SAN FRANCISCO – Dwight Clark will make a point tonight to walk to the spot of his famous game-winning touchdown known only as “The Catch” for probably the final time.
He will spend a moment reflecting on that special patch of grass in the far right corner of the north end zone at Candlestick Park, a thrilling memory he is reminded of daily even now, nearly 32 years later.
“This will be the last time I’ll be able to stand on that spot as far as I know,” Clark said.
Joe Montana didn’t expect to make it tonight, when The Stick says its last public goodbye after a run of Super Bowl success, baseball greats like Willie Mays and home run king Barry Bonds, the 1989 earthquake that interrupted the Bay Bridge World Series, and even The Beatles’ farewell concert.
“It’s going to be weird,” former 49ers star Terrell Owens said before a game last month. “I’m glad I got an opportunity to be here.”
The current 49ers (10-4) are determined to leave their mark on Candlestick’s legacy by beating Atlanta (4-10) in the dilapidated stadium’s last hurrah tonight in a rematch of the NFC championship game won by San Francisco.
“We feel that it’s something special,” safety Donte Whitner said.
Those who spent their most memorable years in the iconic venue – with that recognizable boomerang-shaped concrete shell – are sad to see it go. Even if the unpredictable swirling winds off the bay and bitter cold hardly made it a cozy home field.
Former Niners great Jerry Rice walked through the stadium several weeks back soaking in the cheers from every direction, signed autographs and posed for photos.
“It’s very difficult for me to come to games. Hearing those cheers again, I want to get back on that field,” Rice said. “This is where everything started. It’s sort of sad to see it coming to an end because I know next year they’ll be in Santa Clara.”
The Niners will move into $1.2 billion Levi’s Stadium at team headquarters, while Candlestick waits out its implosion day, likely in late 2014.
Everybody realizes it’s time.
“I’ll forever be grateful to have played on that field and shared that field with guys who are in the Hall of Fame and guys who have won championships for this organization,” linebacker Patrick Willis said.
There’s no debate that a dynasty was born with “The Catch.” Candlestick’s top-10 football moments have been counted down during each home game this season, with “The Catch” at No. 1 for the regular-season home finale.
That 6-yard touchdown reception with 51 seconds left sent San Francisco to a 28-27 win and its first Super Bowl.
“The funny thing is, I remember the play right before that I missed Freddie Solomon,” Montana recalled this week. “I think I threw it about 3 feet over his head from 5 yards away. He was wide open for a touchdown. I always tell Dwight, ‘Man, it’s a good thing I didn’t hit Freddie or The Catch would have never happened.’ ”
The 49ers next beat the Bengals for the first of the franchise’s five championships.
“Oh, I think back on it all the time. I know what the play was, it was all diagramed,” former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. said. “In the far end zone, was Dwight Clark’s catch, which will probably go down in history. I don’t think there’s any question, as far as the San Francisco 49ers go and our Super Bowl runs and our history of success in the ’80s and the ’90s, it started with The Catch.”
The 49ers shared Candlestick with the Giants until the baseball club moved into its downtown waterfront ballpark in 2000.
Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin attended games at Candlestick as a boy growing up in the Bay Area – he was in the stands for Mays’ 3,000th hit – and enjoyed being a fan more than he did years later as a major leaguer with the Giants.
“Mike Schmidt was hitting and I was catching and he hit a popup over home plate that I really thought at first was going to end up near our dugout, then I thought it would end up over in the other dugout and it ended up right where I started, and I ended up catching it,” Melvin said. “You’d follow the hot dog wrappers to try to figure out which way the wind was going.”
Niners punter Andy Lee won’t miss the wind, or much else about Candlestick, after a decade kicking there.
“Bittersweet is probably the best way to put it because there are a lot of great memories that took place there,” Montana said. “But everyone will admit that it’s not the ultimate in a field you would want to be known for.”
For all the problems at run-down Candlestick, those who consider it hallowed ground don’t want to hear about the negatives, but the nostalgia.
“It was our dump, so we could talk bad about it,” Clark said, “but we didn’t want anybody else to talk bad about it.”