One Play, Two Dynasties, and the Game That Changed the NFL
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How many great catches have there been in the history of the NFL? Hundreds? Thousands? Mention "The Catch,"though, and fans will think of only one: Joe Montana to Dwight Clark, the NFC Championship game, the Dallas Cowboys vs. the San Francisco 49ers, January 10, 1982. It changed the game and The Game. This is the story of the pieces that fell into place to allow it to happen and what it meant to the players, to the fans, and to the future of professional football.
Drama like this couldn't be scripted any better. Dallas was still reigning as America's team. San Francisco was hungry for a ticket to its first Super Bowl. With less than a minute left, the 49ers were one touchdown and extra point away from pulling it off, six yards from the end zone. Too Tall Jones and the Cowboys' celebrated defense were primed to stop Montana and the 49ers. The play came in from head coach Bill Walsh: Sprint Right Option. It almost never worked in practice. But this was game on. It had to work. Montana took the snap and rolled right. With 700 pounds of prime defensive talent bearing down on him, leaning backward, in his last moment of upright balance, Montana sent the ball to the back of the end zone. The primary receiver had slipped and was not in place. But the secondary receiver, Dwight Clark, was streaking toward the corner, leaping higher than he ever had or ever would again. With his arms reaching for the sky, his fingers splayed, he snatched the impossibly high pass, briefly lost control, regained it . . . touchdown!
Franchises, careers, lives, and dynasties all changed in that moment.
Sports journalist Gary Myers was there, and now with fresh revelations from key players, including Montana, Clark, Ronnie Lott, Randy Cross, Tony Dorsett, Drew Pearson, Charlie Waters, and others, he takes fans back to an iconic game and one of the NFL's most breathtaking plays. Myers presents new details on the rise of Montana and the 49ers and the fall of the '80s Cowboys. He reveals what Bill Walsh saw in an overlooked third-round draft pick named Joe Montana and how Walsh accidentally discovered Dwight Clark. He shows how legendary Dallas head coach Tom Landry, who as reputed did put winning first, was not above crying over players whose personal careers had to come second. He celebrates forgotten heroes like journeyman running back Lenvil Elliott, who picked that particular game–and that final drive down the field–to shine. It's all here, from the death threat that spooked Montana during the game to 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo's bad luck when his view of the historic play was literally blocked by a horse's ass.
The Catch is both the ultimate replay of a sports moment for the ages and a penetrating look into the inner dynamics of the NFL.
From the Hardcover edition.
; September 2009
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Title: The Catch
Author: Gary Myers; Joe Montana
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"RESPECT THAT . . ."
Bill Walsh stood on the sidelines minutes before the kickoff of the 1981 NFC Championship Game and pulled his headset into place, the biggest moment of his professional life about to play out in front of him. Tom Landry's dark gray fedora sat so perfectly on his bald head that it looked permanently attached. Landry's stoic game-day demeanor and public image were a source of constant ridicule--he was emotionless, a stone face, or "plastic man," as Duane Thomas once called him--but he truly had an underrated, though not life-of-the-party, personality.
Walsh possessed a huge ego, and once he became a Super Bowl champion, he never protested too hard when he was declared The Genius. So what if he spoke as if he'd invented football rather than just advanced the game with his innovative offensive system? He retired with three Super Bowl rings in ten seasons and could have won at least a couple more if he didn't walk away less than one week after winning his third championship. He lived the final twenty years of his life regretting that emotional decision to leave with his career and his team in its prime. Coaching was still a part of him. That's why he returned to Stanford in the early nineties and coached three more years. That core group of 49ers won two more championships for George Seifert, completing the run that Walsh set the foundation for when he was hired in 1979.
Landry had a rather large ego himself, but it was much more understated. His self-assuredness came through in his stubbornness. It was the Landry way or go play in purgatory for the Falcons or Cardinals. He was slow to adapt to the changing game and a new generation of players through the eighties, one of the main reasons for the Cowboys' demise. Either way, these two Hall of Fame coaches were outwardly calm moments before Ray Wersching kicked the ball off to Timmy Newsome, setting off three hours of frantic football and putting an exclamation point on a week with some of the best trash-talking the NFL had ever seen.
The Cowboys were the establishment. They were in five of the first fifteen Super Bowls, winning two of them. And when the 49ers followed up their two championship-game losses in the early seventies with another loss to the Cowboys the next year in the divisional round, they went into a free fall, failing to make the playoffs for the next eight seasons and only once managing to win more games than they lost. They switched coaches as often as Landry had changed his fedora. And Landry had a lot of fedoras. When Walsh was hired, he was their sixth coach in five years, including interims.
