The year was 1982, and a championship-starved San Francisco 49ers franchise was on the brink of another heartbreaking post-season loss to the Dallas Cowboys, who had squashed the 49ers' title hopes several times during their playoff runs in the early 1970s.
With 4:54 remaining and the 49ers trailing the Cowboys 27-21 in the NFC Championship game, 49ers quarterback Joe Montana marched the offense down the field to the 'Boys 6-yard line. There, with only 58 seconds left on the clock, the 49ers faced a third-and-3 situation.
Needing to put the ball in the air to preserve time while also reducing the threat of a turnover (the Niners had already coughed the ball up six times in the game), coach Bill Walsh dialed up the "Sprint Right Option," a call that had given the 49ers their first touchdown of the game. The play involved an intricate series of reads and secondary cuts, as described by Sports Illustrated.
Wide receiver Freddie Solomon lined up in the slot inside Dwight Clark on the right side. Solomon broke toward the corner after Clark had cleared out underneath with a semi-pick. If Solomon was covered, Clark was to cut across the end zone, right to left, turn around and break back to the right. Montana, rolling to his right, had to find him.
What happened next is still the subject of debate some 30 years later.
Rolling to his right toward the sideline and under pressure, Montana pump-faked once and threw the ball off his back foot toward the back of the end zone. The ball sailed high and deep into the end zone where Clark, a 6'2" possession receiver, jumped and plucked it out of midair with the tips of his fingers.
Some argue that Montana overthrew his primary target in Solomon; others contend Montana was simply looking to throw it away and live to play another down.
Nobody knew at the time that the Sprint Right Option was a play that Montana and Clark had practiced from Day One in training camp.
What it took
Montana worked his magic to take the 49ers all the way from their own 11-yard line to the Cowboys 6-yard line in less than four minutes—and yet "Joe Cool" and Clark saved some special magic for this incredible, game-winning play.
In actuality, it was a little bit of magic combined with a lot of meticulous game planning from coach Walsh and his QB-wide receiver combo.
Walsh would keep Montana and Clark after practice to work on the nuances of the Sprint Right Option.
"Bill [Walsh] would have us run it after practice because we would do it over and over, and it would take too much time out of practice," Clark says. "When we would practice it, I would get ready to jump and Joe would hit me in the chest with it. It was either too low or too high in practice; very seldom right on the money, if ever, really."
Except when it mattered most.
Clark says, "It was all about the throw. In the most important game of our lives—under duress and on his back foot—he puts it in the exact spot where it had to be, where only I could go get it."
Practice makes perfect? It does when you have a will to win from within like Clark.
What it meant
Clark hauled the ball in at the back of the end zone to give San Francisco the lead with 51 seconds remaining. The 49ers held on for the win and advanced to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.
It seemed as if fate were on the 49ers side after "The Catch," as they went on to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI. That was the first of four Super Bowl championships won by the 49ers won during the 1980s. Yet the moment that lives on is "The Catch."
Here we are, more than 30 years later, still celebrating this remarkable moment in NFL history.
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