Dwight Clark’s Legacy Will Continue to Unite 49ers’ Faithful
During the week of Super Bowl 50, held in San Francisco, I found a moment of zen on the typically chaotic radio row during a powwow with former 49ers president Carmen Policy and his great friend Dwight Clark. In my role as SI NFL editor at the time, I had just sent one of our writers on the cush assignment of conducting a Q&A with Policy at his palacious vineyard in Napa so we had an impromptu debrief. Clark pleasantly stood by, then became part of conversation as if he were a co-editor but with a much wittier array of jokes.
I hadn’t seen Clark in years and was 99% sure he didn’t remember me from my years as a radio producer in San Francisco but he still enveloped me with that famous bear hug and smile as if he did. After escorting Clark and Policy to another outlet’s set and saying goodbye I remember thinking how handsome and healthy Clark still looked in his late 50’s, how he still carried that familiar swagger as if he had just made The Catch seconds before. He continued from set to set valiantly reliving the greatest moment in 49ers’ franchise history, never tired of the same tale he’s told a million times. That was January 2016, four months after Clark starting feeling weakness in his left hand.
Clark publicly announced his ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) diagnosis in March 2017, and succumbed to the unfathomably cruel disease on Monday, less than three years after he discovered his first symptom. He was 61.
Even a legend like Clark could not miraculously defeat an undefeatable foe. Like everyone stricken with ALS, Clark quickly lost nervous function. By October’s Dwight Clark Day at Levi’s Stadium, Clark was resigned to a wheelchair and his beautiful speech to a rapt crowd was delivered with a heavy dose of slurring.
Despite being lucky enough to encounter Dwight on several occasions, I never knew him like the many Bay Area writers (and former Bay Area writers) with whom he remained in close contact over the years. Because of those deep relationships, the public was treated to poignant stories of Clark’s final months, including a two-day celebration of Clark’s life chockfull of former teammates that was funded by former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. Or media get-togethers with Clark organized by former 49ers PR head Kirk Reynolds. A day or two after Dwight Clark Day, Clark was hopeful and engaging, yet honest about his situation with KNBR’s Murph and Mac Show. He was also so full of stories that morning that the poor hosts had to politely wrap him up because of network obligations. Even as his nerve cells were being attacked and his body deteriorating he was hell bent on staying connected to the public.
Clark was a symbol of a past era when the media wasn’t the enemy. When not every errant word or play went viral. But this 49ers dynasty is something far deeper than bunch of Super Bowl rings in an age when the NFL was simpler. These 49ers players became Eddie DeBartolo’s family in almost every way except for DNA, and Clark was a central figure. DeBartolo was closer with some like Clark, but has made it a point for decades to fund travel so all of these former teammates could reunite in Vegas on an almost annual basis. These optics and the solace of their closeness would not only make the heart of every 49ers fan sing, but connect generations of faithful as well.
I was not yet a fully functioning human being in 1981 when Clark leapt in the back of the end zone and stretched his arms for The Catch of a lifetime, but like most 49er fans I’ve watched that historic play at least five thousand times. Upon learning that Clark passed, I texted three fellow 49er fans – one a decade older who vividly remembers watching the play, one a decade younger and one my contemporary. We all felt the same piercing level of heartache. We were all stymied. We all cried.
Their reactions and the reactions of so many only cement the immeasurable impact Clark had on the fan base. Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News tweeted that when he thinks of Clark he thinks 1) How nice he was to everybody 2) The Catch. Brown is a media member who had automatic exposure to Clark. But so many fans could have written the same thing. Clark loved to talk about The Catch and could tell the story with new color every time – his articulate nature and charm enveloped everyone. But he was also kind to everyone he met. My Facebook feed is littered with folks posting pictures of their memorable experiences with Clark. Clark holding a friend’s baby. Clark posing for a selfie. Clark at a charity event. Always smiling.
Clark understood his stature and the joy that he brought to so many. He never took it for granted. And because he was so generous with his time and genuine in his interactions, the 49ers faithful will never take him for granted. Just like that fateful play in 1981, his legacy as a wonderful human will continue serve as an overpowering symbol of unification among the sea of red and gold.