The Oakland Tribune

Historic rally revives ghosts of 49ers' past
January 06, 2003
SAN FRANCISCO -- The game becomes part of history, swept from the silence of improbability by the thunderous roars of attainment, lifted from the disappointment of failure to the ultimate gratification of success.

The game becomes a reminder that fate, fable and a team with a heritage of legends and championships is never beaten even when the rest of the world, and certainly most of Candlestick Park, knows it is beaten.

A stadium that has been witness to so many triumphs through its 40-plus years, a stadium that watched Joe Montana's pass to Dwight Clark, and Steve Young's mad dash through the Vikings, and Will Clark's pennant-winning single off Mitch Williams, was looking on again Sunday. In disbelief. And joy.

The San Francisco 49ers, behind by 24 points late in the third quarter, 20 minutes away from an awful conclusion to what would be judged a terrible season, getting pummeled and punished, and booed by fans properly disgusted, made a comeback that arguably was their greatest ever.

Undeniably, it was the second-greatest in NFL playoff history.

Why it happened, how it happened is the stuff that makes sport the fascinating, irritating and enthralling phenomenon that moves men to tears or, in the case of Terrell Owens, who has long finished with his crying, incites them to leap upon a television camera platform in front of the stands and lead the people in celebration as if he were conducting the San Francisco Symphony.

Dreadful. Derelict. Doomed.

A team that couldn't move the ball when it had it, couldn't stop the ball when the New York Giants had it and trailed 38-14.

But when the game was finished, when the NFC wild-card game had come to its dramatic finish, with the Niners leaping about like children and the Giants rendered immobile by shock, San Francisco was the winner, 39-38. And huge waves of sound cascaded down from the sellout crowd of 66,318 who could hardly comprehend what had taken place.

"The first drive (with some four minutes left in the third quarter) energized us," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said, "and then momentum was wearing a red jersey."

The 49ers went to the no-huddle offense. Then Jeff Garcia began to use his legs as well as his arm. Then Owens kept getting open. Then the Giants had a short punt exacerbated by an unnecessary roughness penalty. Then finally Tai Streets got open in the end zone.

Garcia who was an 11-year-old kid in Gilroy that late afternoon of Jan. 10, 1982, when Montana scrambled from "Too Tall" Jones and Dwight Clark leaped to make "The Catch."

"I saw it," said Garcia, "but I don't remember exactly where I saw it."

Jeff Garcia, with this one miraculous, memorable performance, will make us remember where he was the afternoon of Jan. 5, 2003. And where we were.

Joe Montana. Steve Young. And Jeff Garcia?

"It's very special to be mentioned with the Hall of Famers," Garcia said, "but right now is about what Jeff Garcia does. It's such a challenge. But I'm not going to hang my head and say, 'I can't.' I want the next guy after me to follow in the legacy of three quarterbacks, but no way can I put myself with those two."

Why not? Sport, like life, is about how you respond when things are going wrong. And the first half, indeed, most of the first three quarters, they couldn't have gone any more wrong for the Niners.

San Francisco had given up 260 yards to the Giants by intermission. San Francisco (well, Cedrick Wilson) had muffed a punt it was idiotic even to try to catch.

"They were just taking us apart," said Bill Walsh, the former coach and current consultant. "We had to come back with something, and we did."

The no-huddle, two-minute offense got the Niners going. The improved pass coverage on defense kept the Giants from going any farther.

"When we cut it to eight points, I thought we had them on their heels," Garcia said. He passed for 331 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 60 yards and one touchdown.

"When we cut it to eight points, it became very difficult for them."

When they went ahead on Garcia's pass to Streets with 1 minute left, it became impossible.

"I'm obviously living a dream," Garcia said. "I wish I could have stayed out there after the game and soaked it all up."

As they say, that's why you play the game.

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