The year that was 1981 sports produced three epic moments, all of which have differing places in sports lore. One of them has seen its memory indisputably stand the test of time. A second has seen its memory fade, though with a little jostle, it can be brought back to the forefront. And a third has been unfortunately forgotten.
It was the then-upstart San Francisco 49ers that produced the biggest moment, and it was “The Catch”, when receiver Dwight Clark went high into the air to grab a third-down pass that quarterback Joe Montana was trying to throw away. Clark came down with the catch and the touchdown, producing a victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game.
The images of Clark going high and grabbing the ball with his fingertips have ensured this play a special place in the annals of legend. It was also a seminal moment in the history of the NFL—it marked the the second of three straight conference championship game losses for the Cowboys, and the franchise would start a slow fall from grace that would collapse by the end of the decade.
San Francisco and Dallas were a case of two ships passing in the night. The 49ers went on to win the Super Bowl, and won three more by the time the 1980s were complete.
A footnote to the 1981 NFL playoffs, but most worthy of mention is how good the second round of the AFC playoffs were. The San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins played one of the great postseason games ever. The Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills played one that deserves a heckuva lot more historical attention than it gets. Because none of these teams won the Super Bowl, and because the AFC Championship Game wasn’t very good, the games that preceded them were forgotten, but they shouldn’t be.
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Moment #2 came in the NBA playoffs. The Boston Celtics were in the second year of the Larry Bird Era. They fell behind the Philadelphia 76ers 3-1 in games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Two straight dramatic wins set the stage for the most thrilling game yet.
Game 7 went to the wire with Boston holding a one-point lead. Philadelphia got a crack at the basket on the game’s final possession, but the Celtics held off the Sixers.
The Garden Party all but locked up the first NBA championship for Bird and a return to glory for the franchise. The West’s playoffs that year were gutted thanks to a bad year for Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers, so Boston-Philadelphia was the de facto Finals and everyone watching at the time knew it.
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Montana-to-Clark hasn’t been forgotten by anyone who saw it, and Bird’s Garden Party wouldn’t take much to remind people of. But the greatness of the 1981 NCAA Tournament is right on a par with those two events strictly on the merits, even if its legend has faded.
Remember, in 1981, favorites losing early was still a mostly isolated phenomena. That’s why the second round in ’81 came as such a shock. Eight of the sixteen favorites lost. And what’s most memorable is that three lost on buzzer-beating plays that all came right in succession, ensuring that TV viewers could be moved from game to game and see them all.
Finally, the three teams that fell weren’t just ordinary 1 thru 4 seeds. One of them was Louisville, the defending national champion. Another was DePaul, the #1 ranked team in the country. And another was Oregon State, the top seed in the West Regional.
There were more thrills ahead, with BYU’s Danny Ainge making an electrifying play in the Sweet 16, going coast-to-coast in the final seconds to beat Notre Dame by a point. And when the dust settled there was also a great champion. While other favorites fell, Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers simply destroyed people, winning their five games by an average of 20-plus points, and claiming a second national title in six years.
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The seasons of college football and baseball were filled with intrigue, albeit for very different reasons. College football saw the age of parity truly arrive. The #1 and #2 teams in the polls—Michigan and Alabama suffered big upsets on the second Saturday of September and it set the tone for a wild year, where old powers fell and new ones came forward.
No team made a stronger step forward than the Clemson Tigers, who went undefeated and beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to win the national title.
Baseball was interesting for all the wrong reasons. A strike interrupted the year and when play resumed in August, MLB opted for a “split-season”, where teams leading their divisions were declared champions, everyone started fresh and the “second-half” winners would be “first-half” leaders in the first-ever Division Series.
The plan resulted in inequities, but was probably the best idea manageable under the circumstances. The Los Angeles Dodgers ended up winning their first World Series in 25 years, including a big pennant-winning home run by Rick Monday in the National League Championship Series.
Read more about the 1981 Clemson Tigers
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If you wanted drama, the NHL wasn’t the place to go. But if you wanted excellence it certainly was. The 1981 New York Islanders dominated from start to finish, were the best team in hockey in the regular season and then rolled through the playoffs virtually unchallenged to win their second straight Stanley Cup.
Read more about the 1981 NHL Playoffs