The emotion of the moment overcame him, an unexpected yet understandable reaction to one of the most dramatic catches in San Francisco 49ers history.
As Vernon Davis fell into the end zone while clutching the 14-yard pass from Alex Smith that gave the Niners a thrilling divisional-round playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints at Candlestick Park last Saturday, the man who made The Catch in the same stadium three decades earlier stood 50 feet away – and felt as if he were floating through the past.
While 69,732 fans celebrated wildly, Davis took off his helmet and began to cry.
Dwight Clark, bless his nostalgic, red-and-gold-bleeding heart, very nearly lost it, too.
"It was just a weird, emotional feeling," Clark said Sunday night. "I just felt this overwhelming emotion. … I guess it was of joy and happiness. I was happy for all those guys who had struggled for so long, and for the fans. It was so nice to get caught up in that moment of ecstasy.
"The place was going nuts. It was a lot like the old days. I didn't even know Vernon Davis had gone running to the sidelines crying. I just know I felt something. I couldn't quite get a grip on what had happened. It was an odd thing to feel after a victory. It was like, Oh my God, what just happened? I didn't cry, but I felt like I could have."
A former Niners star who later served as the team's general manager, Clark has spent the 2011 season serving as a first-year analyst for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area's "49ers Postgame Live." He watched Davis' touchdown catch from the show's set in the southeast corner of the stadium, near the visitors' locker-room tunnel, and he'll be there again when the Niners host the New York Giants in Sunday's NFC championship game.
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Whereas Davis scored in the adjacent end zone, Clark's leaping, six-yard catch of Joe Montana's pass in the 1981 NFC championship game against the Dallas Cowboys occurred on the north side of the stadium – and the image has been imprinted upon the psyches of football fans ever since.
The 30th anniversary of The Catch occurred last Tuesday, five days before the clash between the 49ers and Saints, and a day rarely has passed since in which someone fails to remind Clark of its impact.
"Yeah, I've heard a million stories," Clark says. "It seems like half of 'em are from Cowboy fans: 'You made me cry for weeks. … I couldn't come out of my room.' And then, of course, from 49er fans: 'I jumped off my sofa and broke my ankle. … I cut my hand on the ceiling fan.' It was a big day for the emergency rooms.
"Down near my house [near Santa Cruz, Calif.] just the other day, a convenience store owner I know told me, 'Yeah, man, I can't believe it was 30 years ago. I was living in San Francisco, and as soon as the game was over we just ran out into the street, and people were dancing, screaming, drinking, shooting guns into the air.' "
There's even a classic anecdote from his parents, who were at home in North Carolina watching the game on TV: "Toward the end, my dad couldn't even watch. He thought he was gonna have a heart attack. He went into the back bedroom, and my mom would shout out what was going on. And then, 'Honey, get in here! Dwight caught the ball!' And then his heart was really pounding."
For what it's worth, I, too, have a story about The Catch, having grown up as a fervent 49ers fan, back before I started covering football for a living (and thus adopted 32 babies that I would come to love equally). I was 16 when my dad and I watched it on TV, having banished my mom to the other room for superstitious reasons, and at the time it pretty much ranked as the greatest moment in my life – probably greater than all the other good moments combined.
If you weren't a San Franciscan or a Niners fan, it's hard to contemplate what that victory over the Cowboys – and the subsequent Super Bowl XVI triumph over the Bengals – truly meant. But I'm going to try to convey it anyway.
San Francisco, at the time, had never won a major professional championship in any sport. The 49ers had been eliminated from the playoffs in three consecutive years (1970-72) by the Cowboys – twice in the NFC championship game, once with an 11-point lead at the two-minute warning. They were vexed; they were hexed; and when Dallas took a late 27-21 lead and Montana, Clark and the boys took over at their own 11-yard with one shot at salvation, we were all nervous wrecks.
And then, sweet, delicious euphoria: Montana rolling right and somehow hoisting a pass over three massive, onrushing defenders, and Clark sliding back across the end zone, getting big air and coming down with a fingertip grab for the ages. The resulting victory essentially ended one remarkable reign as an NFL power – that of Tom Landry's Cowboys – and launched the most impressive run of sustained excellence (five Super Bowl championships in 14 seasons, and a streak of 16 consecutive seasons with 10 or more victories) modern football has known.
At the time, it brought an emphatic end to a pattern of deflated dreams. Watch the CBS feed, and look at the crowd reaction. There was a T-shirt that surfaced in the city that season which read, simply, "Forty [Expletive] Niners." That vibe permeates the disbelieving bedlam you see in the footage.
Clark, the 6-foot-4 wideout who, in CBS announcer Vin Scully's inimitable words, stood "about 10 feet tall in this crowd's estimation," was a perfect protagonist for the unlikely victors. Selected in the 10th round of the 1979 draft – yep, there were 12 rounds back then – Clark was only noticed by 49ers coach Bill Walsh after being enlisted by Clemson teammate Steve Fuller to catch passes during the quarterback's pre-draft workout.