This was not a true blood-and-guts, down-and-dirty NFL rivalry. The 49ers played in the NFC West, and the Rams were the team they went into overdrive working themselves up to play twice a year. Dallas showed up on their schedule every now and then, but when one team is good and the other is bad, the game doesn't generate much passion. The Cowboys played in the NFC East. They faced snowballs in Philly. In Washington, the two most popular souvenirs were Fuck Dallas pins and T-shirts that said, I Root for Two Teams: the Redskins and Whoever Is Playing Dallas." In New York, the fans would drop an f-bomb or two, but a noticeable chunk of Cowboys fans still managed to scoop up tickets every year when Dallas played at Giants Stadium.
The Cowboys were more insulted than impressed when Montana and the 49ers tarnished the glitzy star on their helmets with a 45-14 beating in the sixth game of the 1981 season. It was 21-0 after the first quarter. The 49ers had 440 yards offense and held the Cowboys to 192. The 49ers ran 80 plays. The Cowboys just 53. It was a complete butt-kicking. That didn't make the Cowboys respect the 49ers or even hate them, which infuriated the Niners. All Dallas did was rationalize the loss by saying the real 'Boys didn't show up. From that point forward, the 49ers had one wish for January: We want Dallas.
The 49ers quickly learned to hate Ed "Too Tall" Jones. He worked the 49ers into a rage during the week before the NFC title game by belittling them and their quarterback. But at one point, Montana faked Jones into running right by him, then completed a long pass to Clark. Montana, normally a mild-mannered choirboy then became a foul-mouthed trash-talker whenever Jones got close enough.
Jones, an imposing figure at six nine, was in his second season back with the Cowboys after taking a one-year sabbatical to pursue his real love--professional boxing, of all things. Jones had been the first overall pick in the 1974 draft, and he combined with Harvey "Too Mean" Martin to provide Dallas with a fearsome pass rush. But Jones gave the Cowboys a one-year notice that when his contract expired after his option-year season in 1978 that he was leaving to give the sweet science a shot. The Cowboys drafted Michigan State defensive lineman Larry Bethea in the first round in '78 with the idea that he would be groomed in his rookie year by Jones and then take over, assuming Jones didn't have second thoughts about getting his ass kicked for a living.
Jones did leave the Cowboys for the ring but wasn't gone long: one NFL season. He retired with a 6-0 record with five knockouts against a bunch of tomato cans. With his height, 88-inch reach, and freakish athletic ability, the measurables were certainly there for him to work his way up the rankings to get a shot at heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. Unfortunately, he didn't have the skills that would ever make him more than a curiosity, if not a freak show, because of his immense size and NFL stardom. All six of his fights were nationally televised. He took boxing seriously even if boxing didn't take him seriously. "I loved every minute of it," he said. "I played football at 274 pounds. When I went to New York to continue my boxing training, I weighed 254. I went down to 236. I conditioned myself as well as I could."
The Cowboys were playing on the road against the Giants the day after Jones's first professional bout on November 3, 1979. The team set up a television in a meeting room of their New Jersey hotel, and the players gathered around to watch their former and future teammate take on Yaqui Meneses in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a venue that was not to be confused with Madison Square Garden or Caesars Palace. Unfortunately, Jones's teammates were more amused than impressed. His pass rush carried a bigger wallop than his left hook. He won a six-round majority decision, even though he was knocked down in the final round. "This is not going to last long. Ed has no chance of becoming heavyweight champion," Dennis Thurman said. "He will be back with us."
Nobody argued with Thurman. Jones looked awkward in the ring, even against a bunch of nobodies and stiffs lined up for him to throw out with the trash. His Cowboys teammates supported him at ringside at a fight in Dallas, but it was clear the big guy was much more at home on a football field chasing Terry Bradshaw, and they were sure he would be back with them in 1980. He left boxing after registering a one-round knockout of somebody named Rocky Gonzalez on January 26, 1980, in Jackson, Mississippi. His six opponents had a career record of 37-86-1. He was more effective teaming with Randy White, Martin, and John Dutton to form the NFC's best front line, second only to that of Pittsburgh in the NFL. Then and even now Jones refuses to divulge the reason he quit boxing, as if he were protecting a government secret. He didn't even tell his teammates why he gave up his dream of wearing the heavyweight championship belt. He was a big man who had a very small inner circle. "Nobody has come close to figuring out why I gave it up," Jones said. "I can't wait to set the record straight. But not yet."
Thurman doesn't know why there is such a mystery. "I just figured his boxing career wasn't very good," he said.
