On first down, Joe Montana threw a short pass for running back Lenvil Elliott. The backpedaling Elliott reached for the low throw but couldn't reel it in.

Thus, the 49ers remained at their 11-yard line. They were 89 yards from the go-ahead touchdown — as close as they'd ever been to a Super Bowl. They were a precocious bunch that January day in 1982. They were also a team of stars in the making.

Montana was the quietly confident quarterback. Dwight Clark was an indomitable receiver. Ronnie Lott was a pulverizing corner.

Elliott, who died recently of a heart attack at 57, was never considered a star. But he did one thing as well as any athlete ever has — he made his last moment his finest.

His whole career was an apprenticeship for his final game. He began with six seasons in Cincinnati (three under an out-of-the-box offensive coordinator named Bill Walsh). When Walsh become head coach of the woeful 49ers in 1979, he went looking for all the reliable football players he could get his hands on. He was happy to get his hands on Elliott.

For two seasons, Elliott and the 49ers continued to do what each did best — he ran for more than 4 yards a pop, and they lost more games than they won. The summer of 1981 portended a reversal of fortune for both the player and the team.

The 49ers were clearly building toward something. Elliott, approaching 30, was hearing sad stories from his surgically repaired knee. Waived by the 49ers during training camp, he thought he might be finished. One day the phone rang. Walsh wanted him back.

"That's the one I was waiting for," Elliott said later. "I'm comfortable with Coach Walsh's offense."

He was comfortable but seldom-used. He had just seven carries and eight catches before being placed on injured reserve. He was activated before the 49ers' first playoff game.

Their second, the NFC Championship Game against Dallas, was an instant classic by halftime. With 4:24 to play, the 49ers trailed by six points. The Cowboys, certain the 49ers were in a pass-only predicament, put six defensive backs on the field.

Walsh had a different idea. He was going to run the ball, and he had just the guy for the job.

On second down, moments after dropping Montana's first-down pass, Elliott ran between blocks by center Fred Quillan and guard Randy Cross for 6 yards. Montana's third-down pass to Freddie Solomon gave the 49ers a first down at their own 23.

Elliott carried again, sweeping right behind pulling guards Cross and John Ayers. Instead of beefy linebackers, San Francisco linemen were confronted by spindly corners and safeties. Cross destroyed Dallas' Michael Downs, launching him through the air in almost comical fashion. Elliott accelerated expertly through the mayhem for an 11-yard gain.

On the next play, Elliott swept left. Ayers kicked out the Cowboys' Ron Fellows like a man flicking a fly off his sleeve. Elliott burst for 7 yards.

Dallas defenders couldn't believe it. They were being torn to shreds by ...

"I mean," safety Charlie Waters would say after the game, "who is No. 35?"

On the first play after the two-minute warning, No. 35 swept right. A posse of frustrated Cowboys followed in pursuit. Elliott handed to Solomon on a reverse, good for 14 yards.

Four plays later, Elliott swept left again. Ayers lowered a shoulder into Fellows, knocking him back 5 yards. Elliott gained 7, to the 6-yard line. You know what happened next.

"I can't believe I'm here," Elliott said. "I thought my career was over back in September."

Not quite, but it was over as he spoke. If you count two incomplete passes, the reverse and a 4-yard run negated by penalty, Elliott had eight touches on the final drive. They were the last eight touches he had to give. His knee wouldn't even allow him to play in the Super Bowl. He retired two months later.

Consider that the next time you replay Clark's iconic catch in your head. He got the glory, consigning Elliott to a footnote in history.

In this case, the footnote deserves his own footnote.

Contact Gary Peterson at gpeterson@bayareanewsgroup.com.