SAN FRANCISCO -- No one, not even Ray Wersching, remembers much about his game-winning field goal to cap the greatest regular-season comeback in NFL history on Dec. 7, 1980.

Like everyone else, he just remembered what it meant.

"You could see it was the beginning of something special," Wersching said recently.

His 36-yard kick will be forever obscured by all that preceded it. The 49ers trailed 35-7 at halftime before rallying to beat the New Orleans Saints 38-35 in overtime behind an upstart quarterback named Joe Montana.

That was the day the 49ers learned that they were on to something, that Bill Walsh's vision was coming together. That was the day they realized they would be fine so long as they had their willowy quarterback from Notre Dame and a few ticks left on the clock.

"That was the defining moment where we said: 'We can be good,' " recalled linebacker Dan Bunz, now 58. "We made some mistakes. We regrouped. We believed in ourselves. And little by little, quarter by quarter, we came back and made it work."

The greatest regular-season comeback in NFL history ranks No. 10 in our countdown of the most unforgettable moments in the 49ers' Candlestick Park history. It was a landmark moment for the franchise, a confidence-builder that propelled the 49ers the next season to the first of five Super Bowl championships.

"That was the foundation of something we could build on," recalled defensive back Dwight Hicks, now 57. "No matter what the odds were, we could draw on that and come back and win."

This was hardly a Super Bowl matchup. The Saints were 0-13 (en route to 1-15). Still, the 49ers (5-8) had no answer for quarterback Archie Manning, who had 248 passing yards and three touchdowns in the first half. As the teams trudged off the field at halftime, Walsh overheard Saints players telling each other, "Let's make it 70-7."

Fans mocked the 49ers, too, at least those who bothered to attend. The official crowd count was 37,949, with 9,915 no-shows.

But those who stuck around got an extended sneak preview of the upcoming blockbuster. The second half featured heroics by second-year players Montana and Dwight Clark, a stifling effort by an underrated defense and the guidance of a coach who urged smarts over raw emotion.

In other words, all the characteristics that would define the franchise for most of the next two decades.

Montana was making just his sixth career start, having taken over for veteran Steve DeBerg. With the first snap of the second half, on a play suggested by quarterbacks coach Sam Wyche, Montana connected with Clark for a 48-yard gain. A quarterback sneak for a touchdown and a 71-yard TD pass to Clark cut the deficit to 35-21.

While some of the players were getting their first taste of Joe's cool, Wersching was deeply familiar with it. Montana was his holder on field goals.

"He had this knack on this field where he relaxed you," said Wersching, now 63. "You go out there and you feel this confidence in this guy who can do anything on the football field. It doesn't matter where the snap is, he will get it down and put it down so perfectly it never interrupts the rhythm of your stride."

Bunz had seen it, too, on the practice field.

"I lined up across a lot of quarterbacks when they needed a touchdown, and you could see the stress," Bunz said. "With Joe, he had a smile and a calmness about him. It was, 'Hey, this is what I'm here for.' "

Hicks had experienced the phenomenon while watching the 1979 Cotton Bowl on TV. In that game, which was played in cold, windy conditions and became known as the "Chicken Soup" Bowl, Montana battled back from the flu and a 34-12 deficit to lead Notre Dame to victory.

"I don't see how there were three quarterbacks that went before Joe Montana in the draft," Hicks said. "Because all through his college career -- on the biggest stage -- Joe Montana led his team back time and time again and won.

"And if I was a scout looking at that, I wouldn't care if he had the greatest stature. I wouldn't care if his arm wasn't the strongest. I wouldn't care how fast, how fleet of foot he was: Joe Montana was a winner."

The Saints found out soon enough. The 49ers scored twice in the fourth quarter to force overtime. Montana hit Freddie Solomon for a 14-yard touchdown pass, and Lenvil Elliott, who enjoyed his best day as a pro (20 carries, 125 yards), had a 7-yard scoring run with 1:50 to play to tie the score at 35-35.

Wersching privately rejoiced when the 49ers lost the coin toss at the start of overtime. The Saints would receive, but Wersching knew that if his chance came, he would be kicking from the better half of Candlestick's chewed up turf.

He nailed the kick. And the 49ers nailed down a special place in the evolution of a dynasty.

"We learned we were never out," Bunz said. "A lot of guys would think, 'Oh, my god. We'll never do it. Woe is me.' That game taught us to just keep fighting, keep working, and good things are going to happen."

Contact Daniel Brown at dbrown@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercBrownie.

Candlestick Moments

In honor of the 49ers' final season at Candlestick Park, we count down their 10 Most Unforgettable Moments there. Stories will run weekly until Dec. 23, the last regular-season game 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 the sports staff of the Bay Area News Group. You can have your say, too. The ballot is online at mercurynews.com/49ers. Cast your vote. The fans' top 10 will be revealed before the final game.