THE CATCH --30 years ago, a look back
January 10, 2012

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?

Although it is not really a particularly deep philosophical question, it is a classic paradox.

An irresistible force can move any object.

An immovable object cannot be moved.

30 years ago today, in a way, this did happen, both on the field of life and on the field of a sporting event.

My story begins almost a year before, for a football franchise known as the San Francisco 49ers.

In just their second season under new coach Bill Walsh, the 49ers won their 6th and last game of the 1980 season. On December 7, 1980, San Francisco hosted the New Orleans Saints. The Saints, winless at the time, took a 357 lead at half-time. At the start of the fourth quarter, New Orleans still led by a score of 3521, but San Francisco tied the game by the end of regulation play. In overtime, Ray Wersching kicked a field goal to win the game for San Francisco, 3835. It was the greatest comeback in 49ers history. This marked the first fourth quarter comeback victory in Montana's NFL career. During his 16 seasons in the NFL, this happened a total of 31 times with Montana at quarterback; 26 of those coming as a 49er. Though San Francisco finished 1980 with a record of 6-10, Montana passed for 1,795 yards and 15 touchdown passes against nine interceptions. He also completed 64.5 percent of his passes, which led the league.

That game, in a way was an eye opener...

Little did one know, but it was a hint of things to come.

During the off season Bill Walsh prepared for the 1981 draft. They needed defensive players. They were so dedicated to the cause, in fact, that they spent four of their first five picks on defensive backs. In the first round, they drafted cornerback Ronnie Lott. In the second round, they drafted cornerback Eric Wright. In the third round, they drafted safety Carleton Williamson. And in the fifth round, they drafted nickel back Lynn Thomas. Except for Lynn Thomas, all three players were immediately slated to start. Walsh and DC George Seifert believed this would result in continued defensive struggles in 1981, but hopefully pay significant dividends in 1982 and beyond. Two months after the draft, the 49ers bolstered their linebacking corps by signing Los Angeles Rams' castoff Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds. Reynolds had been too costly for the Rams, but he still had plenty left in his tank and he immediately improved the 49ers.

The 49ers finished the 1981-1982 season with a 13-3 record and the best record in the NFC.

For many so-called experts, the 49ers were just a Cinderella team, that got lucky.

For many of the fans, like myself, we knew we were witnessing something a bit more profound...

On January 3rd, 1982, the 49ers played the Giants at Candlestick Park.

25-year old San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana lead the 49ers to victory in his first ever playoff game, completing 20 of 31 passes for 304 yards and 2 touchdowns, with 1 interception. His top target in the game was receiver Dwight Clark, who caught 5 passes for 104 yards. The 49ers jumped to a 24-7 lead in the second quarter, and scored 2 touchdowns in the final period to secure the victory. San Francisco took the opening kickoff and advanced 85 yards to score on Montana's 8-yard touchdown to tight end Charlie Young. The Giants countered with quarterback Scott Brunner's 72-yard touchdown completion to wide receiver Earnest Gray. Then after the 49ers went ahead, 10-7, in the second quarter, San Francisco defensive back Ronnie Lott intercepted a pass from Brunner to set up wide receiver Freddie Solomon's 58-yard touchdown reception. Linebacker Keena Turner recovered a fumble on the first play after the ensuing kickoff, and Ricky Patton scored on a 25-yard touchdown run a few plays later to give the 49ers a 24-7 lead. Later, a 48-yard field goal by New York kicker Joe Danelo made the score 24-10 at half-time. In the third quarter, Brunner completed a 59-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Johnny Perkins to cut the score, 24-17. But in the fourth quarter, running back Bill Ring scored on a 3-yard rushing touchdown, and Lott returned his second interception of the game 20-yards to the end zone. Brunner then made a 17-yard touchdown to Perkins to close out the scoring.

The 49ers won 38-24 and, in the closing seconds of the game, it began to rain in Candlestick.

I remember looking out my window in Boulder Creek and saying: 'No rain here. I guess it will come this way later"

About an hour later it began to rain.

It didn't stop for 3 full days.

In the first 24 hours, the Santa Cruz mountains got 26 inches of rain.

The irresistible force known as El Nino [the Child] meet the immovable object know as the Santa Cruz mountains.

