Artifact of the Game: 49ers at Broncos
By Joe Hession, 49ers Museum historian
Athletic drama and coaching intrigue factor into nearly every 49ers-Broncos matchup, but in Super Bowl XXIV San Francisco clearly outclassed its Rocky Mountain opponent in both phases of the game.
It was billed as a showdown in New Orleans between hot shot quarterbacks Joe Montana and John Elway. Singer Aaron Neville had barely finished the final note of the National Anthem when Montana stole the spotlight.
Denver was appearing in its third Super Bowl in four years after the 1989 season, but the 49ers quickly got the upper hand. On San Francisco’s first possession of the game, Montana methodically guided the club 66 yards in ten plays and capped the drive with a 20-yard scoring strike to receiver Jerry Rice. The 49ers never looked back. Montana added touchdown passes to tight end Brent Jones and Rice again. San Francisco built a 27-3 lead before the intermission.
Pete Fountain’s half time jazz show failed to lull Montana. The 49ers quarterback came out firing and five minutes into the third quarter San Francisco held an insurmountable 41-3 cushion. Montana contributed two more touchdown strikes.
“In the fourth quarter we might have taken our foot off the gas a little,” former center Jesse Sapolu recalled. “Montana threw five touchdown passes in the first three quarters. He could have thrown for two or three more.”
Montana finished his virtuoso Super Bowl performance by completing 22 of 29 tosses for 297 yards and five touchdowns. To the surprise of no one he earned his third Super Bowl MVP award. Rice hauled in three scoring passes among his seven receptions and 148 receiving yards. Fullback Tom Rathman also punched in two touchdowns. But Montana’s masterpiece won the admiration of his teammates.
“You judge the greatest players by how they perform in the biggest games,” Sapolu said. “Joe Montana put up incredible numbers in four Super Bowl wins. He went head-to-head in the Super Bowl against two Hall of Fame quarterbacks (John Elway and Dan Marino) and the 49ers came out on top both times. That shows you the greatness of Joe Montana.”
The 49ers established Super Bowl records against Denver for points scored and margin of victory in the 55-10 blowout. With their fourth Super Bowl victory in nine years, and back-to- back championships, the 49ers cemented their legacy as the 1980s “Team of the Decade,” and one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history.
On the exuberant plane ride home from New Orleans, safety Ronnie Lott put his artistic side to use by sketching his idea for a possible Super Bowl ring. Lott’s napkin drawing, which is displayed in the 49ers Museum by Sony, depicts four footballs, each representing a 49ers Super Bowl championship. The actual Super Bowl XXIV ring has a slightly different design, but features four balls on the face.
While the 49ers 1989 Super Bowl XXIV victory over the Broncos ranks as one of the franchise’s signature moments, a 1985 meeting between Montana and Elway rates as one of the most frustrating. Known as the “Snowball Game,” it still rankles 49ers veterans. Played on an icy, cold Monday Night at Denver’s Mile High Stadium, the NFL’s premier quarterbacks squared off in another contest with playoff implications. Elway got the better of Montana this time. He threw two first half scoring passes as Denver took a 14-3 lead.
With the first half winding down 49ers kicker Ray Wersching lined up a chip-shot field goal from the two-yard line. As the ball was snapped, a snowball sailed out of the end zone seats and plopped beside holder Matt Cavanaugh. The snap went awry but Cavanaugh picked up the loose ball and attempted to pass. The toss fell incomplete and Denver eventually won the game, 17-16.
“All I can say is whoever threw that snowball made one hell of a throw,” Wersching said.
It seemed to be an annoying, comical and nearly insignificant pre-halftime moment. Thirty minutes later it loomed large as the 49ers walked off the frozen turf bemoaning a one- point loss to Denver. Adding to the frustration, San Francisco eventually finished the 1985 season just one game behind the Rams for the NFC West crown.
Artifacts from the 49ers five Super Bowl championships, including actual Super Bowl rings and Lombardi trophies, are on display in the Super Bowl Gallery at the 49ers Museum presented by Sony.
For more information on Museum tickets, hours and content, visit levisstadium.com/museum.