The Catch (American football)

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The Catch
1234 Total
DAL 107010 27
SF 7777 28
DateJanuary 10, 1982
StadiumCandlestick Park, San Francisco, California
RefereeJim Tunney
TV in the United States
AnnouncersVin Scully and Hank Stram

The Catch was the winning touchdown reception in the 1981 NFC Championship Game played between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on January 10, 1982, as part of the 1981–82 NFL playoffs following the 1981 NFL season. With 58 seconds left in the game and the 49ers facing 3rd-and-3, San Francisco wide receiver Dwight Clark made a leaping grab in the back of the end zone to complete a 6-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Montana, enabling the 49ers to defeat the Cowboys, 28–27. The Catch is widely regarded as one of the most memorable events in National Football League (NFL) history. It came at the end of a 14-play, 83-yard drive engineered by Montana. The game represented the end of the Cowboys' domination in the NFC since the conference's inception in 1970, and the beginning of the 49ers' rise as an NFL dynasty in the 1980s.

Game summary[edit]

After San Francisco forced Dallas to punt on the opening drive, quarterback Joe Montana completed a 17-yard pass to Charle Young and a 24-yarder to Lenvil Elliott before throwing an 8-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Freddie Solomon. Dallas responded with Danny White's 20-yard pass to Butch Johnson setting up a 44-yard field goal by Rafael Septién. Then 49ers running back Bill Ring lost a fumble on his own 29, leading to White's 26-yard touchdown pass to Tony Hill that put the Cowboys up 10–7.

In the second quarter, San Francisco reached the Cowboys' 27-yard line, only to lose the ball when Everson Walls intercepted a pass from Montana in the end zone. After forcing a Dallas punt, Montana threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Clark to retake the lead, 14–10. Dallas responded with an 80-yard drive, including a controversial pass interference penalty on 49ers defensive back Ronnie Lott which nullified his interception and gave the Cowboys a 35-yard gain to the San Francisco 12-yard line. Three plays later, running back Tony Dorsett scored a 5-yard rushing touchdown to give Dallas a 17–14 lead. The 49ers had another chance to score before halftime when they recovered a fumbled punt on the Dallas 42. After a 15-yard illegal block penalty on Clark, Montana lost a fumble while being sacked by Harvey Martin. The Cowboys fared no better as White was sacked twice on their next drive, once by Jim Stuckey and once by Lawrence Pillers, and the half ended soon after.

In the third quarter, San Francisco had another scoring opportunity when Dwight Hicks returned a punt 12 yards to midfield. The 49ers then drove to the Dallas 16-yard line, but once again they failed to score when Montana threw a pass that bounced out of Elliot's hands and was intercepted by Randy White. However, the Cowboys soon returned the favor with Danny White's interception to linebacker Bobby Leopold, and this time the 49ers converted, regaining the lead at 21–17 with a 2-yard touchdown run by running back Johnny Davis.

One minute into the fourth quarter, Septien kicked a 22-yard field goal that cut the scoring difference down to 1 point at 21–20. Then Walls recovered a fumble from running back Walt Easley at midfield to set up White's 21-yard touchdown pass to tight end Doug Cosbie, giving Dallas a 27–21 advantage. Things got even better for Dallas when Walls recorded his second interception from Montana on the next drive at the Cowboys 27. Dallas managed to pick up a few first downs, but were forced to punt, and White's kick gave San Francisco the ball at their own 11 with 4:54 left in the game and three timeouts.[1]

49ers' final drive[edit]

Montana led the 49ers 83 yards to the Dallas 6-yard line with the following drive:[2]

