Tue, 02 Mar 2021

Faithful Time Machine: Reliving the 1981 NFC Championship Game

San Francisco 49ers
16 Jan 2021, 04:44 GMT+10

Chris Mavraedis

Greetings Faithful! It's Mavo and I've been Faithful since 1959 when I was seven years old and saw my first Niners game at Kezar Stadium. From time to time, I will be taking you back with me in my time machine to relive important 49ers milestones and glorious moments of triumph. During our journey through time, I will relate my personal remembrances as a member of the Faithful for over 60 years from a fan's perspective. I've set the target date to January 10, 1982, a red-letter day in 49ers history. So c'mon, strap in tight and let's get going!

Sunday was the 39th Anniversary of "The Catch."

Note: As the years have passed, this game has taken on deeper significance for me outside of the excitement of "The Catch" and first Super Bowl appearance by the Niners. This is due to something the late Dwight Clark and I have in common. Clark passed in 2018 due to ALS. This was especially heartbreaking for my family because my wife, Lizzy, and I have been courageously battling ALS for 12 years now! There is an incredible unbreakable brotherhood that develops among people that battle ALS.

Rest in peace brother Dwight!

January 10th 1982 dawned with unprecedented nervous anticipation by the Faithful, including me. Our singular mantra that day was - BEAT DALLAS! The Niners were playing the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC Championship later that day and the Faithful were uneasy, like the first day of school.

That uneasiness was because this was the third time our Niners played the Cowboys with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. A decade before, after the 1970 and 1971 seasons, the Cowboys had twice dashed the 49ers Super Bowl plans in NFC Championship games. The Cowboys won those matchups with a smothering defense. Dallas made it three-straight playoff wins over the 49ers in a divisional playoff game in 1972 when Roger Staubach led a miraculous fourth-quarter comeback. Those playoff losses to Dallas were the last time our Niners were in the playoffs.

Would the third time matched up with the Cowboys in the NFC Championship be the charm? There were good reasons why this third time would be different. The main reason for optimism was the previous meeting by these two rivals earlier that season. Three months before, Dallas head coach Tom Landry and his team left The Stick after losing 45-14.

On that cold Sunday morning of uneasiness, I was in Jackson, Miss., managing an IT project for Levi Strauss & Co. To add additional spice to the situation, for the last two years I had worked many times in the new Levi's Dallas office. In October, I had taken great satisfaction, not to mention a lot of serious gloating, collecting many wagers from my Dallas colleagues after the 49ers last meeting against the Cowboys. In fact, there was one lifelong Cowboys fan, originally from Dallas, on our team in Mississippi.

I had my team go into the office in the morning to get some work done before game time. An hour before the game, we all headed back to my room at the Holiday Inn to watch the Niners game. By the time we left work at 3 p.m., we knew the Bengals had beaten the Chargers, 27-7. The normally high-scoring Dan Fouts led Air Coryell Chargers offense had been frozen out by the minus 32 wind chill and gusty 35 mph wind conditions. Fouts later claimed it was the wind that adversely affected his high-powered passing game rather than the bone-chilling temperatures.

As our team gathered to watch the pregame show, you could cut the tension with a knife. This was a HUGE game, especially for the Niners who were hoping to avenge three-straight years of bitter playoff losses a decade before.

This is a long article that describes the 1981 NFC Championship game in detail. If you don't want to read the detailed play-by-play of the game from my personal perspective, please go to "The Drive" section further down. I would highly recommend, especially to younger Niners fans, watch this entire game. I do it at least once or twice a year.

The game started really well for the Niners. Dallas won the coin toss and elected to receive. After the kickoff, Dallas started at their 27. After the 49ers defense forced a three and out highlighted by a sack of Dallas quarterback Danny White by Dwaine Board, San Francisco took over on their 37 yard line.

Using Bill Walsh's scripted plays, Montana promptly drove the Niners 63 yards to a touchdown in just six plays! Montana hit Freddie Solomon with an eight-yard touchdown pass. After a Ray Wersching extra point, only 4:19 had elapsed in the first quarter. The Faithful at the Holiday Inn in Jackson, Mississippi were ecstatic!

In return, the Cowboys took the kickoff and drove down the field 44 yards in nine plays, resulting in a 44-yard field goal by Rafael Septien with 4:44 left in the first quarter.

49ers 7 - Cowboys 3

The next 49ers possession would make all the Faithful realize this game would be a hard-hitting, fierce dogfight. One of my favorite Niners, running back Bill Ring, fumbled on the third play from scrimmage and Dallas recovered at the 49ers 29. Two plays later, White dropped a perfect pass into the hands of Tony Hill, despite Eric Wright's tight coverage for a 26-yard TD pass. After the extra point, it was Cowboys 10 - 49ers 7 with 2:49 left in the first quarter.

The first quarter ended with the teams trading punts. But the Niners got something going at the start of the second quarter. After a first down, Montana eluded Dallas' Ed "Too Tall" Jones with some great footwork and hit Clark for 38 yards to the Dallas 27. On 3rd-and-5, Montana passed long for Mike Wilson but was intercepted by Everson Walls at the Dallas 2 yard line.

