‘ The Catch’

De­fined San Fran­cisco’s rise to promi­nence with Mon­tana at QB

Winnipeg Free Press - SundayXtra - - SPORTS SPECIAL - By Dan Ralph

IT’S one of the top plays in NFL his­tory and de­fined the San Fran­cisco 49ers’ rise to promi­nence in the 1980s.

But more than 30 years later, Joe Mon­tana says “The Catch” would’ve been just an­other good play had he thrown the game- de­cid­ing pass in the ’ 81 NFC cham­pi­onship game to a more ath­letic re­ceiver than Dwight Clark.

“I can only say the ball would’ve hit him in the chest had he been able to jump higher,” Mon­tana said in a re­cent phone in­ter­view, barely able to con­tain his laugh­ter at his ob­vi­ous tongue- incheek re­mark. “And he kicked his feet up to make it look like he was jumping high.”

The 6- 4 Clark had to leap high to snag Mon­tana’s 16- yard TD pass in the fi­nal minute and earn San Fran­cisco a stir­ring 28- 27 come­back win over the Dal­las Cow­boys. The 49ers went on to beat Cincinnati in the Su­per Bowl, their first of four with Mon­tana at quar­ter­back.

Mon­tana was in Toronto Fri­day night and Satur­day ap­pear­ing at the Fan Expo. This year, the pop cul­ture con­ven­tion in­cluded sports as a genre with Mon­tana and other ath­letes par­tic­i­pat­ing in panels and ques­tion- and- an­swer ses­sions.

Also sched­uled to ap­pear were for­mer NHL stars Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe and Joe Sa­kic. Al­though Mon­tana, 57, grew up in Penn­syl­va­nia, he’s very fa­mil­iar with hockey, es­pe­cially Orr’s ex­ploits with the Bos­ton Bru­ins.

“When I was grow­ing up my cousin played hockey so I got into it and ob­vi­ously the Bru­ins were play­ing well back then with Orr and that group,” Mon­tana said. “( Orr) is one of my all­time favourites.

“My sons right now are re­ally into ( hockey). When they come home they don’t play NCAA, NFL or Mad­den. They get right to the hockey, they absolutely love it.”

To many football pun­dits, San Fran­cisco’s play­off win over Dal­las was a stun­ning sur­prise. Not only had the Cow­boys won two prior Su­per Bowls, they were also af­fec­tion­ately dubbed “Amer­ica’s Team.”

But Mon­tana and the 49ers weren’t lack­ing con­fi­dence af­ter beat­ing Dal­las 45- 14 ear­lier that sea­son.

“I think it was just ic­ing on the cake to let ev­ery­body know we were for real to beat them again and twice in the same year,” Mon­tana said. “I don’t think even they be­lieved com­ing in we could do it.

“We had grown from 2- 14 to 6- 10 to where we were there head­ing to the Su­per Bowl. I don’t think peo­ple were ex­pect­ing us to play that well yet but we were on the move up.”

Mon­tana and Clark cer­tainly fig­ured promi­nently in that. Clark had eight catches for 120 yards and two TDs against Dal­las and the two rou­tinely prac­tised the 20- yard throw to the end zone af­ter prac­tice un­der the watch­ful eye of late head coach Bill Walsh.

Mon­tana said Walsh, who pop­u­lar­ized the West Coast of­fence with the 49ers be­fore his death in 2007, was al­ways un­pre­dictable.

“He brought in a new style and a new way to do things on the field dur­ing the game, dur­ing prac­tices and train­ing camp,” Mon­tana said. “He al­ways had some­thing new, he had one lit­tle thing, one lit­tle wrin­kle all the time.

“He tried to dic­tate by mo­tion, move­ment and for­ma­tions where we’d at­tack on the field. He’d make a move­ment with a player that would change a for­ma­tion to get some­thing from a de­fence that he wanted to at­tack. That was his ap­proach. He was one of the great­est coaches ever.”

Walsh helped San Fran­cisco land their of­fen­sive lynch­pins in ’ 79. The 49ers took Clark in the first round of the NFL draft out of Clem­son be­fore se­lect­ing Notre Dame star Mon­tana two rounds later.

Clark spent his en­tire nine- year NFL ca­reer with San Fran­cisco and played on two Su­per Bowl- win­ning teams be­fore re­tir­ing and hav­ing his No. 87 re­tired. Mon­tana played 14 of his 16 NFL sea­sons with the 49ers be­fore also hav­ing his No. 16 re­tired and be­ing elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000, his first year of el­i­gi­bil­ity.

Mon­tana fur­ther so­lid­i­fied his rep­u­ta­tion as a come­back kid Jan. 22, 1989 in Mi­ami with “The Drive.” With San Fran­cisco trail­ing Cincinnati 16- 13 late in Su­per Bowl XXIII, Mon­tana en­gi­neered a 92- yard march, capped by a dra­matic 10- yard TD strike to John Tay­lor with 34 sec­onds re­main­ing for a 20- 16 vic­tory.

“I did that in my back­yard 1,000 times grow­ing up,” Mon­tana said. “It was like a dream come true for me.”

Even at the ex­pense of a friend. Cincinnati’s head coach that year was none other than Sam Wy­che, who had coached Mon­tana in San Fran­cisco.

“There’s noth­ing bet­ter than beat­ing a good friend,” Mon­tana said. “He was my first coach when I came into the league and I told him. ‘ If you didn’t teach me so well you wouldn’t have had to worry about it.’

“I would’ve felt worse for him if he was play­ing some­body else. I felt a lit­tle bit bad for him but Sam was a great guy, I loved Sam.”

Mon­tana al­ways thrived in the Su­per Bowl. He was 83- of- 122 pass­ing for 1,142 yards in his four ap­pear­ances, with 11 touch­downs and no in­ter­cep­tions. He’s also the only player in NFL his­tory to win three Su­per Bowl MVP awards.

Af­ter some lean years, the 49ers reached last year’s Su­per Bowl with young­ster Colin Kaeper­nick at quar­ter­back be­fore los­ing 34- 31 to Bal­ti­more. How­ever, Mon­tana be­lieves San Fran­cisco will con­tend again this sea­son.

“They’ve got most of their team back,” he said. “I think they’re go­ing to be some­body to be reck­oned with again.”

With CFL games avail­able on tele­vi­sion in the U. S., Mon­tana said he has watched some con­tests. While not to­tally fa­mil­iar with Cana­dian rules, Mon­tana said play­ing three downs on a longer, wider field is cer­tainly a boon for quar­ter­backs.

“Quar­ter­backs have to love it up there,” he said. “With the size of the field and three downs, my God, you have to throw it.”

This sum­mer, there’s been no short­age of NFL play­ers suf­fer­ing se­ri­ous in­juries in train­ing camp. Mon­tana said there’s a good rea­son for that.

“Part of it is they’ve got th­ese guys go­ing 12 months now,” he said. “Years ago, when you were done with the sea­son you didn’t have to be back un­til the first mini- camp, which usu­ally was af­ter the draft.

“Re­al­is­ti­cally you could re­lax and let your body heal but now they keep work­ing and work­ing and work­ing. They ( play­ers) need rest. Ev­ery­body says there’s some down time be­tween plays but it’s phys­i­cal from the very start, ev­ery play is phys­i­cal. The more you work, the faster you wear your­self down. They ( NFL of­fi­cials) keep think­ing, ‘ Well, we’ll keep an eye on th­ese guys, we’ll keep them in shape,’ but the prob­lem is there’s no rest for the body.”

— The Cana­dian Press

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