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The Least Appreciated Impact Play in 49ers History

Jun 6, 2024 at 9:00 PM

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Football historians cite Dwight Clark's soaring, back-of-the-endzone touchdown grab in the waning moments of the 1981 NFC Championship as the singular play that launched the 49ers dynasty and propelled San Francisco to its first Super Bowl appearance.

Forty-Niner fans went berserk as Clark came down with the ball inbounds or as TV play-by-play announcer Vin Scully declared, "It's a mad house at Candlestick."

Ray Wersching's extra-point kick thrust the Niners into a one-point lead. The Niners defense would need to take the field and hold the lead.

Dallas had never lost to the 49ers in the playoffs, but there was a sense that this was about to change. The players were hugging and high-fiving. Meanwhile, the defensive coaches were hyping their troops, exhorting them to "make a play."

Timmy Newsome returned Wersching's kickoff to the Cowboys' 25-yard line. The Cowboys still had two timeouts, and with forty-seven seconds left on the clock, there was ample time to move the ball down the field and into range for a game-winning field goal.

Lawrence Pillers was a defensive end, but on obvious passing downs, he moved inside.

On the next snap, Dallas quarterback Danny White made the play, hitting future NFL Hall-of-Famer Drew Pearson in stride on a deep crossing route for 31 yards. The pass split Ronnie Lott and Carlton Williamson and may have gone the distance if not for Eric Wright's horse-collar tackle at the San Francisco 44-yard line.

The Cowboys called timeout with 38 seconds remaining. The 49ers needed to bring the heat, and Lawrence Pillers answered the call. Coming from his right defensive tackle position, Pillers rushed to the left, crossing the face of center Tom Rafferty and getting his pads underneath Cowboys guard Kurt Petersen. Pillers forklifted Petersen into the backfield and onto his backside. Then, he pivoted and drew a beeline for White.

Pillers hit White chest high, and the force of the impact separated the Dallas quarterback from the ball. Forty-niner Jim Stuckey jumped on the loose ball and triumphantly held it over his head as he ran off the field.

Montana took two kneel-down snaps, and the 49ers were NFC Champions, heading to Pontiac, Michigan, for their first Super Bowl.

The Catch may be the signature play, but it wasn't the singular play that clinched the 1981 NFC Championship. There were three last-minute standout plays that changed the game's trajectory: The Catch by Clark and a defensive gem by Eric Wright and Lawrence Pillers.

We all remember the best of the best, the iconic plays: The Catch I, II, and III, John Taylor's TD reception that clinched the Super Bowl XXIII win versus the Bengals, and Steve Young's incredible, meandering, and mercurial 49-yard touchdown jaunt against the Vikings. The LP Strip-Sack that beat the Dallas Cowboys ought to be included in that list. It's as if the magnificence of the Montana-to-Clark pass play eclipsed the magnitude of Pillers' forced fumble.

We need to remember; Dwight Clark's leaping catch tied the game. Ray Wersching's extra point vaulted the 49ers into the lead. Eric Wright's horse-collar tackle of Drew Pearson preserved the lead, and Pillers' strip-sack of White won the game.

Clark never lost sight of the importance of Pillers' and Wright's plays. As The Athletic's Daniel Brown reported, Dwight felt sheepish that all the glory had been heaped on him and not distributed more evenly.

The LP strip-sack is the least appreciated impact play in 49ers history.

On October 22, 2017, the 49ers honored Clark during halftime against the Dallas Cowboys. Dwight was clearly weakened by his battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Formerly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, ALS is a fatal neurological disorder. Clark rose to his feet and expressed gratitude for the life that he had lived, the games that he had played, and the outpouring of love he received. Dwight thanked the York family for their kindness and recounted how former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo was there for him every step of the way. Joe Montana spoke, and members of the 1981 team gathered on the fifty-yard line to salute their ailing friend and teammate. Lawrence Pillers was among them.

Months later, in the final months of his life, many of Dwight's former teammates traveled to White Fish, Montana, to offer their hugs and appreciation. Those visitors included Lawrence Pillers and his wife, Chante.

Dwight had lost his ability to speak. His wife Kelly had become his voice.

Kelly shared how grateful Dwight was that Wright and Pillers preserved his place in history. Dwight concluded that The Catch wouldn't have been about anything without their heroics.

In his December 2020 article, Brown reported, "When Chante passed that along to her husband, (Lawrence) Pillers circled back to Clark one last time, kissed him on the forehead, and Lawrence said, 'And I told him that I loved him.'"

The 49ers wouldn't have won the 1981 NFC Championship without The Catch, but without the LP Strip-Sack, Clark's catch may have been remembered as merely a jubilant moment in another heartbreaking loss to the Cowboys.

Lawrence Pillers was selected in the 11th round of the 1976 NFL draft. He left Alcorn State without a degree and put his education on hold to pursue a career in the NFL. Forty-two years later, Pillers returned to his alma mater and received his diploma.

Whether changing the fortunes of two NFL franchises by forcing a fumble or returning to school to complete unfinished business, Lawrence is a finisher we can all honor and appreciate.

Feature photo courtesy of HBCU Network.
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