In boxing, Jones could say whatever he wanted about an opponent, knowing he was responsible only for himself. He didn't have to worry about the Niners going for Randy White's knees in retaliation for something Too Tall said. Back in football, his words affected the entire team--which made his comments that appeared in the Dallas Times Herald five days before the championship game in San Francisco even more surprising. Jones was not loud in the locker room, and he was not loud on the field. He was not a trash-talker. He was more likely to beat you up and then help you up. He was a gentle giant and a real ladies' man, although he never married. So the comments attributed to him regarding the regular season loss were out of character: "To be really honest, I didn't have a whole lot of respect for the 49ers before that game," Jones said, speaking of the 45-14 embarrassment. "I played hard. But I still didn't think they could beat us regardless of what happened. I didn't know half the names of the whole team. Things started happening so fast that we couldn't get control of the game."
It was understandable for Jones to feel that way before the loss. But after it, too? "Believe it or not, I didn't have a whole lot of respect for them after it was over," he was quoted in January 1982. "I didn't think there would be any rematch in the playoffs. Even though they beat us that day, they didn't beat the real Cowboys." Then, just to make sure the 49ers were paying attention, Jones insulted Montana: "All you have to do against that guy is throw off his timing and you blow his game."
The Bay Area newspapers picked up the story, and it provided instant bulletin-board material for a young 49ers team that really didn't require any more motivation. But it was right there in black and white for them to read. "C'mon, gimme a break," Cross said, still angry at Jones years later. "We knew we had to prove a point."
Montana thought he did in the championship game when he ran a Naked Bootleg with Jones bearing down on him and he connected with Clark on a 38-yard completion on the 49ers' fifth offensive play of the second quarter. "He came in and it was him and I," Montana said. "He tried to cut me off and I stepped up and then underneath and I threw about a 30-yard pass to Dwight. He kind of shook his head."
After Clark caught the pass, Montana turned around and saw Jones. They were alone for a second. "Respect that, motherfucker," Montana said.
Cross said Montana's gibe at Jones didn't please the man who was blocking him. "Keith Fahnhorst is going, 'Joe! Joe! Joe!'"
Jones said he doesn't remember saying anything derogatory about the 49ers or Montana before the game. "I don't understand how that got out," he said. Even on a segment on the CBS pregame show on the trash talk, Brent Musburger mentioned, "Surprisingly, the most outspoken player has been Too Tall Jones of the Dallas Cowboys."
Montana wasn't doing Fahnhorst any favors by insulting Jones, who was already frustrated by not getting his hands on the quarterback before he threw the pass to Clark. Why make him mad, too? Before he could retaliate against Montana, he would have to get through Fahnhorst. Montana had just given Jones more incentive. Montana also decided to take on Martin, the Cowboys other dynamic pass rusher. "I don't want to say he was having a tough day, but our guys played pretty well," Montana said. "He finally came in and sacked me or knocked me down, and he said, 'I will be back.' I said, 'I hope so. I was beginning to think you weren't in the game.' Randy [Cross] goes, 'Why do you have to say that to my guy.' I said, 'Randy, you've been playing well all day. What difference is it going to make?' There was a lot of battling back and forth, wordswise. They said some crazy things during the game."
Well, Cross didn't really have to worry too much. He was lined up against Larry Bethea, the weakest of the Cowboys' four linemen. Bethea was subbing for John Dutton, who was injured.
Dallas wide receiver Drew Pearson, who was never reluctant to get in the middle of any verbal warfare, even went on the CBS pregame show and recited a poem that he taped during the week and aired fifteen minutes prior to kickoff. It's a shame the 49ers were too busy at that point to be watching television or they surely would have enjoyed Pearson's grammar-school-quality composition:
Nothing will be finer
Than to get another chance at the San Francisco 49ers.
We'll teach them not to toy
With the Dallas Cowboys.
I know the mud will be thick,
But on Sunday,
All they'll say,
Is that it's D-Day on the Bay.
Pearson then looked in the camera and laughed. "Heh, heh, heh." Robert Frost must have been turning over in his grave.
The mind games even extended to the owner's box. Eddie DeBartolo, the 49ers brash owner, who was younger than many of his players, put himself right into the middle of it. He was just thirty years old in 1977 when his father, Ed DeBartolo Sr., purchased the 49ers for $17 million and put his son in control. Ed Jr. was beloved by his players. He was generous with them, flying them to road games on wide-body DC-10s, serving them gourmet meals in flight, and later taking them to lavish vacation getaways to celebrate Super Bowl championships, before such excursions counted against the salary cap. It was a sad day around the 49ers when a casino licensing scandal forced him to relinquish control of the team in late 1997 to his sister Denise and her husband, Dr. John York. He was suspended by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue for the 1999 season and by 2000 had reached an agreement with his sister that severed his ties to the organization.
In the locker room after the Niners beat the Giants in the divisional round to set up their showdown with Dallas, Eddie was being interviewed on national TV when he said, "I heard [Tony] Dorsett on the television saying that if they come out here it's going to be vindictive. All I can say to him is, 'They ate it once. They can eat it again.'"
From the Hardcover edition.