Many people will remember the 1981 NFC playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys as the game where Dwight Clark made “The Catch.”
Local fans remember had it not been for Richmond’s own Lenvil Elliott, “The Catch” on Jan. 10, 1982 at Candlestick Park would not have happened.
Elliott died Oct. 12 at the age of 57 in his hometown of Richmond where he returned following his retirement from the NFL after the 1981 season. He left the NFL with 1,900 yards rushing with 8 touchdowns, and 159 receptions for 1484 yards and 10 more touchdowns. He had one post-season touchdown when he scored on a 6-yard run in the third quarter of Cincinnati’s 24-14 loss to Oakland in 1975.
Considering that less than five percent of college players make it to the NFL, Elliott’s journey was a remarkable one that began at Richmond High School.
The final game of his nine-year career helped launch a football dynasty as the upstart 49ers stunned America’s Team 28-27 on their way to a 26-21 win over Cincinnati in Super Bowl XVI.
During San Francisco’s game-winning 89-yard drive, the former Spartan carried four times for 31 yards to set up Joe Montana’s touchdown pass.
Richmond coach Tom Adams remembers Elliott closing out his high school career in equally stellar fashion by scoring all 19 points and running for 201 yards on a very cold night against a Slater team that had lost just one game before playing Richmond in the season finale.
“It was a cold, nasty night and no one was real excited about playing,” Adams said. “Slater scored first and we came back and scored as Lenvil had a remarkable run, 66 yards from the goal, but he went all over the field.
I can remember watching the film over and over, and counting the number of times a Slater player touched or tried to tackle him. The last 5 yards to the end zone he drug or carried a couple of guys trying to get him down. He was not about to lose his final game in a Spartan uniform.”
Adams added that Elliott was a joy to coach and had great discipline and a commitment to the game.
After earning All-State honors, the 6-foot, 190-pound Elliott ended up continuing his football career at Northeast Missouri State College (now Truman State) where he helped lead the Bulldogs to three consecutive MIAA titles. His former coach at Northeast, Russ Sloan, said Elliott was the first player he targeted to come to Kirksville upon taking over at the Kirksville school.
“I thought at one point I had lost him to Texas-El Paso but he called me at home and asked if he could still come to Northeast Missouri,” Sloan recalled. “I cannot begin to describe how awesome Lenvil was in his first full contact scrimmage as a freshman. I knew then that he was special, and in my playing career at Missouri I had not seen a better back in The Big 8.
Lenvil could do it all. He was a great runner, solid blocker and a superb receiver out of the backfield. His 40 time was 4.3, and rarely was the first tackler able to bring Lenvil down.”
Adams also felt that Elliott was good enough to compete in the Big 8.
“If he had got his speed before the 1968 season, instead of it improving greatly in the track season his senior year, I think he would have had a shot at MU,” Adams said. “They were interested, but felt he was not fast enough.”
Even so, the lure of being close to home also played a factor in Elliott’s decision to attend Northeast.
Despite his successes on the field, both Adams and Sloan remember how down to earth Elliott was.
“As great as he was, Lenvil was humble and always a team player,” Sloan said. “Richmond certainly produced one of the greatest backs to come out of the state of Missouri and I was blessed to have had him play for me and the Bulldogs.”
Following his senior season at Northeast Missouri, Elliott was a 10th-round selection by the Cincinnati Bengals in the spring of 1973.
He played six seasons for the Bengals where he met a young offensive assistant coach named Bill Walsh.
Walsh later became head coach of San Francisco and because Elliott’s receiving ability fit into his scheme, Walsh brought him to the bay area in 1979.
Elliott was cut in training camp in 1981, but was resigned by the 49ers later as injuries decimated the running back position.
He appeared in just four games that year, but made his final game something to remember.
“Lenvil has all the skills for pass receiving,” Bill Walsh said in an article written by Dave Anderson of the New York Times on Jan 11, 1982. “With the injuries we’ve had to our running backs, we feel we have a need for what Lenvil can do for us. He has experience. And if we fall behind, he would be a vital person for us.”
San Francisco took over with 4:54 left in the game and Elliott was involved in six of the 13 plays.
Two passes thrown to him were incomplete, but Elliott ran for gains of 6, 11, 7 and 7 yards. The final 7-yard sweep around left end to the Dallas 6-yard line was the play before “The Catch.” Elliott was quoted in the same New York Times article.
“I’m just glad for all my teammates, both here and those I had in Cincinnati when I was there,” Lenvil Elliott said. “Being in the Super Bowl just couldn’t happen to better people.”
Unfortunately a knee injury kept Elliott out of the Super Bowl, but back in Richmond, there were many fans proud of what the former Spartan had accomplished in helping the 49ers to their first ever Super Bowl victory.
PHOTO: Lenvil Elliott, a 1969 Richmond High School graduate, played nine seasons in the NFL, and helped San Francisco upset Dallas on the way to the Super Bowl in his final game. (Photo courtesy of Tom Adams)