Dwight Clark, one of the San Francisco 49ers most beloved players in its long history, passed into eternity last Tuesday at the young age of 61, after a two and a half year battle with ALS. His early and painful death broke the hearts of thousands of 49er faithful, and brought sadness to millions of football fans around the world who remembered his greatness distilled into one big play.
“The Catch.” Clark’s fingertips grab on January 10th, 1982
Dwight was best known for “The Catch”, his fingertips grab of quarterback Joe Montana’s “Sprint Right Option” pass on January 10th, 1982 that gave the 49ers a one point win over their arch-rival Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game. Montana often said later that “the team had practiced that play many times, but it never worked”. That is until it did. The win sent his team to its first Super Bowl, which they won, launching one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history. But Clark was not just a one trick pony.
Over his nine year playing career, Clark went to two pro-bowls, has the fourth most catches and sixth most touchdown receptions in franchise history. And he credited the big break that kick started his playing career to a phone call. According to The San Francisco Chronicle, “Clark had an undistinguished college career at Clemson, where he began as a strong safety and considered leaving school after his freshman year”. Clark finished with 33 career catches and was quoted in The Chronicle in 1985 as saying, “If my football future had been decided by what I did in college, I’d be working at Wendy’s now”.
But fate played its own game. Dwight Clark was discovered by 49ers Head Coach Bill Walsh by accident. According to the Chronicle, “In 1979 Walsh called to set up a pre-draft workout with Clark’s roommate, Clemson quarterback Steve Fuller. Clark, on his way out their apartment door to play golf, picked up the phone. Walsh asked Clark if he could attend the workout to catch Fuller’s passes, and Clark, after accepting the invitation, ended up catching everything in sight. My whole story, Clark once said, is the right place and the right time.”
But he had more lucky coincidences, none more so that being roommates in training camp with fellow rookie Joe Montana. They would go on to be lifelong friends. Perhaps “The Catch” was preordained, as Montana became one of the 49ers all-time great quarterbacks, and their partnership blossomed on and off the field. According to the Chronicle, “Montana often recalled that Clark was so convinced he would be cut from the team that he never unpacked his bags that summer”.
After his playing days were over, Dwight Clark worked in the front office of the 49ers from 1990-98, the last three as the teams’ General Manager. He then held that same position with the Cleveland Browns for two years. Later in his career, former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo encouraged Clark to return to the Bay Area, helping him get a business-operations job with the 49ers.
My own interactions with Dwight were brief but certainly memorable. I was fortunate to be asked by then San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein to serve as Master of Ceremonies for the 1982 Super Bowl Victory Celebration on the front steps of City Hall. I still vividly recall that image of the handsome and charismatic six foot four football player stepping off a motorized cable car wearing a full length fur coat and a wide smile, much to the delight of thousands of his adoring fans. They ate it up.
49ers team owner Eddie DeBartolo, Mayor Dianne Feinstein, MC Brian Banmiller. Photo Credit Charles Finley 1982.
On another occasion, while I was working as a business news anchor for KTVU Channel 2 News in the Bay Area, Dwight and I shared “celebrity bartender” duties at “Perry’s On Union Street”, a local media and sports hangout that often produced charity events for needy organizations in San Francisco. The place was jammed, but Dwight stood out not only for his height, but for his gregarious smile and infectious laugh. No wonder he took more drink orders than any of us, including Mayor Willie Brown. It was a memorable evening I will never forget.
49ers head coach Bill Walsh, Mayor Dianne Feinstein, MC Brian Banmiller, team owner Eddie DeBartolo. Photo Credit Charles Finley 1982
Over the years Dwight helped raise a lot of money for the needy in his adopted city by the bay. In particular, he was a major player in the Golden Heart Fund, led by 49ers alumni to provide funding support and relief for alumni players in times of physical, emotional and financial need. On his passing the Fund released this statement. “We are devastated by the loss of our brother and teammate Dwight Clark. He was a selfless champion of the Golden Heart Fund and always invested in helping his 49ers teammates. We love him and will miss him but know he is finally at peace.”
Dwight Clark truly did leave his heart in San Francisco.
CBS News Radio national business journalist Brian Banmiller has spent more than 40 years in the news industry, covering business, politics and the economy on television, radio and in print. Currently, his “Banmiller on Business” reports are delivered to an audience of millions nationwide.
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