The reaction to the death of 49ers receiver Dwight Clark, author of “The Catch,” exuder of charm and laughter, symbol of the most important era in San Francisco sports history, has been extraordinary.
That’s because Dwight Clark was extraordinary.
Without question, one crushing aspect of Dwight’s death (like my friend Lowell Cohn’s column in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat suggested, “Dwight” is so much more appropriate in this forum than the journalistic “Clark’, since he was a friend) was that it was ALS that cut him down at age 61. Clark was the very picture of vibrancy in his first 60 years: handsome, dashing, athletic. ALS worked hard to undercut that vibrancy.
The damnedest thing was, in the two times I saw Dwight in 2018 — once in January at a lunch in Capitola, and once two weeks ago in a private visit to his Montana home —his vibrancy waged war with ALS. Both times I saw him, I told him, quite honestly: “Dwight, you look good.” I meant it. His eyes sparkled. His teeth were pearly white. His smile was at the ready.
Now, of course, so much of him did *not* look good: He was emaciated. He was in a wheelchair the first time, bedridden the second time. He had a breathing apparatus in the Montana visit.
But I meant he looked good because I still felt his essence in the room. His energy still emanated, mostly in the form of hilarious tales, or vivid memories of the 1980s 49ers. Profanity was still in the vocabulary, often to punctuate a joke. As Keena Turner told us of Dwight’s ability to deliver smiles in those environments: “He rose to the occasion. Once again. Like he always does.”
I mention Keena Turner because what I witnessed between he, Dwight and our friend Ronnie Lott is something I’ll never forget. I thought I knew what friendship was, and what being a friend was, but I have a whole new dimension on that perspective now. The ability to be there for a friend, to be mentally strong for a friend, to be tender when needed with a friend, to love a friend . . . Ronnie, Keena, Joe Montana, Eddie DeBartolo, too many 49ers to mention, really, didn’t just tell. They showed. They showed with visit after visit, priority after priority. Steve Mariucci was by his bedside on Saturday in Montana. Ronnie and Eddie were there when he died.
My friend Brad Lyman, a former UCLA football player who does great charity work in the Bay Area, told me: “Well, of course, they are doing that. It’s what you do.” That’s true, in theory. Lots of people should do that. But the 1980s 49ers, Dwight’s brothers, did it.
It’s an inspiration to me, and should be to you, for the rest of our lives.
Dwight’s life, and death, was extraordinary. We need to talk about his life, too. “The Catch” wasn’t just arguably the most famous moment in NFL history, it was a seminal moment for our fair city of San Francisco, for its culture, for the Bay Area, for generations of Northern Californians.
I may be biased, but I don’t think I’m wrong when I say the 49ers are always the most important franchise in our region. They’re the first. The only team that could trump them, the San Francisco Seals, are no more. The Giants came later, and from New York. The Warriors came later, and from Philadelphia. The Raiders came later. So did the A’s, and from Philadelphia via Kansas City.
Having deep ties to the City on both sides of my parents’ families, the 49ers were always part of the wallpaper around our home. My parents went on a date to Kezar Stadium when the 49ers were still in the AAFC. 49ers games were a given in our house, on the radio or TV. We were never season ticket holders; my Dad just wasn’t that kind of guy. But he enjoyed the team very much, and my Italian-American Mom sure liked that a handsome Italian-American quarterback had promise in the 1981 season.
The 49ers were part of life in the Bay Area, like Dungeness crab or foggy Augusts or our beloved jaw-dropping geography.
When Dwight soared for “The Catch,” he transformed 35 years of 49ers culture. The team had never won a championship; now it had won a championship when the NFL was exploding on the American scene, and had done so by beating “America’s Team,” and doing so in incredibly dramatic fashion, and doing so in front of a Candlestick Park filled with homemade bedsheets and fans wearing Walkman headphones to hear the radio broadcast and, mostly, not wearing jerseys or gear. Sports hadn’t truly blown up on the marketplace just yet, so 49ers fans didn’t go much beyond the occasional gold satin jacket, or the gold-tassled ski cap. Go watch the YouTube clip of the crowd after “The Catch” — it’s a demographic dream of San Francisco in the early 1980s, post-George Moscone assassination, post-Jonestown tragedy. It’s lots of working-class folk. It’s an America with a middle class. And a common bond: The FORTY F**KING NINERS WERE GOING TO THE SUPER BOWL!!!
They did it because a Southern boy with a honeyed drawl and movie-star looks raised to catch a pass from a golden boy from Notre Dame, skill honed in the cradle of western Pennsylvania, coached by a cerebral genius in eyeglasses, and defended by a ferocious African-American rookie from Southern California prowling the secondary. They were the 49ers, our 49ers, about to launch into our consciousness forever.
And they stayed a team, to the last breath Dwight Clark drew.
In the end, they caught him, even as he fell.
It was a helluva life, Dwight Clark’s 61 years. It’s so sad he’s gone, because he was such a positive life force. But it’s so great he was here, to make that catch, and to show us how to live, and even how to die.