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Lowell Cohn: ALS can't diminish the aura of Dwight Clark

Former 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark speaks to fans during a halftime ceremony Oct. 22 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

LOWELL COHN,

CAPITOLA — Dwight Clark wheels himself into the restaurant. He’s in a motorized wheelchair because, as you know — as everyone knows — he has ALS.

He maneuvers toward the table, does a nifty U-turn in the narrow room, gets to the table and smiles. He’s a good driver, always was a great athlete. He still can walk, but only short distances, and he’s lost 100 pounds, has trouble swallowing. But doctors are feeding him intravenously and he’s begun to gain weight. He gets a checkup every three months; the last one showed the disease has slowed. Dwight hopes it caps out.

He is here on a Tuesday, the day after his 61st birthday. Dwight Clark is 61? He is here every Tuesday. Former 49ers public relations director Kirk Reynolds and former 49ers head of security Fred Formosa arrange Tuesday lunches for Clark at this restaurant, the Paradise Beach Grille, in this tiny town near Clark’s home to keep Clark in the flow of life, where he belongs.

This is a media-only Tuesday, eight journalists including six writers and two radio guys. People Dwight selected. People he wanted to see. People who make him happy. Other Tuesdays he’s invited former 49ers. Garrison Hearst came here from Georgia, Kevin Gogan from Washington. Ken Norton and Tom Rathman have been there. And Derrick Deese and Junior Bryant and Keena Turner and Eric Wright and John Taylor and Gary Plummer. Ronnie Lott shows up. So does Harris Barton. Steve Mariucci is a regular.

All do this for Clark. Media people wouldn’t drive the 75 miles from the Bay Area unless Clark were one in a million. He is. Always was. A man filled with the joy of life.

Tuesdays with Dwight.

We tell stories and we make Dwight laugh. We want to keep him cheerful. The bones beneath his face are visible, but the face still is beautiful. Perfect structure. He was a 10th-round draft choice and his rookie year, 1979, he worried about getting cut in training camp.

“They cut down to five receivers,” Clark says. “I was still one of them. I called my dad and said, ‘I think I made the team.’ We were opening the season in Minnesota and he said, ‘Well, I’m coming to the first game.’ He comes to Minnesota and we’re sitting in the hotel at a little table, I’m like, ‘Can you believe this (expletive), I’m going to play in a pro football game tomorrow? Special teams only, but still, I’m going to play! I can’t believe I made this team.’

“So we get beat and we go home, and we go in on Monday morning, and there are like 12 guys getting dressed that I’d never seen. And I was like, ‘Who are those guys? And they told me, ‘Oh, those are all receivers, they’re trying out.’

“I was like, ‘Damn!’ So I called my dad, I said, ‘This is a week-to-week thing.’ ”

Dwight survived weeks that became years.

After the 49ers’ first Super Bowl victory, a guy who owned a fancy high rise in San Francisco offered Dwight a deal. Dwight could live there rent free. In fact, the guy would pay him 15 grand to live there. What a deal. What a life. After Dwight moved out, Joe Montana moved in.

As he tells the stories, Dwight drifts back to the old days. He is content. And we are helping him. We want to help him. God, do we want to help him. For lunch he orders iced tea and clam chowder in a sourdough roll. Whenever he sips his tea, a friend guides his hand and the glass down to the table. To avoid spilling. Dwight eats none of the soup. He’s afraid of spilling on his shirt, that’s what I think. The man who made The Catch. ALS is a nasty disease.

I tell Dwight he is still Dwight. I say he still has the Dwight sparkle. And I mean it. He smiles. Everyone at the table agrees. He looks good, so much better than we feared.

He tells us to ask about the disease. He is not ducking it. He wants to discuss it. Out in the open.

“How is your frame of mind?” I say.

“It’s depressing,” Dwight says. “The future is so scary. I can’t imagine being totally paralyzed. I keep trying to re-enact it — just lay there, and think, ‘I can’t get up.’ But I can’t do it for very long. It freaks me out.”

But he doesn’t seem freaked out. He is brave and uncomplaining. And although I smile and laugh with him, a below-ground stream of sadness flows to my heart. This is someone I care for, one of the few athletes who matter to me, to the others in the room. The chasm between athlete and journalist is the Grand Canyon. Decades ago, Dwight Clark built a bridge across the chasm.

“I’ll say to my wife, ‘I just can’t (freaking) believe I got this disease,’ ” Dwight says. “Give me something I can fight. I can’t do anything. That’s what pisses me off. People get sick but you get a chance to fight. I’m still fighting it, but I don’t have the gloves on.”

And he slaps one hand into the other. His fingers are surprisingly long. How did I not know that? Those fingers are one reason he was a receiver, one reason he was Dwight Clark.

He’s planning ahead. Plans for a time he can’t talk. Yes, he faces that, too. He is recording his voice, his signature phrases, his cadence. “I’m waiting on the software, microphone and all of that,” he says. “I’ll go through all the words and record them.”

He will use the words to communicate with the world. He explains this, his tone neutral. A dignified man.

After two hours, we can see the fatigue in his eyes. When we say it’s time to leave, he doesn’t argue. We take photos, all of us surrounding Dwight in the wheelchair. Us standing around him and kneeling in front of him. Everyone smiling. Doing this for Dwight. Honoring Dwight. Dwight.

I say, “Let’s make this an annual.” Everyone repeats, “Let’s make this an annual.” Dwight smiles a big smile and says it, too. “Let’s make this an annual.”

And I think yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

You can reach Lowell Cohn at lowellcohn@yahoo.com.