SANTA CLARA - Members of the 49ers’ 1981 team gathered on Sunday, primarily to honor one of their own: Dwight Clark, the wide receiver-turned-front-office executive who is fighting for his life against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The old warriors are a bit shrunken now. The men who launched the Bill Walsh dynasty move gingerly (or, in the case of the offensive tackle Keith Fahnhorst, in a wheelchair), but they still carry themselves with pride.
Unfortunately, the ’81 Niners had to take in some difficult sights at Levi’s Stadium. They deserved better.
At halftime, after they had assembled at midfield for a ceremony dedicated to Clark, the former player with the North Carolina accent and the Hollywood looks addressed the crowd from a suite. His words were uplifting, but it was crushing to see how much Lou Gehrig’s disease already has stolen from him.
And before and after that ceremony, there was a football game. The 49ers chose this afternoon to pay homage to Clark because it was against the Dallas Cowboys in January of 1982 that Clark had carved out a place in sports history by making The Catch and sending San Francisco to its first Super Bowl. That game represented a huge pivot. The Cowboys had been the dominant team in the NFC for several years. Clark’s gravity-defying reception changed the balance of power and announced the 49ers as ascending champions.
Sunday’s game was a pivot, too, but in the wrong direction. After five consecutive competitive losses, the 49ers took two steps back in this one. The Cowboys dominated from the first quarter and pulled away for a 40-10 win, San Francisco’s most lopsided home loss since a 45-10 drubbing by Atlanta in 2009, back in the Mike Singletary era.
“There’s a very fine line between being in a game, winning a game and getting your butts kicked, and it’s not as big a difference between all three of those as sometimes it seems,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said.
This was definitely Curtain No. 3 for the Niners. They are now 0-7, and the chances of rebounding seem to be receding.
Before digging into the loss, let’s talk a little about Dwight Clark.
About 2½ hours before kickoff, the 49ers began escorting glory-days 49ers into the media workroom at Levi’s. One of them was Carmen Policy, the longtime general manager under Eddie DeBartolo Jr. I asked Policy, whose home and vineyards in Napa Valley narrowly survived the recent fires, about his recent interactions with Clark.
“All of us,” he said, “and I think anyone who has any connection to Dwight, really feels upset, mad, really wanting to lash out, so to speak, because it’s just not fair” — he emphasized those last three words — “that a guy like him, who … lived his life the way he did, and extended everything he’s accomplished to others so they could share in it with him, should be afflicted by this kind of pernicious malady. But he takes us out of that frame of mind, because of the way he’s handling it. And he’s become a real object lesson for us.”
Policy said he and DeBartolo have wondered, though it pains them to do so, how much they even want to see Clark, the brilliant athlete diminished by a disease that will progressively deny his brain the ability to move his muscles.