Dwight Clark’s “The Catch” is one of the most famous plays in NFL history, and made for one of the most iconic photos ever taken by longtime Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr., one of the industry’s biggest names. Yet for all the immortality conferred in the back of Candlestick Park’s end zone on Jan. 10, 1982, Iooss was one of the very few people in the stadium who wasn’t happy about it.
Iooss had spent the entire 1981 season, beginning with training camp, embedded with the Dallas Cowboys. Sports Illustrated had given him a plum assignment: a season-in-the-life photo essay covering America’s Team. Iooss relished the unprecedented access: he shot behind-the-scenes photos in the locker room, attended most every game (home and away), and bonded with the likes of Tony Dorsett and Charlie Waters. He felt, he said, like he was “part of the team.”
The Cowboys were one victory away from taking the NFC, and Iooss was confident that they could overcome the 49ers on the road. “I was sure Dallas was going to win and go to the Super Bowl,” he said.
But Dallas clung desperately to a six-point lead with less than a minute left in the game as Joe Montana brought the Niners to the line of scrimmage deep in Cowboys territory. Not a spectator inside Candlestick was seated – including a young 49ers fan by the name of Tom Brady.
Iooss was in the back of the end zone, facing Montana and rooting for Dallas’s vaunted defense to make one last stop. “You’re supposed to be emotionless,” Iooss said recently by phone from his home on eastern Long Island, “but you can’t help being involved with certain athletes and certain teams. It’s impossible not to. You spend an entire season with someone and then...”
There he trailed off.
Iooss grew up in East Orange, N.J. A child of divorce, sports became his escape, primarily through television. He remembers looking through “a real camera lens” for the first time while watching the New York Giants play at Yankee Stadium when he was 16. He quickly caught the bug.
Like many aspiring photographers from that era, Iooss admired the shooters whose work appeared regularly in Sports Illustrated and Life magazines: Marvin Newman, John Zimmerman, Hy Peskin, Mark Kaufman, Robert Riger. Iooss considers Riger’s action shot of Johnny Unitas during the sudden-death championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the Giants in 1958 to be “the classic football picture of all time.”
Iooss also couldn’t help but notice the credit line of another young photographer, Neil Leifer, who shot Alan Ameche’s winning touchdown plunge in that Colts-Giants game. Soon, Iooss and Leifer were friendly rivals at Sports Illustrated.
He and Leifer drove each other, Iooss said, as the two competed for covers and choice gigs. “We were very different types of shooters,” he said. “Neil planned a lot more than I did. I was more of a reactionary guy. I felt my way through situations more than he did. But Neil made things happen. We made each other better and harder workers.”
Iooss’s favorite NFL team was the Colts, and his favorite player was Raymond Berry, Johnny Unitas’s primary target. “I worship the pass receiver,” Iooss said. “That’s my favorite position to shoot.”
His first stunning “catch” photo for SI came in the fall of 1962. He’d gotten a field credential to cover the Colts-49ers game at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium and captured receiver Jimmy Orr making the game-winning grab just beyond the reach of San Francisco’s Jerry Mertens. “When Orr finished catching the ball,” Iooss later told The Digital Journalist, “I jumped up in the air, like the teenage fan I was, leaped on his back and patted him like a deranged stalker. I completely forgot about being a journalist.”
The next year, his first of over 300 SI covers was published. “Coast-to-Coast Iooss” quickly established himself as one of the magazine’s premier shooters. He also supplied the photos for several bestselling books, including George Plimpton’s Paper Lion, Ira Berkow’s Rockin’ Steady, and Roy Blount’s About Three Bricks Shy of a Load.
In 1980, Iooss took two remarkable photos of two remarkable catches that resulted in two SI covers. The first was of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ John Stallworth making the decisive play against the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl XIV. Iooss was positioned in the end zone of the Rose Bowl when he snapped the picture using a 600-millimeter lens. The difference between a cover shot and an unusable shot was a matter of milliseconds. “The frame before it was out of focus, and the frame after it was out of focus,” he said.
Then, Iooss captured the Cleveland Browns’ Dave Logan’s one-handed grab against the Steelers’ Mel Blount (back when receivers did not wear gloves and one-handed catches were rare). Iooss’s approach was as intuitive as Logan’s stab. When he saw the play coming toward him, he quickly switched from the camera he was using with a telephoto lens to one with a 50-millimeter lens. “The [50-millimeter] is perfect for action happening right in front of you,” he said. “You pre-focus it to around 15 feet so it’s ready when you need it.”
