WHATEVER THRILLS Sunday's NFC title game (Falcons-Eagles) yields, it will be hard-pressed to match the 1982 game in which, with 51 seconds left, 49ers receiver Dwight Clark leaped to make a fingertip grab of Joe Montana's pass in the end zone and beat Dallas 28-27 (above). The play endures as The Catch, and the pigskin survives in a cardboard box marked THE BALL (THE underlined three times) in a closet in Clark's Charlotte home. "The play changed my life," says Clark, 48, who after retiring in '87 spent 10 years in the 49ers' front office. "It brought me close to [ex--Niners owner] Eddie DeBartolo, so I got a job."
For a while Clark, who has three kids with his wife, Ashley, and who runs a construction firm in Charlotte, didn't have the ball at all. In that simpler, pre-Mientkiewicz time, Clark spiked the football, then forgot about it until a team equipment manager gave it to him in the locker room. Clark handed it to Niners p.r. man Jerry Walker for safekeeping, and the ball sat, forgotten, in Walker's garage for eight years until it came up in conversation at the 49ers' p.r. office. Walker then gave it to Clark, who displayed it at Clark's On the Bay, a restaurant he owned in Redwood City, Calif., in the early 1990s. Since then it's lived in the dark. Says Clark (below), "The Ball gets no respect."
-- Sarah Thurmond