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.
“But I have to tell you,” Policy said. “One of the great things that we’ve been able to witness is bringing Dwight into the mix, and seeing the guys that he knew and loved helping him button shirts, helping him put on a jacket, helping him in a chair. Like, it’s no problem, he’s my brother.”
So beautiful. So sorrowful. And when the big screen turned to Clark in that luxury box, the scene was just as powerful.
“When (former teammate and current 49ers vice president of football affairs) Keena Turner asked me what I wanted to do, raise money or have some kind of fund, I said, ‘I just want to see my teammates,’” Clark reflected, his speech slurred, his footing uncertain. “And the 49ers heard that and flew all these players in so I could see ’em one more time.”
To Clark’s right sat Eddie DeBartolo, whose largesse as a young team owner had made all of the football exploits possible. DeBartolo did look up at Clark. He kept his focus forward. His eyes were red. He looked stricken.
Against this backdrop, how amazing would it have been for the 49ers to knock off the Cowboys? The tribute to Clark and the breakthrough of Shanahan’s winless team would have braided together into a memorable, even legendary, moment for this franchise and its fans.
But these are not the 1981 49ers. In truth, these were not even the 2017 49ers that we had come to expect.
Over the previous five weeks, the Niners had become the first NFL team ever to lose five consecutive games by three points or fewer. Granted, that’s no real point of pride. But the results had lent the impression that Shanahan’s squad was inches away from victory — or maybe a string of victories, considering the poised play of rookie C.J. Beathard at Washington the previous week.
The 30-point loss to Dallas laid much of that optimism to rest. Beathard had no chance to take a step forward in his first NFL start; he was too busy picking himself up off the ground. The Cowboys sacked him five times, batted down several of his passes and harried him all afternoon.
Meanwhile, Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott had 219 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns (one of them on a dazzling 72-yard catch-and-run), and quarterback Dak Prescott was barely touched in the pocket. The 49ers lost three fumbles, including a Trent Taylor miscue on a punt that led to a Cowboys touchdown. And when the Niners went for it on fourth-and-4 early in the third quarter, before the game was completely out of reach, Beathard’s pass went to undrafted free agent Kendrick Bourne, who tripped and fell as the pass bounced incomplete.
Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin advised staying the course, focusing on the work that lies ahead rather than dwelling on a blowout loss. “That’s why they make the rear-view mirror in a car smaller than the front windshield,” Goodwin said.
The 49ers offered both fields of vision on Sunday — a windshield to see the world from the vantage point of a young team still searching for its first victory under Shanahan, and a rear-view mirror to reflect on past glories and the people who made them possible. The contrast between the two is larger than ever.
Sorry, Niners Faithful, but objects in mirror are farther than they appear.
You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.