  • 1st and 10 from the SF 11: Montana incomplete pass, dropped by Elliott
  • 2nd and 10 from the SF 11: Elliott 6-yard run
  • 3rd and 4 from the SF 17: Montana 6-yard pass to Solomon
  • 1st and 10 from the SF 23: Elliott 11-yard run
  • 1st and 10 from the SF 34: Elliott 7-yard run
  • 2nd and 3 from the SF 41: Montana incomplete pass, through Elliott's hands
  • 3rd and 3 from the SF 41: Offside penalty on Cowboys, 5 yards
  • 1st and 10 from the SF 46: Montana 5-yard pass to Earl Cooper (2 minute warning)
  • 2nd and 5 from the Dallas 49: Solomon 14-yard run on a WR reverse
  • 1st and 10 from the Dallas 35: Montana 10-yard pass to Clark
  • 1st and 10 from the Dallas 25: Montana 13-yard pass to Solomon (49ers first timeout, 1:15 remaining)
  • 1st and 10 from the Dallas 12: Montana incomplete pass, intended for Solomon in end zone
  • 2nd and 10 from the Dallas 12: Elliott 6-yard run (49ers second timeout, 58 seconds remaining)

The play[edit]

Schematic of the action The Catch

Following the 49ers second timeout, they came up to a third down with three yards to go on the Cowboys' 6-yard line with 58 seconds left in the game.

The 49ers lined up in a split backs formation, with Joe Montana under center. Wide receiver Freddie Solomon (the play's intended target) was lined up in the right slot, while Dwight Clark (who ended up catching the pass) was outside of Solomon, wide to the right.

When Montana took the snap, the play, known as Sprint Right Option, was intended to be a pick-play to set up a quick pass to Solomon; earlier in the game, Solomon had scored a touchdown on that play.[3] However, Solomon slipped while running his route, thus ruining the timing of the play, as Clark was no longer in position to set the pick. As such, the Cowboys were able to cover 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 and linebacker D. D. Lewis chased a backpedalling Montana toward the sideline, and seemed certain to either send him out of bounds or sack him. But at the last moment, and after a pump-fake 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 touchdown grab with his fingertips to tie the game with 51 seconds left. The ensuing extra point by kicker Ray Wersching gave the 49ers a 28–27 lead. Clark finished the game with 8 catches for 120 yards and 2 touchdowns.

The play, remembered in 49ers lore as "Change Left Slot – Sprint Right Option[4]" had called for both Clark and the primary receiver, Solomon, 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 was covered, it would be up to Montana to find Clark. Due to the pressure, Montana's pass was high, but Clark was in position to make his memorable grab.

A photograph of the catch by Walter Iooss, Jr., with Clark at the height of his leap and Everson Walls reaching out to try to block the ball, was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week.[5]

Other contributors on the final 89-yard drive that led to the play now referred to as “The Catch” included Lenvil Elliott (RB), Earl Cooper (FB), Freddie Solomon (WR), Charle Young (TE), Dan Audick (LT), John Ayers (LG), Fred Quillan (C), Randy Cross (RG), and Keith Fahnhorst (RT).


Some people claimed that Montana was trying to throw the ball away, leaving time for a fourth down. Clark disputes that assertion, claiming that it was a backup plan that they practiced many times. Montana confirmed that he could not see the end zone through the defenders, but claims that he knew exactly where Clark would be. The 49ers coach, Bill Walsh, assumed that it was a throw-away play and immediately began planning for the fourth down until he heard the cheers from the crowd.

As for the height of the catch, Montana has said that he didn't feel that he threw the ball very high. However, Clark leaped as high as he could only to get his fingertips on the ball. In the Sports Illustrated article, Montana explained that he never saw The Catch, since he had just been knocked to the ground by Jones, but "I saw Dwight's feet touch the ground. I heard the crowd scream." Later, in the locker room, he expressed his amazement at how high Clark had jumped.

According to Clark, Jones reacted to the play by stating "You just beat America's Team" to Montana after the pass was caught, to which Montana replied, "Well, you can sit at home with the rest of America and watch the Super Bowl."[6]

While Clark's touchdown (and Wersching's extra point) had given San Francisco the lead, the game was not yet over as there was still 51 seconds left on the clock, with Dallas needing only a field goal to win. After the ensuing kickoff, Dallas receiver Drew Pearson caught a long pass, but defensive back Eric Wright made a touchdown-saving horse collar-type tackle (then a legal tackle) to keep him from scoring. This play was known as "The Grab". On the next play, quarterback Danny White fumbled the ball while being sacked by Lawrence Pillers, and San Francisco's Jim Stuckey recovered the ball, sealing victory for the 49ers who held on to win 28-27.