The Logan shot was the cover of SI’s football preview edition that year. Inside was a multi-page spread of Iooss’s NFL pictures. That may well have been the inspiration for an ambitious project that he and his editors thought up for the 1981 season: Iooss would follow the Dallas Cowboys for the entire year.
Those Cowboys were in the latter stages of their “America’s Team” dynasty. With Tom Landry, Tony Dorsett, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Randy Martin, and Danny White, Dallas was a colorful, veteran squad that was sure to lurk at the top of the standings. Iooss reported to training camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and blended in with the team in short order.
“Your job is to be invisible and wait for a picture,” he said, “even though 90 percent of the time there’s no picture. You’re just waiting. But they get used to you. You can do things that no other photographer can do. You get pictures that are timeless.”
He later told The Digital Journalist that, on his first day in the locker room, a player approached him and said, “‘I want you to take a picture of me getting a needle in my shoulder.’ I looked around, thinking maybe I was being put on, and said, ‘You’re kidding, right? Why would you want me to do that?’ He said, ‘Because I want to give it to my son to make sure he never plays football again.’”
Dallas went 12-4 en route to winning its fifth division crown in six seasons. One of those losses was to the 49ers, 45-14, at Candlestick Park in October. The Cowboys viewed the result as an aberration and believed that history was on their side. They’d handled the 49ers in the playoffs before—three consecutive years in fact, in the 1970s.
The 49ers, on the other hand, saw the victory as an affirmation of their bright future. They had selected Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana in the third round of the 1979 draft – a pick that originally belonged to Dallas — and he became the perfect conductor for head coach Bill Walsh’s groundbreaking West Coast Offense.
In the 10th round, the 49ers took an unheralded receiver named Dwight Clark. Walsh had journeyed to Clemson University to work out quarterback Steve Fuller before the draft. Fuller used his roommate, Clark, for the session, and Walsh liked what he saw.
Clark wasn’t super fast, but at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds he was bigger than most defensive backs. He could also jump–he’d played basketball in high school–and he proved Walsh’s instincts correct by developing into a sure-handed receiver, with 82 receptions in 1980 and 85 in 1981 (including a 78-yard TD in the regular-season game against Dallas).
When Clark wasn’t dating Shawn Weatherly (Miss USA and Miss Universe, 1980), he bonded with his quarterback. “We’d stay out after practice and work on our own stuff,” he told SI in 1990. “I don’t know how much it helped him, but it helped me. I didn’t have a clue about reading defenses, about making adjustments. That’s the thing about Bill’s system. You could do your own adjusting as long as it was in the parameter, the guidelines. A lot of times, say, I’d run a 10-yard hook. If the guy was inside me, I’d kind of push off and run a breakout. Joe could read that.”
Dallas whipped Tampa Bay, 38-0, in its playoff opener, while the “upstart 49ers,” as CBS announcer Vin Scully called them, downed the Giants, 38-24. That set up the Cowboys-49ers rematch for the NFC championship.
The game seesawed through three quarters as Dallas capitalized on six turnovers by the 49ers. Cornerback Everson Walls had three of them: two picks and a fumble recovery that set up the Cowboys’ go-ahead score in the fourth quarter.
Dallas led 27-21 when San Francisco got the ball back with 4:54 remaining in the game. The 49ers started the drive on their own 11-yard line. Mixing runs by Lenvil Elliott and passes to Freddie Solomon, Montana directed the team down the field. By now players from both sides were exhausted. Clark had one reception on the final drive before leaving the game temporarily to regain his breath.
After another Montana-Solomon hookup, the 49ers reached the Dallas 12-yard line. On first down, Montana misfired by throwing the ball over Solomon’s head. He later said that The Catch would never have happened if he’d only completed the first-down pass to Solomon. Elliott then ran for six yards, whereupon Walsh called timeout to confer with his quarterback. It was third-and-four from the six, 58 seconds left, one timeout remaining.
Iooss had roamed the field throughout the game, concentrating on shooting the Cowboys. Now, with the season on the line, he instinctively headed toward the end zone. “I liked to move to the end zone when the game was close because you could see the whole field,” he said. “I might not get a great picture, but if you’re stuck on the sidelines, you’re probably going to miss out.”
He knelt down at the back of the north end zone, wedged between the goal post and the Dallas sideline. He made sure that he positioned himself in front of a claustrophobic scrum of photographers, fans, and security guards that surrounded the field. As he watched Montana and the 49ers come to the line of scrimmage, Iooss raised a camera toward his face.
Walsh’s play call was Sprint Right Option. This called for Solomon and Clark to line up on the right side, with Clark flanked wide. Clark’s job was to pick the defensive back covering Solomon as the speedster broke toward the right corner of the end zone, allowing Montana to hit the presumably wide-open Solomon. They’d scored on the same play earlier in the game.
