49ers Museum’s Artifact of the Month: Super Bowls in January
Super Bowl XVI Brings First Major Championship to San Francisco
By Joe Hession, 49ers Museum historian
January football rekindles Super Bowl memories in San Francisco and the legendary exploits of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott and Steve Young quickly come to mind. But a host of unheralded 49ers played a significant role in the club’s first world championship. The heroic efforts of Earl Cooper, Ricky Patton, Dan Bunz, Dwight Hicks and Ray Wersching are often forgotten in the mists of time.
Super Bowl XVI on January 24, 1982 produced a new and utterly surreal experience for the 49ers and their faithful fans. Just two years earlier, Bill Walsh had rescued a flailing club and breathed life into a downtrodden crew of football misfits. Prior to his arrival, the 49ers had played pro football for 36 years as part of two different leagues and had never sniffed a championship. In fact, no San Francisco-based pro sports franchise had ever won a title.
The possibility of seeing history achieved prompted a hardy Bay Area contingent to travel into Pontiac, Michigan. They rode in on an emotional peak, still buzzing from Dwight Clark’s “Catch” in the 1981 NFC Championship game, and were greeted by a ferocious Michigan snowstorm. Californians accustomed to wearing sun screen in winter, suddenly found themselves wading through waist-high snow drifts in tennis shoes, braving Arctic winds and temperatures just above zero.
The players also seemed numbed by their first exposure to the big game hoopla. They arrived at Detroit’s Sheraton Southfield Hotel and were greeted by an overly-anxious bellhop (Bill Walsh in disguise) trying to wrestle the luggage from their fingers. Walsh had traveled ahead of the team and procured the bellhop outfit from a hotel employee for $20.
“I tried to take suitcases from them, and when I held out my hand for tips, they reacted with disgust,” Walsh once recalled. “ Lawrence Pillers recognized me and then Joe Montana, and then everyone started laughing.”
The pregame hijinx evolved into jittery tension on Super Bowl Sunday. As the 49ers made their way to the Silverdome, the bus carrying Walsh and about 20 players was delayed in traffic by the nasty weather and the sudden appearance of Vice President George Bush’s motorcade. Feeling the pressure rise as they waited, Walsh calmed his players by joyfully announcing he was in contact with the rest of the team at the stadium.
“I got on the bus PA and told the players the game had already started and we were ahead, 7-0,” Walsh recalled in his book Building a Champion. “I said that Chico Norton, our equipment manager, was calling plays and Ted Walsh, his assistant, was playing quarterback.”
In reality, the game began disastrously for the 49ers. Return man Amos Lawrence fumbled away the opening kick and the Cincinnati Bengals were suddenly at the five-yard line threatening to score. But defensive back Dwight Hicks saved the day for San Francisco by intercepting Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson’s pass near the goal line and returning it 27 yards to give Montana breathing room.
Now, Walsh was ready. He’d spent his entire coaching career preparing for this moment and had carefully crafted San Francisco’s first 20 plays. On the opening possession his West Coast offense was clicking. The 49ers mixed quick-hitting short passes with a pinch of razzle-
dazzle. The highlight of the drive was a reverse (Walsh’s hand drawn rendition of this play can be seen at the 49ers Museum presented by Sony) that started with Montana handing off to Ricky Patton, who gave to Freddie Solomon, who then lateraled back to Montana. Montana passed 15 yards to tight end Charle Young. He capped the drive with a quarterback sneak from the one-yard line to put the 49ers in front, 7-0.
The 49ers signature score at Super Bowl XVI came on a 92-yard drive early in the second quarter. Ricky Patton, who finished as the game’s leading rusher, set it up with a series of off-tackle runs. Earl Cooper found the end zone with an 11-yard pass from Montana to stake the 49ers to a 14-0 lead. Cooper, a first-round draft pick out of Rice University, made the cover of Sports Illustrated with his exuberant spike of the football.
Ray Wersching seemed to put a dagger in the Bengals when he booted two field goals in the final 18 seconds of the half. After converting a three-pointer from 22 yards, Wersching’s ensuing kickoff was bungled by Cincinnati and recovered by the 49ers’ Milt McColl. Wersching quickly dashed back on the field to knock in a 26-yard attempt and the 49ers sprinted to the locker room with a 20-0 advantage. Wersching finished Super Bowl XVI with four field goals.
Cincinnati stormed back in the third quarter but a Herculean goal line stand by the
49ers stemmed the tide. Trailing 20-7, the Bengals marched to the three-yard line and seemed destined to score. They had first-and-goal and a pair of bruising backs in Charles Alexander and Pete Johnson itching to find the end zone.
The 260-pound Johnson carried on first and second down, but went nowhere as he was crushed by a defensive charge. On third down at the two-yard line Anderson floated a swing pass in the right flat to the wide-open Alexander. San Francisco defensive coordinator Chuck Studley recalled, “Twenty times out of twenty that play is a touchdown.”
Instead, linebacker Dan Bunz met Alexander head-on in the open field and stopped him inches short of the goal line. It was Bunz’s only solo tackle in the game and one of the most dramatic defensive plays in 49ers history, forever remembered as “The Stop.”
The Bengals had one last chance on fourth down and went for six points. Johnson burst off tackle and was smothered by a herd of 49ers for no gain. The greatest goal line stand in Super Bowl history turned the momentum San Francisco’s way.
“The Bengals were in disbelief,” Walsh said. “Our defense came off the field exuding pride and confidence.”
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, grizzled 49ers fans who endured decades of football futility at Kezar Stadium and Candlestick Park unleashed tears of joy. Thirty-six years of agony had finally ended. The 49ers brought home San Francisco’s first major league sports title with a 26-21 win over the Bengals.
Numerous artifacts from Super Bowl XVI are on display at the 49ers Museum presented by Sony. Included are the jersey Bunz wore in the game and Walsh’s hand drawn “triple pass” play. Guests can see Wersching’s shoes and Hick’s playbook, or walk through the Super Bowl Gallery where all five Lombardi trophies are displayed. For more information on Museum tickets, hours and content, visit http://www.levisstadium.com/museum/. For group pricing call 415-GO-49ERS.