Return to the NFL winner’s circle

Here is my Sunday article on the last great moment at Candlestick Park. This article runs in the Press Democrat’s Sunday sports section.

SANTA CLARA — A few days before the last game ever played at Candlestick Park, Vernon Davis walked off the practice field talking to Frank Gore after a morning walkthrough.

Davis had agreed to do a one-on-one interview after the walkthrough about the last great moment at Candlestick — a play called Vernon Post, unofficially the Catch III, his 14-yard touchdown that beat the Saints in the playoffs on Jan. 14, 2012, and gave the 49ers their first playoff win in nine years.

Davis greeted the interviewer outside the locker room, and Gore walked toward the open locker room doors, but then he turned around and said, “Can I talk, too?”

So, Davis, pretending to be a reporter, asked Gore the first question. “What did that game mean to you, Frank?”

Gore smiled. He liked being included in this topic, and he liked Davis deferring to him. “That’s probably my best moment,” said Gore. “First playoff game. Seeing how we fought. Everybody thought the game was over. That’s my best time at Candlestick.”

Gore had played his first six NFL seasons — the prime of a running back’s career — on bad 49ers teams. He was the face of the 49ers’ losing era between head coaches Steve Marriucci and Jim Harbaugh. No one could appreciate ending that era more than Gore.

“Vernon was rolling that game,” said Gore. “He set a playoff receiving record for a tight end in that game — 180 yards. I knew if he had a chance, he would make it.”

“You know who inspired me?” Davis asked. “Anthony Dixon. He kept walking up to me and yelling, ‘Vernon, you’re Superman! You always show up when we need you!’ He’s walking back and forth yelling, ‘You always show up!’ It just stuck in my mind: ‘Be Superman. Gotta be Superman today.’ ” Dixon happened to walk out of the locker room just at this moment.

“That was during a timeout,” said Dixon, joining the interview. “We were struggling a little bit, but I knew the whole time that Vernon was the man. He had been making the plays for us to get back into it. I just wanted to make sure he was into it because I knew he could make the play. Out of anybody on the field, I knew he could make it. I just wanted to pump him up, give him confidence, let him know we were supporting him and let him know I thought that he should take over right now. That’s why I said what I said, and he did his thing.”

Dixon’s plea to Superman happened right after the 49ers had given up a 66-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Jimmy Graham, who was double-covered by Patrick Willis and Donte Whitner. Graham jumped and caught the pass over Willis. Whitner tried to intercept the pass and whiffed. Both Whitner and Willis fell down and Graham ran into the north end zone, dunked the football through the uprights and headbutted the goalpost. On the sideline, Jim Harbaugh had a stunned look on his face no one had ever seen before and have not seen since. He stared at the field, mouth open, lips tight.

The players were stunned, too, like boxers taking a standing eight-count. The Saints scored a two-point conversion, Drew Brees to Darren Sproles. No one covered him. The Saints were up by three with 1:37 left.

On the kickoff, Kyle Williams tried to be the hero. He caught the ball 5 yards into the end zone and ran it out anyway and got tackled at the 15-yard line.

And then, Alex Smith jogged on the field with the offense. This was Smith’s moment, too. He was nearly perfect on this drive.

It started with a quick pass to Gore out of the backfield for a gain of 7. Smith hurried the offense to the line of scrimmage and called the next play without huddling. It was another short pass to Gore, this one for 11 yards. The clock was running and there were less than 50 seconds left. The 49ers had one timeout but they didn’t use it.

Instead, Smith called another play at the line of scrimmage. This time it was a deep pass to Brett Swain. It fell incomplete and it stopped the clock.

There were 40 seconds left and the 49ers still were at their own 33. They needed to gain about 40 yards to reach field goal range. Davis lined up right across from safety Malcolm Jenkins, who tried to jam him. Jenkins failed. Davis outweighed him by 45 pounds. Davis ran right through Jenkins, tossed him to the side, Smith hit Davis in stride and he gained 47 yards before Jenkins caught up and pushed him out bounds at the Saints’ 20 yard line with 31 seconds left.

Smith completed one more short pass to Gore and then spiked the ball, and then it was third-and-4 with 14 seconds left. The 49ers had one chance to score a touchdown and win the game. If they failed, they’d have to try a field goal and play for overtime.

Alex Smith said “Vernon Post” in the huddle.

“I think we ran that play once in practice,” Davis said. “They called it, and all I kept saying to myself was: ‘You have to make this play. Superman, Superman.’ I squeezed my fists together, I released them and then, all of a sudden, the ball was snapped. I planted, looked inside to the right and there the ball was.”

The ball hit Davis in the stomach just as the safety Roman Harper hit him in the side, but Davis didn’t budge. Harper bounced off Davis, and the Man of Steel scored.

