The Rivalry that was Once the Rivalry of All Rivalries But is Now Just Kind of a Rivalry

The other day my Dad gave me a shirt that no longer fits him. I was home for the summer to make some money (I never realized how expensive it is to, like, survive until I left for college) and I think he took it as an opportunity to pass on some clothes. As such, I gained a couple sweaters and a few belts; and when I gain a couple of pounds, maybe I will pass them along someday.

But, he also gave me a long-sleeved 49ers shirt that no longer fits him. It's a simple shirt - displaying "San Francisco 49ers" on the front. But on the right sleeve of the shirt, going downward, is the NFC logo with the stars in the middle, as well as the "SF" logo.

Quite frankly, and I don't think I told my Dad this at the time and I should have, but the second hand, slightly dulling and wrinkled shirt he tossed to me was in some regards one of the most touching gifts he has ever given to me (I mean - getting his Volkswagen Jetta for my 21st birthday was all sorts of site-decorum-y awesome, but still).

On December 23, 1972, the Cowboys made the trip from Texas to Candlestick Park for the Divisional Playoff match-up with the 49ers. They showed up for a highly anticipated game - a rivalry had already started to emerge between the two teams: the Cowboys had beaten the 49ers in the last two NFC Championships. In 1971, the Cowboys had even gone on to win the Super Bowl. To the luscious tones of Ray Scott and Pat Summerall (who, I assume, was at least 70 at the time), the Niners came storming out of the gate when Vic Washington Ted Ginn'd it up on the kickoff to the tune of a 97 yard touchdown.

The 49ers carried the lead through the third quarter and things were looking absolutely peachy. And then Roger Staubach replaced Craig Morton at Quarterback. So that happened and then points happened - to the tune of 14 points within the last two minutes.

In the end, the Niners lost the game 30 - 28. The Cowboys would go on to lose to the Redskins in the NFC Championship. But, in actual fact, the annoying Cowboy machine, which would ultimately peak with "America's Team" or whatever that crap was, was well on its way to glory.

***

My youth was dominated by the 49ers. I had a football-themed party when I was ten or so, during which I wore a plastic 49ers helmet. My friends and I all played a game of two hand touch at the local park, and because I loved Steve Young so much (and still do), I played QB. Yup, QB, even though my skill sets were so much more suited at WR.

At school during recess, I played WR, and so I thought that when the football was in your hands, you were supposed to run. Thus on that day, I think I went 2/2 passing with, like 15 yards. But, I ran for near 200 yards. I should have just played receiver, but it was my birthday and my friends were nice enough to let me have a day of it.

All during the game, though, I remember my Dad on the sidelines cracking jokes, cheering me on, filming the whole thing with our old camcorder. The man who introduced me to football was watching his son run up and down the field with abandon. It's the sort of magical afternoon sports is supposed to impart upon communities, and in some ways (especially with my father, but more and more so with my younger brother now) I think football made the community of my family even stronger.

Before my birthday, I was out on the street with my Dad throwing a football. I was never very good at it, nor am I now. I could always throw a tight spiral, but my limp noodle arm could never through a pigskin a quarter mile over them there mountains. I'm not Uncle Rico for Pete's sake.

It was when we were throwing the ball around before my birthday that I realized I was playing catch with the man who taught me to throw a football. Looking back on it now, I don't know if I actually understood the importance of that epiphany - that I may teach my son to throw a football someday, and he his. The tradition of catch is an easy one to pass on, as it should be. There is a special nature of playing catch that is largely indescribable, except to say that playing catch makes everything else in the world seem so small, as if there are no problems.

But, when a father and a son play catch, that is a truly indescribable feeling.

***

The Cowboys would go on to dominate large portions of the late ‘70s. They dominated to such a large extent that they appeared in multiple Super Bowls, winning one after the 1977 season. After the 1978 season, the Cowboys were dubbed "America's Team" (/holds back barf). They became the face of football, in some regards, and consumed the attention of the media like Smaug and his gold.

All that was needed to bring down this machine of vomit-inducing revulsion was one little hobbit.

Cue, stage right, the 49ers. While the Cowboys were having an excellent 1978 season, the 49ers were all picking each other's collective noses on the sidelines, rolling their way lazily to a pathetic 2-14 record. By and large, the team was patch-worked together with either aging veterans or no names.

However small the hobbit, though, the courage is still there. A few rookies vital to future success joined the team in '78, most notably Steve DeBerg and Randy Cross.

And so, flash forward a couple of years, a Bill Walsh, and a Joe Montana later, and the surprising San Francisco 49ers had the audacity to challenge "America's Team" (gag) the Dallas Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship.

This game will forever go down in football history as the game which featured the 49ers' epic march from their own 11 yard line with 4:54 on the clock in order to score a touchdown with 51 seconds left. This drive, which resulted in The Catch, has produced the most emblematic image of success in 49ers history, and I would argue, in football history.

Moreover, The Catch symbolized the true emergence of the 1980s 49ers. Starting with a tenuous and fragile grip on the football, just like the 2-14 49ers of the previous season, Dwight Clark's catch ends with a firm grasp on the football and started a grasp of the NFL that the 49ers would not relinquish for a decade. If the Cowboy's were truly "America's Team" (eww, vomit all over my keyboard...), then the 49ers were now Football's Team.

