Today is the 30th anniversary of The Catch, one of the hallowed moments in Bay Area sports history. Maybe it's the most hallowed moment — Dwight Clark leaping at the back of the end zone with 58 seconds left and catching that throw from Joe Montana to beat the Dallas Cowboys, America's team, and the Niners going to the Super Bowl where you know what happened.
In honor of the anniversary, I caught up with Clark on the phone, Clark with his honeyed voice, Clark friendly and accommodating.
It's just that he didn't start by talking about The Catch. I asked him to compare the 1981 team and this season's team and he just took off like a wide receiver running Sprint Right Option, the very play he ran for The Catch. As we spoke, Clark's voice was excited and anxious and delighted as if he never played in the NFL or made The Catch. He sounded just like a Niners fan — exactly what he is these days.
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So here goes — Clark's conversation-opening monologue on the 1981 and 2011 teams. I'll be back in a while.
"It's way similar," he said. "We shocked everybody that year and this team has shocked everybody. I see similarities between Bill Walsh and Jim Harbaugh. Bill was a genius. Harbaugh comes up with some schematic thing on the field and I shake my head and say, &‘Where the hell did he come up with that?'
"They have a similar way of creating plays. Bill would come up with a play and he'd say, &‘Let's practice this pass play. This play against the right defense, you'll catch it and go. And I'm like, &‘Yeah.' And I'd catch it and there wouldn't be anyone within 10 yards of me. I see that with Harbaugh all the time. And remember we did that with Joe Montana. I'm proud of Alex (Smith) but he's not Joe Montana. Joe made all of us look good.
"Harbaugh is doing something special this year. I keep hearing Harbaugh is in Alex's headset until they turn off the mike with the play clock at 15 seconds. He's just saying things like, &‘Check the safety and go to the tight end. And if he's covered, go to the guy in the flat. And if he's not open, throw it away.'
"Alex is a smart guy. In his headset he's hearing a guy who played in the NFL. He's getting good information right before the snap. At the very end, he hears, &‘Don't turn it over.'
"I'm not in the building. I wonder what did that coaching staff see before the season. They said to each other, &‘We've got a great defense. We're going to sign this kicker (David Akers). We'll play field-position football. We're not sure about the quarterback. That was the formula. Was it an accident or did they really plan this? If they planned it, they're geniuses.
"In the past, I didn't even want to go to games. It had to be tough to write about them. I just wanted the team to be relevant. All I wanted this year was for the team to win four to six games and for people to say, &‘That's a team to watch in the future.' I didn't know the future would be December.