The Catch II

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The Catch II

It was the 1998 NFC wild card game: Niners v. Packers. 

I was 16 years old, my brother Nick 14.  It had been an exciting NFL season and the two of us had been glued to the television set every Sunday to watch our beloved San Francisco 49ers.   

The Nines had gone a respectable 12-4, finishing second in the division behind the "Dirty Bird" Falcons, who had come out of nowhere to put up the best record in the NFC.  But despite the Falcons' success, they weren't even on our radar screen this particular Sunday.

On this day, my brother and I were concerned with one man and one man alone: Brett Favre.

Brett Favre had broken our hearts the year before, sending our Super Bowl bound Niners packing in the NFC Championship.  He had crushed our dreams the year before that—demolishing the Niners in a 35-14 routing in the divisional game, and the year before that as well, squeaking out a 27-17 victory.

All in all, Favre and the Packers had knocked the Niners out of the playoffs for three straight years.  And my brother and I (and undoubtedly, Steve Young) were sick and tired of it. 

It was time for revenge.

The game would prove to be one very intense contest.  Despite two Hall of Fame Quarterbacks at the helm, defensive capitalization on offensive mistakes would largely set the initial tone of the dual.

Early in the first quarter, Terrell Owens—coming off of a career year—fumbled the ball right into the hands of a Packer defender, resulting in a Ryan Longwell field goal.  Niners defensive end Chris Doleman would respond with a recovered Dorsey Levens fumble on the Packers' 17-yard line, leading to a Steve Young/Greg Clark hookup in the end zone.  As the first quarter came to a close, the Niners led the Pack 7-3.

The Pack’s offense would then get busy, responding with a 62 yard, 9 play drive, including a 22 yard Dorsey Levens run on 4th and 1 to begin the second quarter.  On their next drive, the Niners came up short of the end zone, tying the game 10-10 with a Wade Richey field goal. 

I would have been perfectly content going into halftime with the score 10-10.  If that was to be the reality of my 30 minute intermission, then the Niners defense had to step up to the plate.

But alas, it was not to be. 

Favre and the Packers plowed through the 49er secondary and marched straight into the end zone just before half time, with an impressive 9 play, 83 yard drive.  The San Francisco defense didn’t come up with the big stop—but they did manage to get called for two 15-yard penalties. 

I was livid, to say the least.   

17-10 Packers at half time; Nick and I went outside to shoot some hoops and blow off a little steam. 

“Stay cool,” we told each other. 

“It’s only half time.  There’s a lot more football left to be played.” 

The second half resumed and Nick and I were locked to the television set once again.  It was time for the Niners to stop messing around and show the Packers once and for all who was king of the NFC. 

If the Niners were going to win this game, they’d have to shift the momentum in their favor before the Pack could go up by two scores.

The Nines did just that, as the defense picked themselves up by the bootstraps after their breakdown at the end of first half. 

Early in the third quarter, linebacker Lee Woodall picked off a pass from Favre, resulting in another Steve Young/Greg Clark hookup in the end zone five plays later.  On the next Niner drive, Wade Richey kicked one through the uprights to put the Niners ahead 20-17. 

Going into the fourth quarter, the Niners were in the lead for the first time since the beginning of the game.  Our defense had bounced back and denied Green Bay the opportunity to put any more points on the board.  In the meantime, our offense had played consistently well and gotten us back in the game—despite a few key dropped passes courtesy of Terrell Owens.  

But a three-point cushion was hardly a cushion at all. 

If we were going to win the game, the Niners would have to put together a stellar fourth quarter.  It was time for the 49ers to look into themselves and find that inner energy that had helped them win five Super Bowl championships in a 15-year span. 

After all: this was the team that had come back against the Bengals to win the Super Bowl—twice. 

This was the team that shut down both Dan Marino and John Elway in classic Super Bowl trouncings. 

This was the team of Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice, and Montana Magic.

But at this period in time, the 49ers belonged to Steve Young. 

Steve Young—unquestionably one of the best Quarterbacks of all time. 

Steve Young—the most dazzling double threat combination the world had ever seen in a field general. 

Besides being able to dissect defenses with his fast legs, accurate arm, and reliable decision making skills, Young had come through in the clutch on many occasions.  Just a few years before, he tossed a record six touchdowns in a flat out ass-whopping of the Chargers in the Super Bowl. 

Young's aggressive running style made him one fragile jewel of a Quarterback.  He had already had three concussions during his career at that point, and all it would take was one more big hit to put him on the sidelines forever.

But Steve still had a few big throws left in him.  I worshipped him like the Patron Saint.  Steve Young was my favorite player, my idol, and my second father all rolled into one. 

As I had done many times before, I put all my faith into Steve to take the Niners to the Promised Land as the final quarter of the game began.

Unfortunately, there was another legendary Quarterback on the field as well: none other than Brett Favre. 

Brett Favre—a leader, a warrior, and a genuine Niner killer. 

Since the San Fransisco Super Bowl victory after the 94’ season, Brett Favre had embarrassed Steve Young and the Niners seemingly every time the two teams went head to head.  The Niners hadn’t been able to get past the Packers in the playoffs ever since, and Favre had led his team to two straight appearances in the big game.

But as far as my brother and I were concerned, that was in the past.  This game was a different story—it had to be. 

I mean, how could we lose to the Packers again?  It just wasn’t possible.  Steve Young would come through this time, and Brett Favre would fall short.

And if that didn’t happen?

“Mom, I’m too sick to go to school!” 