While The Catch may have been the play that put the 49ers on the map, the Cowboys still had a fire broiling under them, and the boiling blood of a rivalry was still pumping. With seconds on the clock, the Cowboys aired out the football, desperately trying to generate a win.

Enter, Eric Wright. Wright made a game saving tackle after a monster of a throw. He caught up to the receiver from behind and executed a perfect horse collar tackle. In this single play, one can see why the NFL has since made this method of tackling illegal. The Cowboys had the proverbial momentum after such an incredible catch, and Drew Pearson literally had momentum as he took off for the endzone. Wright put an end to that immediately. Shifting his entire weight backwards, Wright used his one hand to viciously yank Pearson backwards.

The Catch may have symbolized the emergence of the 49ers to the rest of football, but I think this tackle signaled to the Cowboys that the old rivalry was emerging.

Two plays later, the 49ers would force and recover a fumble. They would win the game 28 - 27 and continue on to the Super Bowl where they would defeat the Bengals 26 - 21 in a come from behind victory, the type of victory it seemed only Montana could pull off.

***

Last season, I was at home (non-college home, that is) for the game in which the St. Louis Rams knocked the Mike Singletary-led 49ers out of contention for the NFC West title. After the game, I turned to my Dad. It may have been one of the only games we had a chance to watch together that season, and it was quite depressing that we had to share that pathetic game together.

The Troy / Alex juggling was atrocious. It was like my Dad and I were forced to watch footage of car wrecks over and over; and I don't mean the awesome Monster Truck kinds, either - more like the crappy ones they show you in Driver's Ed.

I turned to my Dad and said, "I just want to see them win a Super Bowl, Dad. In my lifetime." They had won one in my lifetime. I was five years old in 1995. I don't remember the game, but having watched it on the DVD set my Dad has of all the Super Bowls (which is AWESOME!!!!1), I really wish I were older at the time. It's a great game and Steve Young does not disappoint.

I don't remember exactly what my Dad said, but it wasn't important. The fact that I could turn to him and express my frustration at the state of the franchise was something to which we could both relate. We come from two different generations and thus have two somewhat different views of the Niners. But there is something both of us know: the franchise had a legacy and has a legacy. We both want to see it moving forward.

***

That Super Bowl victory from 1995 came after the 49ers defeated the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game. During the previous two years, the Cowboys had beaten the Niners in the Championship game and gone on to win the Super Bowl. Now was the time for the 49ers to Boondock Saints it up and get revenge.

Moreover, people loudly questioned Young's ability to handle the playoff pressure, especially since Troy Aikman was somehow a football god because he was 7-0 in the postseason, even though his regular season numbers look absolutely pedestrian in comparison to Young's.

Both Young and Aikman would have good games (Aikman especially, though he did have one huge pick-six), but the 49ers would take advantage of Rice's superb catching abilities and some timely turnovers to win the game 38-28.

***

In some regards, this game, which was an exciting game, is the last true vestige of an intense rivalry between the 49ers and the Cowboys. Both teams would be relevant for a few more years, though both teams developed new rivalries - the 49ers / Packers rivalry would be especially intense in the late nineties. Eventually, though, both teams would fizzle out. Both the Niners and the Cowboys finished 6 - 10 last year. Both teams have made major changes in their coaching staffs.

These lean years for the teams have diminished the rivalry. So why does the history I laid out above merit such attention? Why continue to talk about this rivalry?

There are a couple of reasons. The first being that a revival of the rivalry means that both teams are facing each other in the playoffs, for the most part. I don't think there is anybody on both teams who wouldn't like such a show down. A return of the rivalry that was once the rivalry of all rivalries but is now just kind of a rivalry? Yes, please. This rivalry was important and should be important again. That's why this game is important; it's why I am so very pumped up for it. It's a chance to access the '80s and '90s.

More importantly, though, this rivalry is such a necessary and integral part of the 49er's legacy. I am supposed to dislike the Cowboys not for any sort of rational reason - I mean, blue and silver are fine colors I suppose.

No, I dislike that Cowboys because when I was a young boy, my Dad opened my eyes to a wide world of professional football. He showed me heartbreak and triumph. He showed me the physically challenging highs and injury plagued lows of human athleticism. He showed me what it means to be a fan and what it means to accept a legacy greater than oneself - be it the 49ers', the Cowboys', or even the Texans'. Part of that is knowing your history and part of that is respecting rivalries, even when they might be from the dim light of another decade.

He showed me that even during times of the lowest lows, that legacy and that history is always behind the veil. As Niners fans, we can always draw upon and access this legacy. Thus, he showed me what it means to follow a team - not just for Frank Gore or Vernon Davis, but for a horrid loss in '71, for The Catch and Eric Wright's tackle, and for Joe Montana handing the reins to Steve Young.

But, most importantly, he showed me what it is to be a son, and maybe someday, if I am lucky, what it means to be a father. This is the power of sports. This is the power of football. And, this is the power of an old San Francisco 49ers shirt.

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