The flood began in Santa Cruz County, California, early on January 4, 1982. What would become know as The Great Flood of '82 and the Love Creek Disaster left 22 dead, 50 injured, 400 people displaced, 135 homes destroyed, 300 homes damaged, $50 million in private damages, and $56.5 million in public damages. Entire mountainsides in Santa Cruz county washed into the San Lorenzo River. Redwood trees filled the river and rushed to the sea. A log jam of hundreds of redwood trees backed up behind the Soquel River Bridge in downtown Santa Cruz and collapsed the concrete and steel structure.

The Love Creek slide in Ben Lomond killed 10 people when an entire saturated hillside collapsed. The slide occurred on the west-facing slope of Love Creek, about 16 km (10 miles) north of the city of Santa Cruz. It was about 600m wide (maximum), 250m long (maximum), and 10 m thick, with a volume of about 500,000 cubic meters. The slide and an accompanying debris flow dammed Love Creek, forming a lake about 300 meters long that flooded several homes. Aptos Creek went on its own death and destruction rampage and Soquel Creek backed up by a logjam and flooded its namesake village.

In Boulder Creek alone, 60 buildings were destroyed or severely damaged. Hundreds of others were battered, but reparable. Main Street is awash in mud. The worst of the fury was felt along Blue Ridge Drive, less than 3/10 of a mile from my house. About 18 of the 50 homes along the road were destroyed or so damaged that they were uninhabitable. Three people died in Boulder Creek.

Electricity, water and gas was out for 5 full days.

FEMA and the National Guard set up in downtown Boulder Creek to provide food and water.

For close to 5 days and nights we lived, cut off from the day-to-day news, and not really knowing the full extent of the death and damage. By Saturday, power was restored and we began to pull our lives back together.

Then on Sunday January 10th, 1982, perhaps as a small measure of healing or perhaps as a reaffirming note of the continuation of life, many tuned into the NFC Championship game. The entire Bay Area seemed to tune into the game.

Once again, an irresistible force known as the Dallas Cowboys met head on an immovable object called the San Francisco 49ers.

In a game where the lead shifted back and forth repeatedly, the 49ers took over the ball at their own 11-yard line trailing 27-21. San Francisco marched down to the Dallas 6-yard line, where they faced third down and three with 58 seconds left on the clock.

The play, remembered in 49er lore as "Red Right Tight - Sprint Right Option" had called for both the primary receiver, Solomon, and Clark to line up on the right. Montana was supposed to roll to his right and find Solomon. Clark's pattern called for him to cut left across the end zone, stop, and immediately reverse his path to the right. If Solomon were covered, it would be up to Montana to find Clark.

When Joe Montana took the snap, he intended to pass to wide receiver Freddie Solomon; earlier in the game, Solomon had scored a touchdown on that play. However, the Cowboys covered Solomon perfectly. Making matters worse, the pass rush of the Cowboys collapsed the 49ers offensive line. Two of the Cowboys defensive ends Ed "Too Tall" Jones and Larry Bethea, plus linebacker D. D. Lewis chased a backpedaling Montana toward the sideline, and seemed certain to either send him out of bounds or sack him. But at the last moment, and after pump-faking to get 6-foot 9-inch "Too Tall" Jones to jump, Montana threw a high pass to the back of the end zone that seemed destined to sail out of bounds until 49ers receiver Dwight Clark made a leaping grab with his fingertips for the go-ahead touchdown with 51 seconds left in the game.

The play became simply known as THE CATCH.

Dallas Cowboy Ed 'Too Tall' Jones reacted to the play by stating "You just beat America's Team" to Joe Montana after Clark had caught the pass; Montana replied "Well, you can sit at home with the rest of America and watch the Super Bowl."

THE CATCH became a watershed moment in the historic fortunes of both the 49ers and the Cowboys.

After being a losing team in the 1970s, San Francisco went on to win four Super Bowls in the 1980s, and made the playoffs eight out of the next 10 years. Meanwhile, Dallas, the most successful team in the NFC in the 1970s, never made it back to the Super Bowl in the 1980s, and suffered losing seasons in the last part of that decade, not returning to the Super Bowl until the 1990s.

THE CATCH is widely regarded as one of the most memorable events in NFL history.

For the San Francisco 49ers, it is, and will always be, the iconic championship stamp of excellence for the franchise.

30 years ago today...

THE CATCH -January 10, 1982