The 49ers defense held and Dallas punted from their 10 yard line. On first down, Earl Cooper ran the ball straight up the gut for a gain of 11. Cries of, "Coop! Coop!" broke out in the room. Three plays later, Montana escaped a heavy all-out blitz. With a Dallas linebacker clinging to his left ankle, he completed a 20-yard touchdown pass to Clark who was all alone in the end zone. Pandemonium broke out at our party!

Rather than describe the whole game play-by-play from here, I will highlight the controversial, great plays and, of course, the final glorious drive. After Montana's Houdini-like touchdown pass to Clark, White threw deep down the right sideline to Drew Pearson. Ronnie Lott picked off the pass at the 49ers 7 yard line and returned it to the Niners 37. The official, Dean Look, called Lott for pass interference and placed the ball at the Niners 12 yard line. When we saw the replay, I threw the small pillow I was holding at the TV! Former Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl IV winning coach Stram, doing analysis with Vin Scully on the CBS broadcast thought the call was incorrect, mentioning it multiple times. Three plays after the pass interference call, Tony Dorsett ran five yards for the touchdown. That touchdown marked the fourth lead change of the half.

The last two minutes of the half were action packed with even more twists and turns of fate. Immediately after the two minute warning, Montana got flattened by Ed "Too Tall" Jones. It was a violent hit that I'm still surprised Montana got up from.

Jim Miller, the Niners bare-footed punter, punted to midfield after the sack of Montana. Dallas return man James Jones muffed it and Amos Lawrence recovered the ball on the Dallas 42. The Niners were back in business! After a defensive holding call on Dallas moved the ball to the 35, the Niners got hit with another controversial call. Clark was penalized 15 yards for an illegal crackback block. Stram called it a "surprising call."

Instead of 1st-and-5 at the Dallas 30, it was first and twenty at the Dallas 45. The next play, Dallas knocked the ball out of Montana's hand before he could move it forward and Dallas recovered the fumble on the 49ers 48.

At the half, the 49ers had out-gained the Cowboys 206 yards to 108, however, San Francisco had turned the football over three times to the Cowboys one. Oh, those darned turnovers!

Halftime score: Dallas 17 - Niners 14

Halfway through the third quarter, the Niners were driving towards an apparent go-ahead touchdown. On 1st-and-10 at the Dallas 16, Montana threw a short pass over the middle intended for 49ers running back Lenvil Elliott. The pass was a tad high and bounced off Elliott's hands to be intercepted by Dallas defensive tackle Randy White at the Dallas 13 yard line. The mood was ugly at our game watch party, with our Dallas Cowboys fan in serious danger for cheering too loud.

Two plays later, the party was loudly jubilant because 49ers linebacker Bobby Leopold intercepted a pass and returned it to the Dallas 13! This game was an amazing roller coaster of emotions and it was building to a crescendo that would become NFL history.

After three runs gained nine yards and moved the ball inside the 5, Walsh decided to go for the yard on 4th down. I'm sure the Faithful worldwide held their collective breath. After a quarterback sneak gained two yards, Montana took some time to get up after the play. The play had been for naught because the Cowboys were offsides. The next play, fullback Johnny Davis rumbled up the middle behind Randy Cross for the 49ers touchdown.

49ers 21 - Cowboys 17

After the commercial break, the camera showed the 49ers team doctors conversing with Montana. Next they showed Montana's backup, Guy Benjamin, warming up. There were groans in our party and somebody commented, "Well, Montana's done and we're in trouble!" The Faithful, including yours truly, heaved another huge sigh of relief when Joe Cool trotted back on the field for the next series.

Montana had plenty of time to recover as the Cowboys took the kickoff to their 30 and began driving. The key play on the drive was a pass interference call on Ronnie Lott. The penalty moved the football to the 49ers 12 yard line as the third quarter expired. It looked like Dallas was going in for a go-ahead touchdown.

On a 3rd-and-3 play from the Niners 5, White threw to tight end Doug Cosby in the end zone, but it was broken up by rookie cornerback Eric Wright. Septien kicked a 22-yard three pointer and with 14:08 to go in regulation.

49ers 21 - Cowboys 20

What a seesaw game! On the next 49ers possession after a first down, Walt Easley, cousin of Kenny Easley of the Seattle Seahawks, fumbled when hit hard by Dallas middle linebacker Bob Breunig and the Cowboys recovered at the 50. The fifth turnover by the Niners.

This turnover would be costly as the Cowboys gained 29 yards in three plays. Then White hit Cosby for a 21-yard touchdown pass. It was a nice play-action pass with defensive end Jim Stuckey bearing down on White. The CBS broadcast panned to a Dallas fan holding up a newspaper with the headline, "DALLAS COWBOYS ALL THE WAY IN 81 - WIN SUPER BOWL XVI." There was 10:41 to go when Septien added the point after. It was the sixth scoring change of the game!