If Solomon was covered, Montana could run it himself if he had a clear path. The final option was for Clark to cut into the end zone, right to left, then turn and break back to the right. Montana would either throw it high to Clark, where no defender could get it, or else throw it away and line up for one last shot on fourth down.
Montana took the snap and rolled right, only for Solomon to slip at the line of scrimmage. The pick play was off, so Clark kept moving, cutting into the end zone with Walls in pursuit.
The second option –the QB keeper–was stymied as Dallas’s defense charged at Montana. He veered toward the Dallas sideline, chased by linebacker D.D. Lewis and linemen Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Larry Bethea. Montana backpedaled to avoid the furious rush, buying time, and looked toward the end zone. He pumped once to get the 6-foot-9 Jones to jump, then hurled the ball off his back foot before being shoved to the turf by Bethea. He never saw what happened next. He heard it, though.
“I was on the ground and I thought at first everybody was cheering just for the touchdown,” Montana told SI. “Later, I saw the replay and realized they were cheering for Dwight’s catch. God, did he get up there.”
As the play unfolded, Iooss focused on shooting Montana with a Canon camera equipped with a telephoto lens. But when he saw the ball coming almost directly towards him, he repeated the sequence that had produced the Dave Logan cover. He dropped the camera he was using, took up the one slung around his neck, with a 50-millimeter lens pre-focused to the middle of the end zone, and fired.
“I switched cameras when I saw the ball released,” he said, “and then out of my right eye I saw this motion. Here come Clark and Walls. It happened fast: it was up, down, over.”
The player who was sliding into the frame, about 12 feet away from Iooss, was the only person inside Candlestick who could possibly reach the football. Clark had escaped Walls’s coverage by doubling back toward the right sideline and giving his quarterback a target in the end zone. Now, Clark was soaring to an apex. He managed to half-block, half-grasp the ball with his gloveless hands, the ball bouncing off his fingertips until he could corral it securely. He landed cleanly, then punctuated the “double catch” with an emphatic spike.
Vin Scully’s call: “Montana...looking, looking...throwing in the end zone...Clark caught it! Dwight Clark!...It’s a madhouse at Candlestick! With 51 seconds left! Dwight Clark is 6-4. He stands about 10 feet tall in this crowd’s estimation!”
Iooss’s heart was still with Dallas. “It was the worst thing that could’ve happened for the Cowboys,” he said, “but I had to let go of personal issues and relationships and be a professional, whether you’re rooting for someone or not. You gotta toss that away.”
The extra point made it 28-27 Niners, but Iooss had not given up. Dallas got the ball back after the ensuing kickoff with 47 seconds left. All they needed was a field goal. They almost scored a touchdown.
On first down, White connected with receiver Drew Pearson. For a sliver of a moment, as Pearson galloped past defenders at midfield, the Cowboys were headed to the Super Bowl — until rookie corner Eric Wright made a desperate, horse-collar tackle on Pearson that Montana later said was as important a play as The Catch.
Still, there was plenty of time. Dallas only needed another 10 or 15 yards to be in field-goal range. But White was sacked on the next play and fumbled, with the 49ers recovering. The Cowboys were headed back to Texas.
Afterward, Iooss ventured into the glum visitors’ locker-room. “There was nobody talking. I just remember all the tape in the middle of the floor, off the ankles, wrists, knees, jerseys. It was like a morgue. They got on a plane and went home. There were no words. I don’t think I said anything to anyone.”
At that point, Iooss was unsure whether he’d gotten the photograph of the winning touchdown. “No, I had no idea,” he said. “I took the picture, but I didn’t know if it was in focus. I didn’t know if [Clark] was in the frame or anything. It wasn’t digital. First thing we would do now is look at the screen and go crazy one way or the other.”
The margin for error, he knew well, was minuscule. “Great pictures take place in five-hundredths of a second,” he said. “If the motor drive went off at a different time or if Clark wasn’t right in front of me, it would’ve been a bad picture. If Clark was a step further to my left–one stride—it would’ve been a bad picture.”
The film was flown to the magazine’s processing lab and developed there. Iooss soon saw what Clark, Walls, and the rest of the nation would see on the cover of that week’s SI. He’d gotten The Shot of The Catch.
The photo was cropped as a vertical, accompanied by the headline “The Super Catch: Dwight Clark’s Touchdown Beats Dallas.” Iooss admires the dramatic cover, but to this day he prefers the full-frame version of The Catch. The majestic horizontal shows players from both teams standing flat-footed and watching the pas de deux of Clark and Walls, the stadium bleachers and looming sky providing a stark background. (A post on Uni Watch deconstructed the photo and found Iooss’s composition to be “divine.”)
