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On This Day in The Bay: Bill Walsh's First Draft 


May 3, 1979

On this day in The Bay, Bill Walsh occupied the draft room at the team's headquarters at 711 Nevada Street in Redwood City. Walsh was leading his first NFL Draft, aiming to build his roster and make his mark on the 49ers franchise. He was no stranger to sourcing talented football players, having spent the two previous seasons as the head coach at Stanford. While there, he led the Cardinal to a combined record of 17-7. Several of Walsh's Stanford players were drafted into the NFL, including quarterbacks Guy Benjamin and Steve Dils, wide receivers James Lofton and Ken Margerum, linebacker Gordy Ceresino and running back Darrin Nelson. Still, Walsh scoured the country to source talent to fill the 49ers 1979 roster.

Without a first round pick, Walsh used the club's second round selection on speedy UCLA running back James Owens. A standout on the gridiron, Owens also competed for the Bruins track and field team in the in the 110-meter high hurdles. Owens participated in that event at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal, becoming the first of several track and field athletes drafted by Walsh to play professional football.  

In a twist of fate, Owens' pre-draft workout put Joe Montana on the 49ers radar. The NFL Scouting Combine was not established until 1982, so teams set up their own sessions with potential draftees. 49ers quarterbacks coach Sam Wyche arranged a workout at UCLA for Owens, then received word that Montana was in Los Angeles. Wyche contacted Montana and asked him to swing by UCLA and throw passes to Owens. Impressed by Montana's agility and accuracy, Wyche persuaded Walsh to put Montana through another throwing session.

The auspicious workout proved successful and in the third round, Walsh selected Montana out of Notre Dame. Several months earlier during the Cotton Bowl, Montana was battling flu-induced hypothermia when the Fighting Irish were down 34-12 against the Houston Cougars. After drinking some warm broth, Montana led his squad on three touchdown drives in the last eight minutes of the game to give Notre Dame a 35–34 victory. This matchup, which came to be known as the "Chicken Soup Game," was a signature come-from-behind performance of Montana's during his collegiate years. It was also an indication of Montana's potential in the NFL, as recognized by Walsh with the 82nd-overall pick.  

The next day of the draft, Walsh selected Clemson wide receiver Dwight Clark in the 10th round. Clark vividly recalled his first meeting with the first-year head coach.

"He was in Clemson to work out (quarterback) Steve Fuller," Clark said. "I was Steve's roommate. I was walking out the door with my golf clubs when the phone rang. This guy said, 'Hi I'm Bill Walsh.' I didn't know who he was, but I talked to him a bit and he said he was going to watch Fuller throw a few passes. He asked if I'd like to come along and run some routes for Steve, so I did. Afterward, Coach Walsh asked me if I had any film on myself. I laughed and told him I only caught 11 passes my senior year so there's not a lot of film. I figured I'd never hear from him again."

Walsh did not forget. Hal Wyatt, the 49ers trainer, recalled the atmosphere in the war room on Day 2 of the draft.

"Bill came back into the draft room and began looking at all the cards of players left on the board. Out of a number of wide receivers still undrafted, he pulled Dwight's card off the board and said, 'I remember this kid, he'll make a good target for our quarterbacks during camp. Let's bring him in.'"

Walsh selected Clark with the 249th pick in the 1979 NFL Draft. Nearly three years later in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, Montana connected with Clark for the game-winning touchdown, known as "The Catch" in 49ers lore, to beat the Dallas Cowboys and send San Francisco to the franchise's first Super Bowl.

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