“I was thinking, ‘I hope he catches it,’ ” said Whitner in the locker room a half hour after the Davis-Gore-Dixon group interview outside. “Patrick (Willis) and I messed up the last play, and if we lost the game it was going to be on us.”

Gore overheard what Whitner was talking about and walked over to him. “That was your first playoff game, too,” Gore reminded Whitner.

“That’s right,” said Whitner. “Until you go in the playoffs and actually win a game, you’re not really a good football team. We became a winning team at that point.”

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  1. “Vernon Post” reinforces the notion, football sometimes boils down to a play that’s called in every backyard across America. Well written article that grabs the reader, and takes them on an insiders view to a playoff game….

    1. Yes, Thanks Grant, well done.
      That whole game was memorable for various reasons.
      The up and down score.
      The Alex can play QB score
      We got a winning coach score
      The niners are back score
      It was almost as thrilling as the first SB

  2. Thank you, Grant. Well written and very enjoyable. Value-added because it wasn’t just about Vernon and his excellent catch (III!), but about his teammates too; critical to understanding this team.
    Also, for those who like to criticize CK for doing interviews with other players with him, do you think Vernon’s immature? Gore? Should Grant have excluded Dixon? Not.

  3. Nice write-up Grant. That was a great drive. One of the few I have ever bothered saving over my lousy dail-up connection. Took all afternoon.

    Gore, Whitner, Davis, Willis, Alex (yes, Alex too). Those are attitude players. Psychologically tough.

    1. Speaking of tough, I’m torn about the best way to enter the playoffs.

      1) The heck with the 5th seed. If AZ looses today the 6th is locked down.
      - Rest key players the next two games. Blow into the playoffs rested and ready.
      - Stomp in the wildcard round.
      - Start the following game hot against a (slightly) rusty SeAdderal.

      2) Win out and lock down the 5th seed. Make us proud by stomping Atlanta in the last game at The Stick.
      - Carolina and the 49ers take care of the NCF North and East.
      - Carolina plays SeAdderal tough. The Panthers defense softens up the SeaRoids.
      - Classic NFC Championship game. The 49ers offense struggles, but has no turnovers, Gore gets a few big runs, Manningham makes a big reception. The 49ers win two of three phases (Defense and Special teams) . Big celebration on a strangely quiet SeAdderal field.

      1. Respectfully, I’ll disagree with holding out starters to rest them. Many here have posted the same hope, so I think I’m in the minority, but I think THIS team would be better served by not taking their foot off the pedal. Rest them through some rotation, and in 2nd half if leading, but Full Speed Ahead! It’s their nature. Plus flipping the switch back on doesn’t always work out.
        Just my opinion.

      2. Brotha Tuna, I agree with your disagreement.

        A better way to keep veterans fresh is to build a big lead, play good ball control offense, then sub liberally in the 2nd half.

        Key front 7 vets playing under 35 snaps per game would be an ideal tune-up for the playoffs.

      3. This sounds like blasphemy, but I’m hoping (though not expecting) Dallas to win out to keep Philly out. I’m confident the 49ers can beat Philly, but the Niner D might have to play 70 snaps against that crazy offense to beat them.

      4. No TV here but Dallas sounds awful.

        There are bad teams, very bad teams, and teams in disarray. Washington is in disarray and Dallas (with playoff hopes on the line) are losing anyway. Wow.

  4. For me, that was the greatest game I’ve ever seen. Keep in mind I’m young. I was there and it is a memory I will cherish forever. I remember the wave of emotions throughout the final 4 mins. I remember praying on that final drive for Alex and co to please pull this one out. Every couple of months I rewatch it just to get my heart racing. Love my team. Go niners.

  5. Grant, it looks like a you have a new sports reporter named “Joe Montana” on the Press Democrat. Going to give the new guy an orientation? Show him where the coffee filters are? When its his turn to clean the break room?

  6. Brodie .. thanx for the link ..

    This line made me crack a smile =>

    “….Dwight always tells the story that getting to the end zone on that one was easy because he knew just where to run to lure the Saints’ defensive backs into the quagmire….”

  7. That was a great read, thanks Grant. Its strange to think back now how so many of those players had played through the bad 49ers years or played for bad teams elsewhere, and hadn’t yet been in a playoff game (Whitner and J. Smith in particular).

    We, the fans, talk a lot about how they need to win the SB now or they’ll miss their window – prior to the 2011 season a lot of the vets must have already been thinking their window was passing them by. Its no wonder this team is playing with a lot of hunger despite last years SB loss. Those lean years are a reminder for all the vets of how you need to take advantage of your opportunities while you can.

  8. Seattle clinches NFC West division and home-field advantage throughout NFC playoffs with:

    1) SEA win or tie OR

    2) SF loss or tie

    a sea loss and sf win is possible, ……there is still hope?.

