Why you should care
Because it was one of the wildest moments in NFL history, and its promise is the promise of dreamers: We can do it. Remember that when you watch the 49ers playoff game on Sunday.
I picked a good time to become a football fan.
I was in San Francisco in the last days of 1981, and the hometown team was hovering on the cusp of Super Bowl stardom — four titles over 10 years — and the first one came in January 1982 in one of football’s wildest Cinderella stories.
Look: I’m no journalist, I’m just a fan, and anyone who grew up on football the way I did remembers the game that took down the Dallas Cowboys and began to build the Niners empire. And what we remember best? The moment we knew that our QB, Joe Montana, was … our hero. I got hooked on the Niners at age 14 by accident — I met a bookie and started placing bets on games I didn’t understand at all. But by the end of 1981, my greed had accidentally made me an expert, and I’d watched a history-making season unfold on the shoulders of legendary coach Bill Walsh and Montana, the Comeback Kid.
Seven years before Montana was MVP and long before his number was retired, he was just a third-round draft pick out of Notre Dame. And just three years before, in 1979, our Niners were … there’s no good way to say it: screwed.
This is one of those stories that makes you remember there are no lost causes.
We’d been miles away from the Superbowl for years — and to make matters worse, we were up against “America’s team,” the Dallas Cowboys, in the NFC championship game that was bound to kick us to the curb. And with five minutes left in the game, it looked like a foregone conclusion: the Niners were down 21 - 27.
But this is one of those stories that makes you remember there are no lost causes.
With just five minutes to go, an 89-yard drive that changed football — as we, my extended family spilled off couches onto the floor, we, in solidarity with the Niners — we freaking prayed. And Montana answered. With two minutes left in the game, he called a classic ”reverse” play, handing off to Lenvil Elliott – then to Freddie Solomon — and suddenly we were up 14 yards. That’s when we knew: Anything could happen.
With six yards to go till the end zone, and 58 seconds left, a measly little field goal wasn’t going to cut it. We needed divine intervention. And that’s when it happened: Montana snapped the ball, throwing himself into a wall of blue-and-white Cowboys, and it looked almost certainly over — until he flew. How high? To my eyes it looked 300 feet, but that was only half the miracle. The other half was Dwight Clark, who swooped in and made the catch.
True, the game wasn’t over — with nearly a minute of play left and the Cowboys breathing on victory’s neck, we had a little further to go. But we had our miracle; the rest was just a small matter of winning.
And looking ahead, that’s all the Niners have to do on Sunday: We’ve had the miracle — now? We just need the win.