The accidental star would go on to play nine seasons, catching 506 passes for 6,750 yards and 48 touchdowns. He earned two Pro Bowl selections and won two Super Bowls before retiring and making a seamless transition into the Niners' front office. The Catch occurred in his third season, and at first he didn't understand its magnitude.
"In the months after we won the Super Bowl, I would hear stories from the older guys – about how we finally got past the Cowboys and what it all meant," Clark says. "For 30 years, you hear story after story, and there are a million out there about why 49er fans felt like they'd gotten over that hump. The 49ers just never had bragging rights. Now, they had arrived.
"At Bill [Walsh]'s funeral [in 2007], I heard [famed sociologist and longtime 49ers executive] Harry Edwards talk, and it was only then that I understood what the city was going through at that time. The city was struggling. The mayor [George Moscone) had been shot (in 1978), AIDS was starting to strike, and people were really in the dumps. And the 49ers winning kind of kick-started the city, got people feeling good again. I'd never realized the big-picture side of that. It's a pretty cool thing to be part of."
It also came out of nowhere. Walsh, who took over as coach in 1979, was 2-14 in his first year and 6-10 in his second. In the 21st century, dramatic one-season turnarounds aren't abnormal, but at the time the notion of an under-.500 team becoming a champion the next season was almost unthinkable.
Having been part of that improbable journey in '81, Clark, not surprisingly, has been especially moved by the current team's triumphs. Within a few years of that first Super Bowl season, Montana became a superstar, Walsh a living legend and the Niners a perennial power that provoked fear in opponents. Those stacked San Francisco teams – and the ones coached by Walsh's successors, George Seifert and Steve Mariucci – sneaked up on no one.
For the better part of the last decade, the air had gone out of the once-mighty franchise. This year's Niners appeared destined to miss the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season, especially given the challenges posed by the presence of a new coaching staff facing an offseason wiped out by a work stoppage. They, too, were coming off a 6-10 season, and – as with the '81 team – would finish a surprising 13-3.
Clark certainly didn't see that coming when Jim Harbaugh and his staff took over last January.
"I swear to God, because of the new coach, and no offseason, I'm thinking four to six wins, maybe," he says. "I thought they'd split with the division, beat Cleveland and maybe somebody else in there. Then they started playing, and I was like, 'What the … ?' I don't know how to explain it. There had to be a lot of talent on the team, and this coaching staff was able to get the most out of it, finally.
"During the '80s and '90s, it almost feels like that was another team. This is a new team bringing these surprising wins. There are a lot of similarities, including the (bold) play-calling at key times. How they create these plays – Harbaugh and Walsh, they've got balls of steel to call some of this stuff. A reverse to Freddie Solomon on that last drive (before The Catch)? Are you kidding me? And then Harbaugh calls a bootleg (for an Alex Smith fourth-quarter touchdown against the Saints)? And it works!"
Clark wasn't present for the sequel to The Catch: Terrell Owens' improbable touchdown reception in the final seconds on a pass from Steve Young to give the Niners a 1998 home playoff victory over the Packers. He had left the organization weeks earlier to serve as the GM for the newly reincarnated Browns, following former Niners president Carmen Policy to Cleveland. Clark and Policy watched Owens' catch at the home of late Browns owner Al Lerner.
"That experience was not anything like this one was," Clark recalls. "Not that I was pulling against the 49ers – that's impossible for me to do, even right after I left – but these guys, I just really am pulling for them. I really like Jim Harbaugh. And it's been such a dry spell for the 49er fans, it's just so nice to hear them roar again. For some reason, I feel way more connected to these guys."
Clark has enjoyed visiting with current Niners players on the postgame show. Most of them, he says, don't seem to recognize him when they sit down on the set, but when he introduces himself, Clark says, "They say, 'Oh, The Catch!' A lot of them know their Niner history."
Clark doesn't usually discuss much about the historic play with the current San Francisco players. When he does reflect on the experience, he tends not to get overly sentimental. Watching it, however, is another matter: "When I see it, especially when you see the whole drive, and then you hear the announcer, "Montana rolls right" … I get chills. It still raises the hair on my arms."
Last Sunday, three decades removed from his seismic moment in San Francisco lore, Clark was back at The 'Stick feeling festive and unfettered. He and his wife, Kelly, hosted a pregame tailgate party in the players' parking lot complete with tasty food and old friends, including anthem singer Huey Lewis and bandmate Billy Gibson. He saw a few former teammates, including cornerback Eric Wright, a standout rookie on the '81 squad whose by-the-shoulder-pad tackle of Cowboys receiver Drew Pearson on the first play after The Catch helped preserve the victory.
Then the game began, and Clark was just like any other fan – until the stirring finish stoked something indelible within.
"It was just such an emotional final five minutes," he says. "And in the end, when Vernon caught that ball, they had overcome nine years of futility. My wife was right there with me. We were hugging and kissing and had our arms up in victory. There were high fives all around, with everyone I could find."
Realistically, Clark probably high-fived only a few fans in the front row near the Comcast set. Symbolically, however, those hands have touched millions, something I appreciate on a deeply personal level.
Perhaps, in time, Davis will get a small taste of that sensation as well.
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