  9. great article Grant, and a very happy memory. Nice to hear Gore’s perspective and Whitner’s on what it means to win a playoff game. Nice to know they’re still hungry for more. One more win against Seattle this year and I think we can do it.

  10. excellent article grant! When you report, as opposed to trying to create blog hits with controversial opinions, your pretty damn good!

  11. Who were the douch bags that said that Wilson is elite? That he’s better than Kaep? Now that Wilson’s receivers are injured who is HE making better? Primeslime, Freak77 and Cape don’t know jack….. sorry Jack lol

    Also nice to see Sherman get called for so many penalties. And he still complains.

  12. Alex Smith’s small, slippery hands showed up today. 0 TDs, 2 picks (including 1 squirty medicine ball thrown like a girl), and one fumble.

    Looks like Carolina is locking up the 5 seed, or better. If Arizona loses today, might as well rest everyone next week.

  13. Carson Palmer’s four picks are killing Arizona!

    Todd Marinovich, Rob Johnson, Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez, Matt Barkley….. When are NFL teams going to learn to avoid drafting QBs from the University of Spoiled Children? Matt Cassel doesn’t count because he was a 7th rounder…

  14. Carson Palmer to Colin Sack N Pick:
    Ya wanna talk about an ugly win?
    2 sacks + 4 interceptions
    (52% passing completion ratio) plus
    33% success rate on third down equals
    a possible win over the Seahawks…!!??
    Will Arizona close the season with wins
    over the division leaders? Watch out, Niners.

    1. Where are your stats on your boy today to scared to show you puss. You won’t answer because you like to hide behind a computer screen.

    2. Alex Smith at the post game press conference:

      Reporter: “What happened on that first interception Alex?”
      Alex Smith: “Well, I suffer from a condition called bitch-like hands…”

  15. Said it at the time we were robbed in N.O. That call would come back to haunt a division win. A win tomorrow and guess who would be going to the second round game at the stick…
    I know we’d have to win in Arz too.
    Yep I’m still pissed.
    Capeman and Alex Smith blah blah blah
    Get in the back seat and shut up. Your teams are overrated garbage bags.

    1. That was the worst and most important call of the season. It’s ok, the football gods will fix it…. We just have to take care of business.

  16. two teams which Coach Harbaw has
    no interest in facing any time soon:
    the Carolina Panthers and…and…and…
    the Arizona Cardinals. Both are pumped
    beyond belief. Just aching for a football fight.
    Is it possible that he can lose the final game
    in Candlestick Park and also fail to
    bring home the bacon (no Lombardi trophy)…
    again….? Denver says ‘think it over.’

    1. 49ers are not afraid of the Cards. Their run D is good, but everything else about the team is suspect. Carson Palmer is a terrible QB – 4 picks, 2 of which were in the red zone. Plus, Kaepernick would be going against a secondary missing the Honey Badger and Rashad Johnson, and probably Abraham on the D line. The Seahawks shaky O line finally did them in today.

    2. Lol look at who’s getting nervous now.
      Nobody is stopping this juggernaut is SF.
      The faster you realize that the better. Keep hating, because the reality of your chiefs have set in. A win tomorrow and the Arz is meaningless if they lose. The only thing at stake is 6th or 5th seed. Deal with it loser!

    3. If you put as much energy cheering for the real Alex Smith as you do writing notes to Harbaugh (which btw, he never reads), it might serve you and the chiefs better.

      Your chief machine has been sputtering since playing your real nemesis the Broncos.
      Hey, but winning 11 games is quite a feat after last year.
      Note to you (with a question):
      How much will you bet on your super chiefs/Alex in the playoffs?

  17. Once again, for the Dbag know it all’s, it’s not how you start a season it’s how you finish. In their last 11 games the Seachickens are 8-3, the Niners are 9-2. While we have won 4 in a row including one against the chickens, the Chickens have lost two of three and are lost offensively.

    Things to note.

    Refs are calling most of the holding on the Hawks now

    When he’s losing, Pete don’t like to chew gum


    Oh and to the Alex troll, your Chiefs are 2-4 in their last six games. Smith had a 41 QB rating and 0TD’s and 2 INTS. Thanks for the high draft pick.

  18. Pete!!!!…What’s up Bubblicious Pete? Ha ha ha ha ha…..Pete!!!…..Watch out for those Rams!!! Sneaky PETE!!! EEE EEE EEE…HEEE….HEEE….HEE.,..GIGGLE GIGGLE GIGGLE!!

  19. Ha Seaholds. Way to finish out the season on a high note.

    The ‘Stick lives! Playoffs go through SF – go Rams! (am I really saying that?)

  20. Still alive in the division! And this shows the world that Seattle isn’t invincible at home. The niners are coming for you!!

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