Lowell Cohn: Friends and fans sharing pain as 49ers great Dwight Clark battles ALS
Dwight Clark wrote the saddest letter. Told 49ers fans he has ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease.
It was a shock because Dwight Clark is always 25 years old. He is, in fact, 60, but he made The Catch on Jan. 10, 1982, when he was 25. In our minds and our hearts he perpetually exists a healthy handsome young man in that glorious moment, the moment stopped in time when a scraggly bunch of newcomers coached by a coach bitter for being passed over as head coach of the Bengals, defeated America's team, the Dallas Cowboys, 28-27 in the NFC championship game because of Clark and others, and went on to make San Francisco the magnetic pole of the NFL for years to come.
Clark was at the center of it, made The Catch, a 6-yard touchdown reception on Sprint Right Option - you know that - on a high pass from Joe Montana, Montana running for his life with 58 seconds left in the game.
It hurts so much when an athlete gets sick. Not that athletes are more important than the rest of us. Of course, they aren't. But they represent vitality and health and power and beauty. They represent an ideal and they do things we cannot do. They do them for us. Because of us.
And when we see them age and when we see them attacked by a disease and when we see them fight back and when we hope they fight the good fight, we are seeing the inevitable pattern of life unfolding yet again. They live the pattern for us. And we are reminded that life is grand but eventually everyone gets a raw deal. And Clark - may I call him Dwight? - is reminding us of the raw deal. And it stinks.
He is among everyone's all-time favorite 49ers. For fans and media. Not just because of The Catch, but because of him. Because of the Dwight of Dwight. Who he is and who he always was.
As a player, he was polite and he had time for fans and writers, always had time. Unlike most famous athletes, he would ask about you, about your life. And he meant it. He is naturally friendly and inquisitive, and I'll use a strange word here, “sweet.” A woman who once worked for the Niners told me, “Dwight is all milk and honey.”
That referred to his sweet manner and his honey voice, and his unimaginable good looks and his unbeatable smile.
And his story was an American myth. Bill Walsh flew to Clemson in 1979 to scout quarterback Steve Fuller, who happened to be Dwight's roommate. One day, Dwight was hurrying out the door of their apartment for a tee time when the phone rang. Dwight almost didn't answer it, but he did.
Guy on the phone said he was Bill Walsh, coach of the 49ers. Dwight wasn't sure he'd heard of him. Walsh asked if Fuller was there, and Dwight said, “Yeah, hold on.” And Walsh said, “Wait, who is this? Aren't you a receiver?”
Dwight identified himself and, although Dwight had not heard of Walsh, Walsh sure heard of him. Walsh asked Dwight to catch passes from Fuller at the workout. Which Dwight did. Brilliantly. Some he caught with one hand. He was a supporting actor who moved to stage center. He was a no one who would become a someone.
Walsh asked Dwight to see film of him in action, and Dwight, abashed, said he'd caught only 11 passes. Walsh asked if he caught two passes in a game. At least that. Dwight said, yes against North Carolina. And Walsh looked at that game and then quizzed Dwight on formations and routes, and Dwight knew the answers. And Walsh drafted Dwight in the 10th round and you know what happened after that. It could be a movie.
Last time I saw Dwight was a few years ago when I wrote an article about The Catch. He met me at a coffee shop in Santa Clara, Dwight walking in and no one noticing who he was. Not that Dwight cared. He has a regular ego, is one of us.
We talked about The Catch, Dwight so enthusiastic. Like he was telling the story the first time. Reminded me he wasn't supposed to be on the field for the play. He was getting over the flu and had taken himself out of the game, was resting on one knee grabbing a blow. He heard coaches on the sideline talking about Sprint Right Option and he almost levitated. That was his play. He ran onto the field without anyone telling him to and Mike Wilson came off.
On the play, Freddie Solomon was the No. 1 option, but he slipped in Candlestick mud and that left it up to Dwight who ran into the middle of the end zone and zagged to the right and broke free and saw the ball flying toward him like an eagle. “That's high,” he told himself. He caught it high but the ball came loose, so he caught it low. A double catch.
Above his desk in his Santa Cruz home, he has a lithograph Walsh gave him, a lithograph diagramming Sprint Right Option, showing where all 22 players were on that famous play, 49ers and Cowboys. I wish you could have seen Walsh's diagrams. Works of art, so precise. The eternal moment preserved eternally.
But Dwight is more than that moment, more than The Catch. He is a wonderful person, a person with a glow. When we finished our coffee that day, we hugged because we have become friends and because we shared a special time.
And I want to say, Dwight, you always were one of my favorite 49ers for the very best reasons. I wish you Godspeed. And I wish you endless days of milk and honey.
You can reach Lowell Cohn at email@example.com.