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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