Clark, while discussing The Catch in America's Game: The Super Bowl Champions documentary about the 1981 49ers, said:

It's humbling, really. I feel honored people are still talking about it, 25 years later. I am honored to be able to be a part of a play that was kind of the culmination of just this incredible surprise season. It's great to give 49er fans that moment that they can relive over and over and over, and I know they do because when I am in San Francisco and a lot of places, people want to talk about that play and how it crushed the Cowboys and sent them into submission for a decade. I never get tired of talking about it; I never get tired of seeing it, because I sign pictures and send them to people. I see that catch every day. I may sit and think about that moment couple of times a year, and how awesome it was to be a part of that play and to be a part of the 49ers in the '80s.

Play calling[edit]

The Catch was immortalized by three dramatic broadcast play-by-play calls. Vin Scully described the play on CBS Television:

Montana... looking, looking, throwing in the end zone... Clark caught it! Dwight Clark!... It's a madhouse at Candlestick!

Meanwhile, Jack Buck had the call over on CBS Radio:

Montana lines up at the five... and on third down and three he rolls right, looking to throw... looking to throw... and he throws into the end zone... Touchdown! Touchdown! Touchdown, San Francisco, by Dwight Clark!

Finally, Don Klein called the play locally for the 49ers on KCBS:

Third and three. He has the ball, Montana rolling out to the right... looking toward the end zone... throwing under pressure... throws his pass... Caught by (Dwight) Clark! Clark's got a touchdown! Dwight Clark has it! It's a touchdown for the 49ers!


The game was broadcast in the United States by CBS with Vin Scully doing the play-by-play and Hank Stram doing the color commentary on television and Jack Buck and Pat Summerall doing the play-by-play and color respectively on radio.


This game was a watershed in the historic fortunes of both the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys. The 49ers began the 1970s winning three consecutive NFC West titles (1970–1972) and losing two NFC Championship Games (1970-1971 seasons) to the Cowboys, but spent the remainder of the decade as a losing team. After "The Catch", the 49ers went on to win Super Bowl XVI 26-21 over the Cincinnati Bengals. The 49ers made the playoffs eight out of the next ten seasons, missing the postseason in 1982 despite being defending champions, winning three more Super Bowls in the 1980s to amass a dynasty. 49ers quarterback Joe Montana went on to gain a reputation as a clutch performer.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys, one of the most successful NFC teams in the 1970s with five Super Bowl appearances and two wins, never made it back to the Super Bowl in the 1980s. In the following season, the Cowboys reached their third straight NFC Championship Game, where they were defeated 31–17 by their archrival Washington Redskins. This ended a remarkable period that saw the Cowboys play in 10 of 13 conference championship games, while starting quarterback Danny White drew criticism for "not being able to win the big game," despite leading the team to successful winning seasons in those years. This ultimately led to a quarterback controversy in 1984 between White and Gary Hogeboom, especially after Hogeboom showed a Staubach-like comeback in the loss to Washington in the 1983 NFC Championship Game. The Cowboys managed to make the playoffs in the 1983 and 1985 seasons, only to be knocked out in the first round, then failed to reach the postseason for the rest of the decade. In fact, beginning in 1986, the Cowboys went on to suffer losing seasons for the remainder of the eighties, leading to head coach Tom Landry being fired by new owner Jerry Jones after the 1988 season.

The Cowboys saw an even more dismal 1–15 season in 1989, which saw the debut of #1 draft pick quarterback Troy Aikman and first-year head coach Jimmy Johnson; it is the franchise's worst season since their inaugural 1960 season when they went 0–11–1. Despite the 1–15 record to close out the decade, the Cowboys' future became brighter when they went on to become a dynasty in their own right, winning three Super Bowls in the 1990s—two of them back-to-back, defeating the same opponent (Buffalo Bills). The 1992-1994 seasons would see the Cowboys and 49ers face off in three straight NFC Championship games, with Aikman's Cowboys winning the first two and Steve Young's (who succeeded Montana as starting quarterback) 49ers winning the last one; each victorious team following it up with a Super Bowl title. The NFC Championship for the 1992 season was the first time that the Cowboys and 49ers had met in the playoffs since "The Catch".


Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, a Bay Area native who ultimately grew up idolizing Montana on his way to his own successful NFL career, attended the game as a four-year-old, and aspired to become a Niner.[7]

In 2002, the NFL ran a series of advertisements promoting the playoffs, using famous plays as a uniting theme. Actor Don Cheadle demonstrated the height of Clark's catch by standing on a stepladder in the end zone.

Clark and Montana re-enacted The Catch in observance of the 25th anniversary of the play as part of San Francisco alumni day activities at halftime of the Minnesota game November 5, 2006, at Candlestick Park.

On October 21, 2018, the 49ers unveiled a statue outside Levi's Stadium depicting The Catch. The statue features two life-size figures, Montana with his arms in the air celebrating the touchdown and, 23 yards away, Clark leaping to make The Catch.[8] Clark's catch was a popular photo location among Clemson Tigers fans during their 44-16 win over Alabama in the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship held at Levi's Stadium.

In 2019, in celebration of the NFL's 100th season, NFL Films ranked The Catch second on its list of the 100 Greatest Plays [9]

This would be the final professional football game that Vin Scully would call the play by play as well as the final game that Pat Summerall did color commentary.

In popular culture[edit]

Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, the play was immortalized in advertisements for Kodak film: a television commercial using a snippet of Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were" as its jingle and featuring The Catch as shown by NFL Films, and a magazine ad featuring a photo still of The Catch, accompanied by the caption, "The 49ers grab a TD and a title."

In the October 16, 2001 episode "My Old Lady" of the American television sitcom/medical drama Scrubs, when a dying patient David asks if anyone has ever heard of The Catch, Turk comes in and says, "Niners-Cowboys, Joe Montana to Dwight Clark deep in the end-zone, zero time left. Kid, please, don't insult me." Turk later joins David in watching the game.

In 2005, a commercial for the Gatorade sports drink, known as "The Winning Formula", portrayed an alternate version of The Catch, in which the ball bounced out of Clark's fingertips. Following the Gatorade logo, the real version was shown with Dwight Clark's completion. This is also done with Derek Jeter's "flip play" going wide of home plate and Michael Jordan's famous buzzer-beater against Cleveland going off the rim.

On August 5, 2007, The Best Damn Sports Show Period did a special show commemorating the top 50 amazing sports catches of all time. The Catch is listed as #17.


  • Referee: Jim Tunney (#3)
  • Umpire: Bob Boylston (#5)
  • Head Linesman: Ed Marion (#6)
  • Line Judge: Bob Beeks (#16)
  • Field Judge: Ed Merrifield (#20)
  • Side Judge: Dean Look (#9)
  • Back Judge: Ray Douglas (#5)
  • Alternate Referee: Gordon McCarter
  • Alternate Umpire: Dave Moss

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ 1981 NFC Championship Game: NFL Full Game on YouTube
  3. ^ Keown, Tim (December 15, 1997). "49ers finally put away Cowboys To begin their Super Bowl run". San Francisco Chronicle. p. C4.
  4. ^ "1982 San Francisco 49ers offensive playbook" (PDF). Football XO's. p. 325. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Shumann, Mike (January 10, 2007). "25th Anniversary Of 'The Catch'". Archived from the original on May 29, 2007.
  7. ^ "New England Patriots vs. Oakland Raiders – Recap". 2011-10-02. Retrieved 2012-02-06.
  8. ^ "Joe Montana on 'The Catch' statues: 'An honor to be remembered forever'". San Francisco Chronicle. 2018-10-21. Retrieved 2018-10-29.
  9. ^ "100 Greatest Plays: Numbers 5-1 | NFL 100". 2019-09-24. Retrieved 2019-09-24.