By Bruce Macgowan
Special to The Examiner
Candlestick Park was on edge. A packed house of over 63,000 fans was standing and yelling and screaming as the stadium literally shook with excitement. Down on the scarred field below with just over a minute to play, the 49ers and Cowboys lined up for the play of the game.
High above the action in the press box, I sat nervously with a telephone in hand, ready to go live with one of the two national radio networks I was working for that day.
Sitting next to me was former 49ers tight end Monty Stickles, at that time a KGO radio talk show host and color commentator for the Oakland Raiders. A big, blocky fellow with a classic square jaw, Stickles could be brusque and profane. The former Notre Dame star also had been one of the dirtiest players in the NFL when he starred for the 49ers during the 1960s.
“I can’t believe that they might win this #$%@& game!” he said loudly as we watched the action unfold.
Trailing 26-21 with just over four minutes remaining, the Niners had driven from their own 11 yard line to the Dallas six on the strength of several clutch runs by a journeyman running back named Lenvil Elliott, a stunning 14-yard end reverse by veteran wide receiver Freddie Solomon and a couple of short Joe Montana passes to Solomon and Dwight Clark.
“Nobody goes the length of the field against our defense in the final minutes,” veteran Cowboys defensive back Charlie Waters said after that game.
But here were the 49ers with a third-and-goal at the Cowboys six-yard line. The two teams dug in. It had been a classic NFL battle that had already seen the lead change hands five times. Now with the clock winding down, it was like watching two heavyweight boxers; fighters almost totally spent, yet each trying to summon up that last ounce of energy to throw the knockout punch.
By now, exactly 40 years later, 49ers fans have no doubt seen Montana’s game winning TD pass to Clark so many times they can remember virtually everything about it.
When Clark leapt high in the back of the end zone and caught that pass with his fingertips, time stood still for just an instant. Then Clark’s feet hit the ground just inside the back of the end zone and he slammed the ball into the turf while being engulfed by teammates and a few fans who had massed along the sidelines.
The crowd exploded in joy and even in the press box upstairs the roar was so deafening we could barely hear ourselves.
“I can’t believe he $#^%@ing did it!!!” Stickles said loudly in my ear while nudging me in the ribs with a big elbow.
Neither could the Cowboys. After the game Clark told reporters:
“I heard Joe was knocked down and didn’t even see that I caught the ball. Either ‘Too Tall’ Jones or Harvey Martin stood over him and said: ‘You just beat America’s team.’ And then you know what Joe said? ‘Well, you can just go watch the Super Bowl like the rest of America!’ ”
Years later, Dallas defensive back Everson Walls, who had enjoyed a brilliant day with two interceptions until that play, ruefully chuckled as he recalled the moment.
“My whole NFL career has been about trying to avoid being on the wrong side of a play like that!”
An iconic photo on the cover of Sports Illustrated later that week showed Clark leaping over the stunned Walls who hadn’t contested the pass. In the photo you can see Walls looking up in stunned disbelief.
“I didn’t think he had a prayer of catching that ball,” Walls said afterward in the Cowboys’ funereal locker room.
That monumental NFC Title game was one of seven playoff games between two teams in the space of 25 years. And it should be noted that six of those games were in NFC Finals with a Superbowl hanging in the balance. Dallas won four of those games, but the 49ers’ win on Jan. 10, 1982, was probably the most exciting of the bunch. It was a game San Francisco was not supposed to win. It was a win they managed to pull off even though they turned the ball over six times, despite having to drive nearly the length of the field in the final minutes.
That victory temporarily ended a stretch of frustration for 49er fans, which had seen the Cowboys win three straight playoff games over San Francisco in the early 1970s.
I vividly remember going to the 1972 first-round game at Candlestick as a fan, and watching Roger Staubach engineer a stunning win by taking the Cowboys in for two TDs in the final two and a half minutes. It was so quiet at Candlestick after the game that day that The Examiner’s Wells Twombly wrote: “The fans at Candlestick were so stunned that they looked as if they had been spray painted by concrete.”
Other games from this rivalry feature distinct moments:
The Cowboys edging the Niners in the NFC Title game 17-10 in the last 49ers game ever played at old Kezar Stadium. The Niners ending a frustrating three-game stretch when Steve Young led San Francisco to an impressive win 24 years later at Candlestick on the way to the team’s fifth Super Bowl title. And, of course, the incredible win of 40 years ago that kick-started the 49ers dynasty of the 1980s.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that 49ers and Cowboys meet again Sunday to see which team continues its season.
Bruce Macgowan is a freelance contributor to The Examiner. He has covered Bay Area sports for over 30 years.