When the 1979 NFL Draft started 35 years ago Saturday, the 49ers didn’t have a first-round pick.
Even worse, it was the No. 1 overall selection.
The previous March, the 49ers dealt second- and third-round picks in 1978, first-and fourth-round picks in 1979 and a second-round pick in 1980 for Bills running back O.J. Simpson.
The trade worked out poorly for San Francisco. The 49ers posted the NFL’s worst record in 1978, winning just two games. Simpson rushed for 593 yards in 1978 and 460 yards in 1979. By 1980, his career was over.
But back to the ’79 draft. After sitting out Round One, the 49ers took running back James Owens at the top of Round Two (No. 29 overall), who would go on to play six NFL seasons.
The 49ers then had a 53-pick wait until exercising the final selection of Round Three, the No. 82 overall choice.
And now, the football historians can surely sing the rest of this verse: With that third-round pick, the 49ers took Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana.
In 1981, his first full season as a starter, the 49ers won Super Bowl XVI, with Montana winning game MVP honors for the first of three times. Three years later, the Niners would capture Super Bowl XIX. Then, after the Bears, Giants and Redskins won titles, the 49ers reasserted their dominance of the NFC, triumphing in Super Bowls XXIII and XXIV.
All told, the 49ers — who never won an NFL championship before drafting Montana — won five Super Bowls in 13 seasons (1981-1994).
Certainly, it wasn’t Montana alone that propelled the 49ers out of the NFL’s basement. The late Bill Walsh was a coach and a evaluator of the highest order. The 49ers’ eye for talent extended beyond quarterbacks. One example: In Round 10 in the ’79 draft, the 49ers took Clemson wideout Dwight Clark, a key part of the club’s first two Super Bowl winners. Owner Eddie DeBartolo’s commitment to building winning teams is unquestioned, too.
But as with so many NFL stories that end happily, the 49ers fortunes started to turn when they found that special quarterback.