Dwight Clark, who provided the defining moment for the San Francisco 49ers franchise more than three decades ago, died Monday at his home in Montana. He was 61.
Clark’s wife, Kelly, posted the news of her husband’s death on social media:
“I’m heartbroken to tell you that today I lost my best friend and husband. He passed peacefully surrounded by many of the people he loved most. I am thankful for all of Dwight’s friends, teammates and 49ers fans who have sent their love during his battle with ALS.”
Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo issued a statement:
“My heart is broken. Today, I lost my little brother and one of my best friends. I cannot put into words how special Dwight was to me and to everyone his life touched. He was an amazing husband, father, grandfather, brother and a great friend and teammate. He showed tremendous courage and dignity in his battle with ALS and we hope there will soon be a cure for this horrendous disease. I will always remember Dwight the way he was – larger than life, handsome, charismatic and the only one who could pull off wearing a fur coat at our Super Bowl parade. He was responsible for one of the most iconic plays in NFL history that began our run of Super Bowl championships, but to me, he will always be an extension of my family. I love him and will miss him terribly. Our hearts and prayers are with his wife Kelly, his children and the entire Clark family.”
Clark battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, since first experiencing symptoms in September 2015. Clark personally informed many friends and close associates of his diagnosis long before he made a public announcement of his condition on March 19, 2017.
“While I’m still trying to wrap my head around the challenge I will face with this disease over the coming years, the only thing I know is that I’m going to fight like hell and live every day to the fullest,” Clark wrote in a statement at the time.
Clark lived up to his promise. He enjoyed the company of numerous friends while he lost significant weight and his physical condition worsened. He reconnected with dozens of former teammates and coaches and managed to keep a positive attitude as he bravely fought the disease, for which there is no known cure.
In October, more than 35 members of the 49ers’ first Super Bowl championship team convened at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara for Dwight Clark Day. Clark addressed the fans at halftime of a 49ers game against the Dallas Cowboys.
It was his play – simply known as “The Catch” — against the Cowboys in January 1982 that became the springboard for the 49ers’ dominance of the decade. Clark made a leaping grab of a Joe Montana pass in the closing minute of the NFC Championship game to propel the 49ers to their first Super Bowl.
Clark was the guest of honor for regular Tuesday lunches in Capitola before he moved with Kelly to Whitefish, Montana, in March. Despite enduring increased difficulty with his speech and confined mostly to a wheelchair, Clark managed to keep the moods upbeat as he continued to entertain his many visitors with stories and anecdotes.
“It’s fun for him,” Joe Montana said in October on the 49ers Insider Podcast. “At one point, he was telling his wife, Kelly, ‘This is what it’s all about. This is what I want and what I miss, seeing the guys.’ He surely appreciates it.”
DeBartolo hosted a two-day gathering for Clark in April with nearly 30 friends and former teammates and colleagues traveling to Montana from all parts of the country.
“It’s always good to see those guys because we’ve been through so much,” Clark told NBC Sports Bay Area after the gathering. “We had a lot of laughs and told a bunch of lies about how good we were. I had a good time. It was a small enough group that I got to visit with everybody over the two days.”
Said DeBartolo, “It really was a tough weekend, but it was great for Dwight. It was great for the players who were there. It was like the old days. Everybody just had a great time. Dwight fit right in to everything. He was happy.”
On May 21, a smaller group, which included former teammates Ronnie Lott and Keena Turner, visited with Clark at his home. The group sat in a semi-circle around Clark’s bed and read letters from fans. Clark and those who visited him that day were moved to tears of laughter from some of the letters and tears of emotion from others.
Clark was born Jan. 8, 1957, in Kinston, North Carolina. He graduated from Garinger High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, before attending Clemson University. He is survived by his wife of seven years, Kelly (Radzikowski), and three children from a previous marriage: daughter Casey and sons Riley and Mac.
Clark’s rise from an unheralded college player to a legend of an NFL franchise required an almost-unbelievable series of good fortune and seized opportunities. He was not expected to be drafted or even get an invitation to any NFL training camps after a college career at Clemson that produced just 33 receptions for 571 yards and three touchdowns in 34 games.
His roommate was Clemson quarterback Steve Fuller. Then-49ers coach Bill Walsh was in South Carolina to scout Fuller. Clark was heading out the door to play golf when he picked up the ringing phone. Walsh was on the other end. Walsh asked if Clark was a wide receiver. Then, he asked if Clark would come to the workout to catch passes from Fuller.
Clark dropped his clubs to attend the workout. That was the only thing he dropped that day. Clark caught everything in sight, and Walsh felt as if he discovered a gem.
“Dwight looked good to me,” Walsh told NFL Films in the ‘80s. “And as the draft progressed, many of our scouts said, ‘Coach, you can get him on the free-agent market a month from now. And, I said, ‘No, that man is going to be here. You watch.’ ”
Walsh did not want to take any chances with Clark. The 49ers selected him with the first pick of the 10th round. Now, the NFL draft consists of just seven rounds. Clark said he never unpacked his bags during his first training camp, as he was certain he would be cut. But unbeknownst to Clark, Walsh considered his skills as a wide receiver to be a perfect fit for his offensive system.
“Right from the beginning, you knew that he was just somebody you wanted on your team,” DeBartolo said in a film that was shown at the gathering in Montana in April. “We wanted good athletes, but we wanted players who were good people.”
Clark spent his entire nine-year career with the 49ers (1979 to ’87). He was selected to the Pro Bowl twice in his career. Clark still ranks third in franchise history with 6,750 receiving yards; fourth with 506 receptions; and seventh with 48 touchdown catches. The 49ers retired his No. 87 in 1988.
Clark won two Super Bowl rings as a player. He later served as a team executive, earning three more Super Bowl rings, before leaving the 49ers to join Carmen Policy with the expansion Cleveland Browns in 1999.
When his disease became more difficult with which to cope, Clark appreciated more than ever the magnitude of the family-like culture DeBartolo built with the 49ers. DeBartolo and many of Clark’s former teammates and coaches rushed to his side for support while he battled ALS.
DeBartolo sent Clark to Japan last year to bring back a three-month supply of the drug Radicava before it became available in the United States. In clinical trials, some ALS patients showed significantly less decline in physical function after taking the drug.
“I got lucky to get drafted by the 49ers,” Clark said last month.
And the 49ers were lucky to end up with Clark, too.
He had it all – good looks, charm and the ability to rise to unimaginable heights to author the play that set the organization’s dynasty of the 1980s into motion. The late Freddie Solomon gave Clark the nickname of “Hercules” to fit his larger-than life persona.
In the early 1970s, the Cowboys ousted the 49ers from the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. Dallas’ dominance over the 49ers was at the forefront of everyone’s mind as the Cowboys held a 27-21 lead over the 49ers in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game at Candlestick Park in the playoffs following the 1981 regular season.
The 49ers took over at their own 10-yard line with 4 minutes, 54 seconds remaining. Led by Walsh’s play-calling and Montana’s pinpoint passes, the 49ers strung together six first downs to drive to the Dallas 6-yard line.
On a third-and-3 play, Montana looked for Solomon on the right side on a play called, “Spring Right Option.” After Solomon slipped, Montana was forced to look for other options. Montana glided to his right, pump-faked, back-pedaled and threw a pass high toward the back of the end zone – in a spot where only Clark could reach it.
Clark rose above Dallas cornerback Everson Walls, stretching his 6-foot-4 frame to the fullest and made a fingertip catch. After coming down in the end zone with both feet in bounds, Clark spiked the football as the ground shook in celebration never before seen on San Francisco soil.
“It’s a mad house at Candlestick,” said CBS-TV broadcaster Vin Scully, aptly describing the wild scene.
Said Montana, “We’d never thrown the ball to Dwight on that play, at all. But it was crazy because Bill Walsh made us practice that part of the play back in training camp. And we both thought he was crazy.”
The 49ers’ defense held on for the 28-27 victory, and Clark’s place in franchise history as a beloved figure was forever set.
Two weeks later, Clark’s recovery of an onside kick as part of the 49ers’ hands team, secured the organization’s first Super Bowl title with a 26-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI in Pontiac, Michigan.
Three years later, Clark had six catches for 77 yards in the 49ers’ 38-16 victory over the Miami Dolphins at Stanford Stadium in Super Bowl XIX in January 1985.
Upon his announcement of his ALS diagnosis, Clark said he believed the head injuries he sustained during his football career caused the disease. But he never expressed any regrets, nor did he have any misgivings about the sport that brought him fame and made him a Bay Area icon.
“The fans around the Bay Area are awesome, the way they pass these 49ers stories down,” Clark said in February. “It’s fun to have the little kids come up and ask me about ‘The Catch’ and they weren’t even close to being born.”
In the 36 years since Clark made “The Catch,” he ran into countless people who claimed they were among the 60,525 fans at Candlestick Park that day. Clark routinely lit up when fans recounted their memories upon meeting him.
It did not matter how many times Clark had heard the stories, he was always genuinely excited to listen a different version from a unique perspective. Hearing memories about “The Catch” never got old to him.
“Would that ever get old to you?” Clark said. “That was just a moment in time that keeps hanging on. Hopefully, long after I’m gone 49ers fans will still enjoy that play and that year and that team that started it all off.”