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25 years ago today, a single play changed the 49ers franchise forever

With 58 seconds remaining, Bill Walsh told quarterback Joe Montana which play to run.

Walsh then calmly gave Montana some final instructions before sending him back onto the field 25 years ago today to execute the play that would turn around the 49ers franchise.

"We're going to call a sprint option," Walsh said to Montana, as captured by NFL Films on the sideline at Candlestick Park in the closing minute of the 1982 NFC Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys.

The play had resulted in a Freddie Solomon touchdown reception in the first quarter. But Walsh advised Montana if the first option was covered, Dwight Clark might be open at the back of the end zone.

"He's going to break up and into the corner," Walsh said of Solomon. "You got it? Dwight will clear. As soon as you see the angle he's breaking, then just drop the ball in there. If you don't get what you want, simply throw the ball away. You know what I mean? Hold it, hold it, hold it, (if it's) not there, away it goes. Be ready to go to Dwight."

But could anybody really have been ready for what happened next?

Dallas Cowboys defenders Ed "Too Tall" Jones, D.D. Lewis and Larry Bethea were bearing down on Montana, who rolled to his right. When Montana let the ball go while back-pedaling 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage and near the sideline, it appeared to be hopelessly overthrown.

That is certainly what Cowboys cornerback Everson Walls thought. Instead, Clark stretched his 6-foot-4 frame as high as it could go to latch onto the pass with his fingertips.

A quarter-century later, it remains unchallenged as the most significant play in 49ers history. "The Catch" enabled the 49ers to defeat the Cowboys, 28-27, in the NFC championship game and paved the way for the organization's first Super Bowl title two weeks later against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"Not until a couple years later did it really sink in how important it was to the franchise, even though they kept saying it and saying it," Montana said. "When you look back on it and you see how difficult it was, a year or two after, to try to get back to that position.

"In my mind I'm thinking, 'We got past the Cowboys, we should do this every year.' When it didn't happen, that's when you start thinking, 'Wow, this was really special.' Who knew it would be a defining moment in NFL history?"

Before that game, played on a 55-degree day Jan. 10, 1982, for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, the Cowboys had owned the 49ers in the postseason.

The 1970 and '71 seasons ended with 49ers losses to the Cowboys in the NFC title games. In '72, the 49ers were bounced from the playoffs with a home loss to the Cowboys after failing to secure an onside kick with fewer than 90 seconds to play.

It appeared as if it might be another heart-breaking defeat when the 49ers took over at their own 11 with 4:54 remaining trailing 27-21.

"I remember thinking, 'We had 89 yards to go against America's Team; how can we possibly do it?'" Clark said.

Everyone figured the 49ers were going to try to throw the ball. Instead, Walsh opted to call running plays against the Cowboys' nickel defense. Five run plays, including a reverse to Freddie Solomon, gained 45 yards.

Montana, who had thrown three interceptions in the game, completed 5 of 8 passes for 39 yards on the final drive.

On third-and-3 from the 6, that is when Walsh called timeout for the 49ers to set up a play designed to get Solomon the ball in the right front corner of the end zone. Walsh described "sprint right option" as a pick play drawn up by legendary coach Paul Brown in the 1950s.

Although Walsh had Montana practice the throw to Clark in the back of the end zone during training camp, Montana had never thrown to Clark on that play in a game.

Solomon slipped as he made his cut parallel to the goal line, and Montana decided to hold the ball to see what might develop with Clark.

"I had to buy time, trying to wait for him (Clark) to realize that we didn't throw the ball (to Solomon)," Montana said, "and to get him to come back sliding across the back of the end zone."

Clark had been sick for most of the week leading up to the game. On the final drive, he was exhausted and dehydrated. Yet, somehow he managed to leap high to catch the uncatchable ball.

"I still remember (equipment manager) Chico Norton coming to me and saying, 'Your buddy saved your (butt) that time. He jumped out of the stadium,'" Montana said. "I said, 'Get out of here. He can't jump that high.' I thought Chico was just playing around. It wasn't until I went back and saw the replay. I didn't realize the ball was that high."

And, if that wasn't enough excitement for one day, the Cowboys still had a chance to win the game after 49ers kicker Ray Wersching made the extra point for a 28-27 lead.

On the Cowboys' first offensive play from their own 25-yard line, quarterback Danny White hit receiver Drew Pearson on a deep crossing route. Defenders Carlton Williamson and Ronnie Lott took each other out of the play, and Eric Wright made a horse-collar tackle of Pearson to stop him at the 49ers' 44 with 38 seconds remaining.

The Cowboys needed only about 15 yards more for a shot at the winning field goal, but on the next play defensive lineman Lawrence Pillars broke through to sack White, forcing a fumble. Jim Stuckey recovered for the 49ers to clinch the victory.

The 49ers would go on to win 10 or more games the next 16 seasons - excluding 1982, when just nine games were played due to a players' strike. They would win four Super Bowls in a nine-year stretch.

But after that game 25 years ago, the late Tom Landry, coach of the Cowboys, was not ready to predict the 49ers would be the dominant NFL franchise of the 1980s.

"The 49ers aren't a better team than us," said Landry, according to a quote sheet distributed to reporters afterward, "but the game ended at the right time for them. Montana has to be the key. There's nothing else there except him."

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