What is it about those eight seconds?
That's how long the play took, you know. Eight seconds. From start to finish to mythic image.
Joe Montana takes the snap. Rolls right. No one is open. Montana under pressure. Keeps rolling. Releases the ball in what seems to be a prayer, floating into open space at the back of the end zone until ... suddenly, there are Dwight Clark's hands. Reaching up. Grabbing the ball. Touchdown. The 49ers beat the Cowboys.
Eight seconds in January 1982. Eight seconds to replay visually on YouTube or on NFL highlights or on retrospective television specials or simply inside your own mind, over and over and over.
"I can never see it enough," Clark said not long ago. "People always ask, 'Do you ever get tired of talking about it?' How could I get tired of talking about that? It's a very positive play that helped get us to the Super Bowl and kept my name in 49ers fans' heads for 30-something years. I never get tired of talking about it."
And they never will. "The Catch" is the most memorable moment in Candlestick Park history, and in realistic terms, everything else is tied for eighth place. But why? Why do those eight seconds at Candlestick Park resonate in a way that no other eight seconds in Bay Area sports history resonate?
The answer lies in multiple complex factors. They have to do with Bay Area history and baseball failures by the Giants and the coolness of Montana and the birth of an epic 49ers age.
"I just think it gave 49er fans something they'd never had before," said former franchise owner Eddie DeBartolo, who loves to tell the story of how he missed seeing The Catch because his view was blocked by a police horse. "Sports, especially winning, brings people together. It makes people feel good."
Just know this: When the team plays what likely will be its final game at Candlestick Park on Monday night, at some point every person in the stadium will stare at the north end zone at least once, then either sigh or smile. Or both.
That patch of grass -- the swath of turf where Clark leapt and landed -- is probably the Bay Area's most sacred sports ground. Jim Mercurio, the 49ers vice president in charge of stadium operations, says that when people are given tours of Candlestick, the requests are always the same.
"They first want to see the locker rooms and take the walk through the tunnel from the home locker room to the dugout where the players come onto the field," Mercurio sad. "But once they get onto the field, everyone always asks: 'Where was The Catch? Which end zone? Where exactly?' "
Of course, the actual "where" has not really been there for a long while -- at least not the same turf on which Clark's feet took off and landed. The original grass was replaced many years ago and has been resodded many times since. Still, during the last couple of Fanfest events that the team has staged at the stadium, a kiosk has been erected on the spot. Attendees have lined up to have their pictures taken with a life-size cutout of Clark stretching for the ball.
"I don't think about it every single day," said the noncardboard Dwight Clark. "But on 90 percent of the days, maybe. It somehow comes up in everyday life. Somebody either brings it up, or I see a picture of it somewhere, or hear about it on radio or TV or something. Fortunately for me, it's one of those plays that has staying power."
Oddly enough, the 49ers had scored their first touchdown of the game on the same play as The Catch. But instead of Montana throwing the ball to Clark, the ball went to the primary receiver, Freddie Solomon. When they ran it again at game's end, that was still the case.
"I was the secondary receiver," Clark said, "and the coaching point on that was for Joe to either throw it away or throw it just high enough that I could jump up and catch it, but don't throw an interception. For Joe under duress to put it right in that exact spot, what it had to be was magical."
Eight seconds made all the difference. Before the catch by Clark, the 49ers had never reached a Super Bowl, had been a postseason afterthought since joining the NFL in 1950, had never beaten the hated Cowboys in a playoff game, had never earned much national attention. Clark makes the catch and ... the world tilts the opposite way. The 49ers gain confidence. They go on to win Super Bowl XVI and four more after that, with Montana becoming a legend.
What's often forgotten is how, before the game, the usually cerebral Bill Walsh had resorted to near-trash talking, speaking about how the Cowboys disrespected the 49ers. In Bay Area history, the 1982 NFC title game was seen as a cleansing and spirit-lifting occasion, washing away the gloom that had lingered since two horrible 1978 events -- the Jonestown Massacre that involved many Northern California victims, plus the City Hall murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone.
Also, even though Candlestick was constructed as a baseball park, the Giants had never won a World Series there -- and had come closest on a bitter Game 7 finish when Willie McCovey's potential game-winning line drive was caught for the final out in 1962. Candlestick had been the site only of misery or melancholy, such as the Beatles' last public concert in 1966.
But then came Clark and those eight seconds. And the 49ers never looked back.
"It was an exclamation point," Clark will admit, before adding: "Really, I think it's just a memorable moment from that year, and therefore people look at that as the play that kind of launched the dynasty. It was really Eddie DeBartolo, Bill and Joe and that team the entire season."
The 49ers, said Mercurio, do have some special plans to commemorate The Catch on Monday night. But they don't want to give away any plans. Clark will surely be there, though. He is going to have mixed emotions.
"It absolutely is bittersweet," Clark said. "I hate to see Candlestick go because there has been so much 49er history there ... It's just going to be gone."
But if the stadium is demolished and blown up, as expected, Clark wants to be invited.
"I would like to be there," Clark said. "It's like the funeral of a good friend, you want to be there to say goodbye for the last time."
He'll always be a part of those eight seconds, on that video loop. Outside of the 1989 World Series earthquake, they will be remembered as the most unforgettable eight seconds in both Candlestick Park and Bay Area sports history.
DeBartolo, who dined out with Clark during a recent 49ers trip, confirmed what has always been suspected.
"Whenever he's someplace where there are 49er fans," DeBartolo said, "Dwight never has to buy a drink."
In honor of the 49ers' final season at Candlestick Park, we count down the team's Most Unforgettable Moments at the place the 49ers have called home since 1971. The 10 Most Unforgettable Moments -- among them a few that 49ers fans can't forget, no matter how hard they try -- were voted on by our sports staff.
most unforgettable moments
1. The Catch Jan. 10, 1982
2. The Catch II Jan. 3, 1999
3. The Catch III Jan. 14, 2012
4. The Gigantic Comeback Jan. 5, 2003
5. Young's Crazy Run Oct. 30, 1988
6. Rice Sets TD Record Sept. 5, 1994
7. Giant Heartbreak Jan. 20, 1991
8. Young's Victory Lap Jan. 15, 1995
9. Kaepernick, Superman Jan. 12, 2013
10. The Greatest Comeback Dec. 7, 1980
See how readers ranked the moments. PAGE 5
As the 49ers prepare to play their final game at Candlestick, Joe Montana and Dwight Clark share memories of the "dump."