Grant Cohn: Keith Fahnhorst, a great player and better man whose time ended too fast

I called Keith Fahnhorst 10 days before he died to ask about Dwight Clark.

Clark had died that afternoon from ALS, and I wanted to interview one of his teammates for an article. Lowell Cohn, my dad, who covered Clark’s entire career, suggested I call Fahnhorst, whom, he said, was a fine man.

I had never met or spoken to Fahnhorst, but my dad and he knew each other and my dad thought the world of him. Fahnhorst played for the 49ers from 1974 to 1987, started 193 games at right tackle and won two Super Bowls. He is one of the best offensive linemen in franchise history. Recently, he suffered from polycystic kidney disease, although it’s unknown if that caused his death. He was 66 when he died.

As a player, Fahnhorst was the go-to guy in the locker room for the media after games. My dad said Fahnhorst had an overview of what happened, was perceptive, generous with the press, but never betrayed a player.

I didn’t have his phone number, and neither did my dad. On a whim, I searched Fahnhorst’s name in the white pages.

He was listed.

He was a regular guy. It always blows me away how professional athletes from the 1970s and 1980s were so different from athletes today, so accessible, so normal.

Keith Victor Fahnhorst lived in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, according to the listing. I picked up the phone and dialed. His wife, Sue, answered. This was two hours after Clark passed away.

I told her who my dad is. “It’s Lowell’s son,” she said to Fahnhorst. I heard him say something in the background. I told her I was calling about Dwight, and she said, “Oh, how is he? I just read the article about him in Sports Illustrated.”

She didn’t know.

I had to tell her Dwight was dead. Then, she yelled across the room and told Fahnhorst, who didn’t know, either. I was on the phone, an unintentional eavesdropper, as they discussed how upset they were about Dwight. They had a hard time coming to terms with the news.

Sue said to me, “When you called to say you were doing an article about Dwight, I thought about his health issue, about the problems he was having. It just seems like it went fast.”

Fahnhorst picked up the phone. “I kind of had a feeling something was wrong,” he said to me. “When you mentioned Dwight, I thought, ‘Oh, no.’”

These guys, Clark and Fahnhorst, they hadn’t talked in years. And Fahnhorst had a week and a half left to live. And yet, he was thinking about Clark, not himself.

Fahnhorst was a tackle - he was there to protect. He protected Joe Montana, and now he was being protective of Dwight. Fahnhorst protected until the end.

“There was a short film clip about the Dallas photographer who was covering the Dallas-49ers game,” Fahnhorst said about the “The Catch” game. Fahnhorst was beginning his tribute to Clark, growing emotional. “It was really well done. It came from the angle of Dallas. The photographer was doing a documentary and covering the whole year and how well Dallas was playing. And then, it got to the game against the 49ers where we beat them.

“The photographer said something about, ‘That was such a well-planned-out event we had going that year, and then Dwight caught that pass against the Cowboys.’ Then, they put the camera on Dwight real quick, and Dwight said, ‘Yeah … ?’ The way he said it was so humorous, like, ‘What was I supposed to do? Sorry to wreck your time, but I’m so glad I did.’

“After I watched that film, I watched it late at night and I was lying in bed, and I was thinking, ‘I wonder who else could have made that play?’ We had a lot of super ballplayers on that team, but you still wonder, ‘What if it wasn’t Dwight who was being thrown to? I wonder if anybody else could have made that play.’

“I’m not sure if anybody else could have. Dwight had this kind of personality that in that type of pressure situation, he didn’t feel the pressure. We had a lot of young guys like that. Joe was like that, too. But, I’m not sure if anybody had it to the extreme that Joe and Dwight did, and I’m not sure if anybody else could have caught that pass. It was so cool…”

Fahnhorst’s voice trailed off.

“God, that’s a son of a gun,” he said, the reality of Clark’s death invading the memory of The Catch. “Talk about unfair. They asked Dwight, ‘Has this all been worth it?’ This sickness and everything. He more or less said, ‘You know, if I hadn’t caught that pass, maybe it wouldn’t have been worth it. But, you shouldn’t even waste your time trying to answer a question like that, because that’s not the way it works.’ It got me thinking about a lot of different things.”

In retrospect, Fahnhorst could have been talking about himself and his own thoughts.

“Have you heard about any of the arrangements for a funeral?” he asked me.

“No,” I said, “But I’ll let you know.”

“I would appreciate that,” he said. “And hey, make sure you say hi to your dad. He was always one of my favorites. Give him the best from both Sue and me.”

He hung up. I meant to tell him about Dwight’s funeral, but never got the chance to call him back. It all happened so fast.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers for The Press Democrat and in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at

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