Jim Stuckey still sees that Notre Dame screen pass unfolding in slow motion “like it happened yesterday” and not way back in 1977, the last time the Irish played at Clemson.
There he is, the not-yet-great Joe Montana dropping back, unfazed by the hostile Death Valley crowd. There he is, connecting with future NFL running back Vagas Ferguson for a 36-yard pass that moved the ball to the Clemson 14.
Montana scored two touchdowns in a fourth quarter that began with the No. 15 Tigers holding a 10-point lead. The rally included a 27-yard pass to All-American tight end Ken MacAfee on 2nd-and-31.
“That epitomized to me the type of player Joe Montana was,” said Stuckey, a former Clemson and NFL defensive tackle who started for Clemson from 1977-79. “He had the innate ability to lead his team from defeat to victory. Because we had them. We had them beat.”
Montana’s 1-yard run with 7:11 remaining gave the No. 5 Irish a 21-17 lead, and it held up on Notre Dame’s march to a national championship.
Stuckey, an executive at Kiawah Island Real Estate, has been anticipating the Saturday night matchup of No. 6 Notre Dame at No. 12 Clemson as much as anyone.
“I think it will be a close game,” Stuckey said, “and one of the best games in Death Valley in a long time.”
Whatever happens, it will be hard to top the excitement of Nov. 12, 1977.
“Let’s see,” Stuckey said, “they had Montana, Ross Browner, Ken MacAfee, Vagas Ferguson at running back. We had Steve Fuller, Jerry Butler, Dwight Clark, Joe Bostic, Jeff Bostic, myself. There were so many of us that went on to the NFL. Oh, my gosh. There was a wealth of talent on that field that day.”
Not counting NFL games played at Clemson, it was the greatest collection of players for any game at Death Valley.
36 players that went on to play in the NFL
7 first-round draft picks
14 combined Super Bowl rings
19 Notre Dame starters drafted
Stuckey became close friends with Montana when they helped Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers build from NFL afterthought to perennial Super Bowl contender.
“I always told Montana how bleeping lucky he was at Clemson,” said Stuckey, a Columbia native. “I could not believe it. I still can’t.”
Montana was a Notre Dame junior in 1977. Along with the national championship, he would go on to win four Super Bowls with the 49ers and get first-ballot access to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Stuckey wasn’t the only Clemson player from the 1977 Notre Dame game to lend Montana a hand.
The world is well aware of Dwight Clark’s leaping grab of a Montana touchdown pass against the Dallas Cowboys in the 1982 NFC Championship Game. But “The Catch” didn’t quite send the 49ers to Super Bowl XVI.
The 28-27 victory wasn’t secure until Stuckey fell on Cowboys quarterback Danny White’s fumble with 30 seconds left.
Stuckey got a big hug from Walsh on the way off the field.
“We’re going to the Super Bowl!” Walsh yelled.
Archie Reese started alongside Stuckey in the 1977 game, and for the 49ers in 1981.
Mike Calhoun, a former Notre Dame reserve defensive lineman, joined Stuckey on the 49ers’ roster for the 1980 season.
“Mike came up to me and said, ‘Stuckey, I’ve only been scared on a football field once in my life and it was at Clemson in ‘77,” Stuckey said. “He said they were coming out of the locker room and an old lady looked at him and smiled. She didn’t have a tooth in her head. She said, ‘We’re going to kick your (butt) today, sonny boy.’”
Though Clemson lost the 1977 game, it was a turning point for a program that hadn’t been to a bowl game in 18 years. The Tigers remained at No. 15 in the Associated Press poll the next week, the only time Clemson has not moved down after a loss.
“Most of us were recruited by Red Parker, then coached by Charley Pell for two years and then Danny (Ford),” Stuckey said. “We just kept getting better.”
The 1977 game had a positive impact on recruiting. Terry Kinard, Jeff Davis and Perry Tuttle were on the sideline for official visits that afternoon.
Kinard and Davis made the College Football Hall of Fame.
Tuttle made the cover of Sports Illustrated after Clemson won the 1981 national championship with an Orange Bowl victory over Nebraska.
Clemson finished 8-3 and earned a Gator Bowl bid in 1977 (loss to Pittsburgh), then went 11-1 in 1978, Pell’s final season. Though the Tigers fell to 8-4 and lost to South Carolina in 1979, Stuckey and friends got their Notre Dame revenge with a 16-10 win at South Bend on Nov. 17.
“We had a great defense and our offense was good enough,” Stuckey said. “(Quarterback) Billy Lott did a great job that day.”
“Wake up the echoes” is part of the familiar Notre Dame fight song.
“That the Tiger’s roar may echo” goes with the official Clemson Alma Mater.
Stuckey will do all he can as the Honorary Captain for Saturday night’s game.
“Dabo has done the best job of any coach we’ve had of bringing the former players back and integrating us into the program,” Stuckey said. “We all appreciate that.”
Fans might not recognize Stuckey; he is down to 225 pounds after a diet and exercise program, his playing weight as a junior in high school.
But Stuckey will have no trouble recognizing those shiny Notre Dame helmets against the backdrop of orange.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff