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-in-cheek remark. “And he kicked his feet up to make it look like he was jumping high.”
The six-foot-four 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 will be in Toronto on Friday night and Saturday appearing at the Fan Expo. This year, the pop culture convention has included sports as a genre with Montana and other athletes participating in panels and question-and-answer sessions.
Also scheduled to appear are 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. “He (Orr) is one of my all-time 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 back yard 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.”