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Former 49ers Reflect on NFC Title Game

Posted Jan 22, 2012

Eric Davis might as well have been running with the Lombardi Trophy in his hands.

As it was, Davis was merely carrying a football – albeit a significant one. Streaking down the left sideline with the pigskin in his hands, Davis had just intercepted Troy Aikman less than a minute into the 1994 NFC Championship game. He turned it into a 44-yard touchdown, sending Candlestick Park into frenzy.

Davis’ pick six set the tone for the 49ers, who went onto claim 38-28 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. Two weeks later, San Francisco would be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, the fifth of a proud franchise clamoring for more.

“After the Super Bowl, a reporter asked me when I knew that we had control of the game,” Davis said. “My answer to that was, ‘Right after we beat Dallas.’”

At long last, the road to the Super Bowl goes through The ‘Stick again on Sunday, when the 49ers will host the New York Giants for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff.

Shortly after Vernon Davis’ iconic 14-yard, game-winning touchdown in last week’s 36-32 win over the New Orleans Saints, 49ers Chief Executive Officer Jed York phoned his uncle, Eddie DeBartolo Jr. The legendary 49ers owner, who presided over the team for all five of its championship runs, will serve as a fitting honorary team captain on Sunday afternoon.

“It means a lot for me to have him here,” York said of DeBartolo, who is one of 17 finalists to be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Feb. 4. “Because obviously without the hard work my uncle put into building the San Francisco 49ers, the brand certainly wouldn’t be what it is.”

When thinking of classic NFC Championship moments, perhaps nothing trumps “The Catch”. It’s been 30 years since the historic 6-yard touchdown connection between Joe Montana and Dwight Clark, one which propelled the 49ers past the Cowboys for a 28-27 win.

Not only did “The Catch” become one of the greatest football plays of all time, but it set the stage for Super Bowl XVI, the site of San Francisco’s first World Championship victory.

For Clark, it’s hard to believe that three decades have passed since “The Catch”. But being just 50 feet away from Vernon Davis in the South end zone of Candlestick Park for last week’s finale brought back some memories.

“It was surprisingly emotional for me,” Clark said. “Not that I was crying or anything, but just the emotion that builds up inside you, because you know what those guys have been through.”

Clark had a front row seat to history, as he was near the left sideline preparing to do a postgame show on TV. He had plenty to talk about after seeing Vernon Davis add to the rich tradition of 49ers playoff greatness.

As he watches on as an observer, Clark admits it’s tough not being able to make a play for his team any more. But he’s enjoyed the resurgence of the 49ers this season, especially with the same core of players that weathered through several losing seasons.

“The atmosphere down there on the field was just incredible,” Clark said. “The fans were just so loud and into it. You could tell they were just so hungry for something like this – a meaningful game, a meaningful drive, a meaningful play.

“They just hadn’t had it in so long and then there it was. And they were eating it up. It was pretty cool to be down there and feel that.”

Clark wasn’t the only 49ers alum to get a bit nostalgic last week. Former 49ers center/guard Jesse Sapolu was also near the South end zone for the thrilling finish, watching as the 49ers advanced to the NFC title game for the 13th time in franchise history.

“I was a little teary-eyed,” Sapolu said. “Because I realize now that we are on the right track.”

Sapolu knows a thing or two about being on the right track. During his career with the 49ers from 1983 to 1997, Sapolu played in nine NFC Championship games, en route to winning four Super Bowl rings.

In terms of being in the right place at the right time, perhaps no center had it better than Sapolu, who snapped the ball to Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young.

“How can you be a center and you roll the dice and it comes up Joe Montana and Steve Young?” Sapolu said. “At the same time, we had close-knit teams that really had genuine love for one another.”

Listening to Clark, Davis and Sapolu, they all feel like this year’s squad has something special brewing. From the camaraderie that’s built throughout the locker room this season to the new energy first-year coach Jim Harbaugh has brought to the organization, the alumni are feeling good about the 49ers chances Sunday afternoon.

When he was drafted by the 49ers during their dynasty days in 1990, Eric Davis said he expected to play on the game’s biggest stage.

“I knew I was destined to be a Super Bowl champ when I was drafted,” said Eric Davis, who also delivered a memorable color commentary call on the 49ers radio network last week. “That’s all that ever mattered to this organization.

“They instilled that in each and every one of us – to be a champion. That’s why we played the game. Not to be a starter, not to win a lot of games, not to make it to Pro Bowls or any of those other individual honors. It was to be a Super Bowl champion.”

Clark still remembers the nerves he felt before that fateful NFC Championship game in January of 1982. The 49ers were in the midst of their first playoff run in nine seasons and first conference title game in a decade.

To be only 60 minutes away from the Super Bowl can make some guys anxious, but legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh wasn’t one of them. Clark can recall the calm sense Walsh had before the game, as the coach could be seen lounging and relaxing on the locker room floor.

“Bill tried to keep everything real loose,” Clark said. “I think that’s what Harbaugh’s doing when he tells his players, ‘Don’t make this bigger than it is.’ It’s another game. Well, it’s another game, but if you win you’re going to the Super Bowl and that’s a big deal. But if you dwell on that too much it’ll become nerve-racking for you and you won’t be able to play up to your ability.”

Sapolu also had some butterflies heading into his first NFC Championship game as a rookie, but that feeling subsided later into his playing days. By the end of his decorated career, Sapolu had greater goals in mind.

“The thing I’m most proud of is the consistency,” Sapolu said. “In the beginning, you start thinking back to the days when you played Pop Warner. Every kid that plays football around the United States wants to get to this game. You are the chosen ones to be that close.

“By the seventh, eighth and ninth ones, my thinking was we needed to make history, to the point where there won’t be a conversation by the time I retire. Because that’s really what you play for – to leave a legacy with your group of guys.”

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