75 for 75: Riverfront Miracle

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"75 for 75" is an article series from the 49ers Museum highlighting legendary moments in 49ers history as part of the team's 75th Anniversary celebrations in 2021.

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September 20, 1987

Sometimes you need a miracle. For Bill Walsh and the 49ers, it happened at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium.

After dropping the 1987 season opener to Pittsburgh 30-17, the 49ers were in danger of falling to 0-2 while an NFL Players strike loomed in the week ahead.

San Francisco trailed Cincinnati 26-20 with less than a minute to play and was forced to punt. The Bengals lead appeared safe and they used three plays to run the clock down to six seconds. On fourth down on his own 30 yard line, coach Sam Wyche could punt, take a safety or run the ball to eliminate the final seconds.

"Cincinnati had a big line, one of the best in football with Anthony Munoz at tackle," Steve Wallace remembered. "They just needed to run behind him, pick up a yard and it's over."

That is just what Wyche planned to do. Bengals running back James Brooks took the handoff and darted behind Munoz. But 49ers defensive end Kevin Fagan sliced through a gap, blew up the play and stopped Brooks for a five-yard loss.

The play took just four seconds, giving San Francisco the ball at the Bengals 25 yard line. Two ticks remained on the clock. 

"We're thinking this is unbelievable," Wallace said. "We have a shot to win this game. One shot at the end zone. Bill (Walsh) brings the offense together and scratches out a play in the dirt. It wasn't even in our playbook. Three receivers to the left and Jerry Rice split to the right."

The NFL's greatest all-time receiver ended up in single man-to-man coverage. 

"I looked at him (Rice) and said, 'Hey, get into the end zone,'" Montana said. "Nobody came up to bump him. He was open when he lined up. I couldn't believe it."

Montana quickly took the snap and pump faked to the left, then lofted a high, arching 25-yard pass to Rice in the end zone.

"But we still needed the extra point," Wallace said. "Everyone runs on the field but we can't find Bubba (Paris). We finally found him at the end of the bench. He hurt his knee or something. So we get him in there and make the extra point."

The game-winning PAT sent a wave of emotion through the 49ers players and coaches. The usually stoic Walsh danced a jig on the sideline then skipped happily toward midfield.

"The funny part is Roger Craig was right next to coach Walsh and he started skipping too," Wallace recalled. "On the plane afterward, Roger never heard the end of it. We were saying, 'what's the deal Roger, you and Bill skipping around like that.'"

Wallace, in just his second NFL season, learned a more important truth that day. 

"The lesson there was with Joe (Montana) and Jerry (Rice) on the field anything can happen. We always have a chance to win."

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