For all the praise that The Catch brought Iooss, he found it difficult to celebrate the moment. Not only had his friends inside the Dallas locker-room lost, but in the aftermath of the 49ers’ dramatic victory, the editors at SI decided not to publish his season-long documentary of the Cowboys. “The Catch overwhelmed them all,” said Iooss, who admits that he was “pissed off” that his efforts were tossed aside. “I got some great pictures. I saw things I’ll never see again.”
Several photos eventually ran in a profile about the Cowboys organization in the September 1, 1982, edition of SI, “but it became a text story versus a picture story,” Iooss said. “It was disappointing, but it was more disappointing for them than for me. I at least got The Catch. They didn’t get to the Super Bowl.”
By then, the photo had taken on a life of its own. Football’s popularity enabled Iooss’s Catch to usurp the title from the original Catch: Willie Mays’s over-the-shoulder grab of Vic Wertz’s shot in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series at the Polo Grounds. (That run-catch-whirl-and-throw sequence was shot by Frank Hurley of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photography staff of the New York Daily News.)
More importantly, as sportswriter Gary Myers points out in his book entitled The Catch: One Play, Two Dynasties, and the Game That Changed the NFL, the moment marked a turning point in the fortunes of the two franchises, and a changing of the guard in the NFL. Walsh, Montana, and Company went on to defeat Walsh’s former team, the Cincinnati Bengals, in Super Bowl XVI at the Pontiac Silverdome. That started a run of four titles in nine seasons for the 49ers, burnishing Walsh’s image as a gridiron genius and Montana’s as a clutch winner. Dallas lost again in the playoffs the following year, suffering a third consecutive defeat in the conference championship game. Landry did not win another Super Bowl in his career, and the franchise did not win the Super Bowl for another decade.
One Cowboy who did earn redemption was the player beaten for The Catch. Nearly a decade later, after leaving the Cowboys and signing with the Giants, Everson Walls was featured solo on the cover of SI, exulting after their SB XXV victory over the Buffalo Bills.
In 1982, Iooss left the cozy confines of the Time & Life Building and embarked on a two-year commission underwritten by Fuji Photo Film, at that point an obscure player in a field dominated by Kodak. Iooss’s charge was to photograph U.S. athletes training for and competing at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The “dream project” yielded a book, Shooting for the Gold, and an exhibition that was shown at the International Center of Photography in New York City, the National Geographic Society’s Explorer’s Hall in Washington, D.C., and other venues.
Iooss returned to the SI fold after the 1984 Olympics, but he shifted away from shooting game action. He concentrated on portraits and other commercial endeavors, including advertising and single-subject coffee-table books: Athlete, featuring annotations of his favorite shots (including a few from his Dallas Cowboys sojourn); Rare Air, a collaboration with Michael Jordan; Junior: Griffey on Griffey. And, while few readers of the SI swimsuit issue bother to glance at the photo credits, he served as the primary photographer for the annual babes-in-bikinis-and-less spreads, most memorably (at least for one generation of readers) shooting Cheryl Tiegs in white fishnet back in 1978.
He spent other seasons embedded with one team, including the 1985 Miami Dolphins, with Dan Marino in his prime. Miami lost in the AFC title game to the New England Patriots, and his documentary pictures were again put aside. He spent months shooting the American sports fan for a photo essay, but Sports Illustrated deemed the results “too dark” to publish.
Last year, Sports Illustrated decided to lay off its remaining six staff photographers. Iooss remains connected to SI as “the last photographer under contract left,” he said. “It’s a different world now. In many ways we were lucky we did it when we did.”
Now 72, he is working with family members to organize his vast archive. He’s been spending seven or eight hours a day, for months, combing through thousands upon thousands of prints and negatives. “It’s been really good,” he said. “I’ve discovered a lot of things that just amassed here.”
Next month, he’ll return to the Bay Area to shoot Super Bowl 50 for SI. He is one of just four photographers to have worked them all. He’s shot 13 SB covers for SI, including Super Bowls I and XLVIII. His most memorable picture, “even though it didn’t happen at the game,” was of Joe Namath lounging poolside before Super Bowl III. “Namath was magic,” Iooss said. “No one else could’ve pulled that off.”
This year’s Super Bowl will be held at Levi’s Stadium, about 40 miles from Candlestick Park, and Iooss is sure to be reminded of his connection with the play he immortalized 34 years ago. “I just happened to be there,” he said. “It was a damn good news shot, but no one could imagine that it would take on the life it did.”