fame member for his career as an offensive tackle with the San Francisco 49ers. He was team captain for three years and a five-time Pro Bowl selection. He lives in Santa Rosa, California.
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