Dallas 27 - 49ers 21

Three plays after the kickoff, disaster struck. On first and ten from the 49ers 35, Montana threw long up the right sideline for Solomon. It was picked off by Dallas rookie cornerback Everson Walls at the Dallas 27. The Niners sixth turnover of the day. The Faithful were stunned in Mississippi. Dallas ran five minutes off the clock before the 49ers forced them to punt. White punted from the 49ers 47 and Solomon signaled for a fair caught at the 11. There was 4:54 left. It was tense. Could Joe do it?

THE DRIVE

Could Joe Cool take us 89 yards to the promised land of the Dallas end zone in 4 minutes and 54 seconds? We were about to find out. To rub salt in the Faithful's wound, CBS then showed a graphic of the Cowboys three playoff victories over our Niners a decade earlier.

On 1st-and-10, Elliott dropped a pass in the left flat. Hank Stram pointed out that Dallas had six defensive backs in the game. Walsh took advantage by calling a draw play to Elliott. He gained six yards up the middle to the 17.

3rd-and-4 at the 17: Montana hit Solomon in the left flat for six yards and a first down at the 23.

1st-and-10 at the 23: Elliott went up the right sideline for 11 yards with Randy Cross and John Ayers blocking for a first down at the 34.

1st-and-10 at the 34: Elliott went around the left end for seven yards to the 41 with left guard Ayers leading the way.

2nd-and-3 at the 41: Montana threw incomplete to Elliott in the left flat.

3rd-and-3 at the 41: Elliott up the middle to the 45. But Dallas was called offsides so the ball was spotted at the 46. 54 yards to go!

1st-and-10 at the 46: Montana hit fullback Earl Cooper for five yards to the Dallas 49.

The two minute warning and only 49 yards (isn't that number special!) to go to the promised land! With two minutes and all three timeouts, I could sense something magical was about to happen.

2nd-and-5 at the Dallas 49: Walsh called a reverse to Solomon. It went around the left end for 14 yards to the Dallas 35! Loud cheers went up in Mississippi!

1st-and-10 at the Dallas 35: Montana threw a bullet to Clark on the right sideline for 10 yards and a first down at the Dallas 25! Clark went out of bounds with 1:31 to go.

1st-and-10 at the Dallas 25: At this point we were all standing up going bonkers. Montana threw a laser beam to Solomon on the right side for 12 yards to the Dallas 13. Wild cheering! Montana calls a timeout with 1:15 left. My heart felt like exploding!

1st-and-10 at the Dallas 13: Montana showed he's human by overthrowing an open Solomon in the end zone.

2nd-and-10 at the Dallas 13: Elliott went around the left end with John Ayers pulling and picked up seven yards to the Dallas 6! Jubilation in Mississippi! Montana called a timeout with 58 seconds left.

THE CATCH

3rd-and-3 at the Dallas 6: The Faithful know this play by heart! So let me quote the great Vin Scully's call of The Catch. "Of course for the upstart 49ers they are six yards from Pontiac. Third and three. Montana, looking, looking, throwing in the end zone. Clark caught it! Dwight Clark! (Long pause for crowd reaction) It's a madhouse at Candlestick!"

My reaction? As soon as Dwight clutched the football, I leaped up signaling TOUCHDOWN and jammed my finger into the 10 foot ceiling! As dust settled down from the ceiling, I joined the wild celebration. The adrenaline prevented me from feeling any pain during the all-important point after that put the 49ers a point up with 51 seconds to go.

My finger was throbbing and swelling up like a balloon as Dallas received the kickoff. Thankfully, Dallas' Robert Newsome was forced out of bounds at the 25 yard line. The tension was palpable as all of us realized this game was not over.

Sure enough, on first down White threw a beautiful pass upfield to Drew Pearson. It hit Pearson in full stride at the 49ers 48 yard line despite three Niners defensive backs close by and it appeared he would break away. Our hearts stopped. Eric Wright reached out with his right arm and dragged down Pearson at the 49ers 44.

I forgot about my finger throbbing as Dallas took a timeout with 38 seconds left. You could hear a pin drop as Dallas lined up for the next play. One guy pleaded at the top of his lungs, "Sack him!" as the ball was snapped to White. As if on cue, defensive lineman Lawrence Pillers quickly overpowered right guard Kurt Petersen. White fumbled and Jim Stuckey recovered the loose ball at the 50.

GAME OVER! PONTIAC HERE THE NINERS COME!

After Dallas called their last timeout, Montana did the victory formation twice and trotted off the field raising his finger in a number one victorious salute as the gun went off. Yes, the NFL used starter pistols to signal the end of each quarter until the 1994 season.

After taking part in the celebration for a while, I got some ice to put my badly swollen finger in. Later on, after the party, one of my coworkers drove me to the hospital for x-rays. Surprisingly, given the excruciating pain, it wasn't broken. The doctor laughed when he found out how I jammed it. He put it in a plastic splint and taped it up. The splint was still in place when I went to Super Bowl XVI two weeks later.

So that's my personal remembrance of our Niners glorious and long-overdue 1981 NFC Championship victory over the Dallas Cowboys. See ya next time for another Faithful Time Machine post on 49ers.com. Mavo out!

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