For days, maybe weeks.  I wasn’t going to school ever again if the Niners lost. 

Hell, I wasn’t going to do anything if the Niners lost—besides maybe scream, cry, and hit inanimate objects.

Losing just wasn’t an option.

But for whatever reason, Brett Favre wanted to make my life difficult.  He clearly had it out for the Niners—he shined every time we went to Lambeau and played even better when the Pack came to Candlestick. 

That man put me through a lot of pain during my teenage years—so much pain that upon looking back, I respect him a great deal.

This game was no exception.  The Packers would be the first to score in the fourth quarter, as Favre drove his team 60 yards downfield, including a 33-yard pass to fullback William Henderson.  Ryan Longwell booted one through the posts, and Green Bay was in the lead again 20-17. 

After the Packers scored, Nick and I uttered a string of curse words the likes of which would have given my mother a heart attack had she been in the room.  After two minutes of letting the anger fly, we collected ourselves and got back into the game.

The Niners got back into the game too, as Young and Owens connected on a 34-yard reception, setting up another Richey field goal.  We were ahead again, 23-20.

It was now up to the defense.  But honestly—it was more a chance for Brett Favre to finally screw up. 

Was that too much to ask?  Couldn’t he screw up just once?

Favre didn’t screw up.  He didn’t screw up at all.  Instead, #4 marched his troops 89 yards down the field for a touchdown—a magnificent drive that featured a successful 49-yard bomb and a gutsy 4th and 1 play from deep in his own territory.

It was at that point that my couch took a beating—a Hells Angels style pounding.  I must have punched that couch 50 times before I was through.     

It was happening again.  Green Bay was going to win for a fourth straight year.

Or were they?

I looked up at the Television screen from my injured couch to see that there was still about two minutes left.

“Nick, we can still win this.”

“Zan, it’s over.  They did it again.  F***in’ Brett Favre beat us again.”

“Not necessarily Nick.  We must have faith in Steve.”

Our eyes and hearts turned to Steve Young, along with the entire population of San Francisco and the majority of the Bay Area at large.

Though we didn't know it at the time, this would essentially be Steve's final hurrah.  As his opportunity to solidify his legacy emerged, I took a deep breath. 

The Niners started the final drive of the game on their own 24 yard line.  Steve came out firing, completing three of his first four passes.  With less than a minute to go, the Niners found themselves at mid-field.

I remember thinking to myself: if only one of those field goals could have been a touchdown...

Then the game would be tied, and we would have nothing to lose with this drive.  We could try a game-winning field goal, or finish the game in overtime.  We were playing at home—I liked our prospects in OT.

But that simply wasn't the case. 

The reality of the situation was that we were down four points, so we’d have to score seven for the W.  There would be no overtime—we were either going to win in the next minute or lose to the Packers yet again.

Young completed his next three passes to get the Nines to the Green Bay 32 with 20 seconds left to play.  Victory was now possible, but still far off.  A lot would have to go our way for me to go to school again.

The Niners took a couple of shots at the end zone at this point—and that’s when I knew it was over.  The drive had broken down, as there just wasn’t enough time left for the 5-10 yard passes that were the staple of the West Coast offense. 

With a little more than 10 seconds to go, Young hurled a prayer to J.J. Stokes that resulted in an interception.  But before my brother and I could throw our hands up in disgust, the pass was ruled incomplete. 

We would have one more shot.

3rd and 3, no timeouts, 8 seconds to go.  This was it—make it or break it time.

As Steve Young dropped back to pass, he almost tripped.  He somehow managed to stay on his feet and fire a dart into the end zone, before being driven into the ground.

As the camera shifted towards the end zone, I noticed there was a sea of yellow and green where the ball was heading.  But there was also a little speck of red and gold in the mix, that apparently Young had spotted on the last big play of his career.

That little speck was Terrell Owens, who had dropped four balls throughout the game.  Somehow, someway, Owens held onto the ball this time around, despite being pummeled by three Packer defensive backs.

It took both John Madden and I a few seconds to realize what had happened.  Steve Young had maintained his composure after a seemingly broken play, then threaded the needle with pinpoint precision—and Owens had caught Young's pass, despite being hit by a freight train.

In other words: the Niners had won the game. 

I had shivers all over my body.  My brother and I ran around like wild animals for at least a half hour, embracing each other with tears in our eyes. 

I told my couch I was sorry.  I let my Mom know I could return to school the next day.

I’ve seen some great moments as a Niner fan, but none quite compare to that one.  The victory against the Chargers in the 94' Super Bowl was realized before the game even started; same with the Broncos in 89’.  And I was only six years old during Montana’s legendary drive against the Bengals in 88', a little too young to fully appreciate what exactly had just taken place.  

The Niners would go on to lose to the Falcons in the NFC Championship the following week—Garrison Hearst badly twisted his ankle, ending the Niners’ prospects for a sixth Super Bowl championship and missing the prime of his career. 

After another concussion, Steve Young would hang it up three games into the 1999 season.  Terrell Owens, meanwhile, would let the success of his stellar 1998 performance and magnificent catch against the Packers go straight to his head, becoming a full blown team-cancer.

It was not long before the 49ers organization crumbled at the seams.  Beloved owner Eddie Debartolo Jr. lost control of the team, and the Niners failed to make the playoffs in both 1999 and 2000 for the first time in 20 years.

But for that moment after Young and Owens connected in the end zone, victory was ours.  At that time, nothing else in the world existed besides my brother, myself, and the San Francisco 49ers. 

It is something I will never forget as long as I live. 

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