The Bay Area’s Top Sports Comebacks

by Mark Purdy

Dave Dravecky is just one of the region’s many impressive stories of renewal and rebirth in the athletic realm. Others:



Breathes there a 49er fan with a soul so dead that it ever grows tired of being fed the highlights of Joe Cool’s greatest retaliatory triumph? With 3:20 left in the fourth quarter and the 49ers trailing the Cincinnati Bengals, 16-12, Montana completed eight of nine passes and threw the winning touchdown pass to John Taylor with only 34 seconds left. Just two years earlier, Montana had undergone career-threatening back surgery.


In 1982, the Cal-Stanford rivalry game at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley gave us the most amazingly ridiculous comeback in college football history. Stanford took a 20-19 lead with four seconds left, putting Cal in desperation mode. On the ensuing kickoff, the Golden Bears began playing keep-away with the ball and used five laterals to reach the goal line as Stanford’s band stormed the field, thinking the play was over. Cal’s Kevin Moen weaved through the musicians to score, knocking over Stanford trombone player Gary Tyrrell in the process. Final score: Cal 25, Stanford 20.


Bicyclists think they have it tough today, dodging local street traffic. They should have been around in 1902, when the Bay Area was a hotbed of two-wheel competition and Agarz was a major star for San Jose’s Garden City Wheelmen. While leading a road race to Fremont, Agarz was ambushed and shot in his leg, eight miles from the finish. The shooter, a suspected associate of a San Francisco cycling rival, escaped. Agarz patched up the bloody calf wound and rallied to win.


Stanford’s Plunkett became the Bay Area’s first Heisman Trophy winner in 1970. Drafted by the NFL’s New England Patriots, he struggled for five years at quarterback, then was traded to the 49ers. Plunkett muddled through two mediocre seasons with them before being released. The Raiders signed him as a backup. When an injury to Dan Pastorini gave Plunkett the starter’s role in Oakland, he rebooted himself magnificently and won two Super Bowl rings, including 1984 when he was named the game’s MVP.


During the Golden State Warriors’ recent playoff dominance, there’s one game fans won’t ever forget. In 2017, their team was all but eliminated from the NBA Western Conference Finals until guard Klay Thompson had other ideas. The Dubs trailed the series, three games to two, and were behind Oklahoma City by seven points with six minutes left in the fourth quarter of Game 6. But Thompson scored 19 in the final period, capping it off with a 3-point shot — his 11th of the game — with 1:35 remaining, and led the Warriors to a 108-101 victory. Thompson finished with 41 points, sending the series back to Oakland for a Game 7 that the Dubs would win.


The classic golf course by Lake Merced, built in 1925 and operated by the City, had fallen into such ragged disrepair by the 1990s that it was barely fit for grazing goats or hacky sack games. But a public-private partnership led to a glorious 2002 renovation that returned big-time tournaments to the Harding fairways. The PGA Championship will be played there August 3-9. Take that, grazing goats.


San Jose Shark hockey fans will tell you that the team’s supreme comeback story was the Game 7 rally from three goals down in the third period to beat Las Vegas in last year’s playoffs. Wrong. The saga of Tony Granato earns the nod. In January of 1996 after an end boards collision, Granato’s left brain lobe began to bleed. A major skull operation ensued. His career was assumed to be done. Instead, wearing a specially padded helmet, Granato returned for the 96-97 season and scored 40 points in 76 games. He was awarded the NHL’s Masterton Trophy for “perseverance and dedication.” From brain surgery to trophy ceremony? That’s hard to match in any sport.


In September of 2013, the America’s Cup sailing races came to San Francisco Bay for the first time, with Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and his Team USA catamaran defending local honor against challenger New Zealand. As the jaunty yachting crowd swarmed over the Pier 27 regatta complex, New Zealand won eight of the first nine races in the best-of-17 competition. Just one more Kiwi victory would clinch the Cup. Instead, over the next seven days, with anxious New Zealanders waiting to celebrate, Team USA won eight straight races in what one commentator called “one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.”


The Bay Area has produced storied Olympic swimmers such as Mark Spitz, Natalie Coughlin and Donna de Varona. But none more inspiring than butterfly specialist Pablo Morales. After 11 NCAA individual titles at Stanford and a gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, he was expected to dominate in 1988 at Seoul. But he swam so poorly at the qualifying trials and failed to even make the U.S. team. Morales quit the sport and entered law school. But after abandoning the pool for almost three years, he found a second gear, plunged back into training at age 27 for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and went on to win three gold medals there.


The 2003 Major League Soccer playoffs required math skills. Teams played a two-game series and won by scoring the most combined goals over the two games. Thus, the math didn’t favor the San Jose Earthquakes when they found themselves down in goals, 4-0, in their matchup against the Los Angeles Galaxy. But in the final 30 minutes of Game 2, magic happened at Spartan Stadium. The Earthquakes scored four unanswered goals to tie the aggregate total at 4-4 before San Jose’s Rodrigo Faria won the series in overtime. It’s been called the most exciting match in MLS history.





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