Lowell Cohn: Illness robbed us of Dwight Clark, but not of his spirit

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Dwight Clark was special.

That is a given when you talk about No. 87, the man who made The Catch that put the 49ers over America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys, by a score of 28-27 in the NFC championship game on Jan. 10, 1982. It sent the 49ers to their first Super Bowl which, of course, they won. Dwight’s career is a history of the 49ers rise to greatness. His story is their story. His story is our story.

And, please, may I violate journalism protocol and call him Dwight after he died on Monday from ALS, a disease he endured and fought the past three years? Because, really, he was Dwight, just plain Dwight, not some superstar taken with his fame or, in his case, his beautiful face, honey voice and lovely disposition. He is special to 49ers fans and Bay Area sports because he made The Catch and because he was a man filled with the joy of life, one in a million.

He wasn’t supposed to be anybody special, and he always remembered his beginnings. Humbly remembered them. Think King Arthur before he became King Arthur grabbing Excalibur from the stone. That kind of classic myth.

Bill Walsh had flown to Clemson in 1979 to scout quarterback Steve Fuller, who was Dwight’s roommate. One day, Dwight was rushing out the door of their apartment to play golf when the phone rang. Dwight didn’t want to miss tee time and almost didn’t answer.

Pick up the phone, Dwight.

He did.

Guy on the phone said he was Bill Walsh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers — no big deal in those days. Dwight wasn’t sure he’d even heard of Bill Walsh. Walsh asked if Fuller was there, and Dwight said, “Yeah, hold on.” And Walsh said, “Wait, who is this? Aren’t you a receiver?”

The myth gets more profound.

Dwight said he was a receiver. Walsh asked him to catch passes from Fuller at the workout. A mere supporting role. Dwight caught everything. Caught passes one-handed. Caught Walsh’s eye like Fuller never did. Walsh drafted Dwight in the 10th round, which led to The Catch, which made The Myth of Dwight part of American sports lore. Not just Bay Area lore. American lore.

Not that Dwight found things easy. Walsh relentlessly criticized him during training camp, sometimes saying Dwight looked tired or didn’t perform well. Dwight thought he wouldn’t make the team, never even unpacked his bags — ready for a quick escape if he got cut.

“They cut down to five receivers,” Dwight said about that 1979 training camp. “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 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, 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.’ ”


A week and a half ago, Matt Maiocco from NBC Sports Bay Area and Brian Murphy from KNBR, both former 49ers reporters for The Press Democrat, flew to Montana where Dwight and his wife, Kelly, recently moved so Kelly could help rescue abused horses. Dwight was living on a ranch 15 miles from Eddie DeBartolo, who looked after Dwight like a parent, which in a sense, he was.

Matt had collected a stack of letters from fans who remembered The Catch, experienced it as a landmark event in their lives. Matt and Murph read the letters out loud to Dwight and a group of Dwight’s teammates who flew to Montana for the occasion. Matt told me Dwight laughed at some letters and at others he cried.

Matt and I were at dinner in Oakland with Ann Killion from the Chronicle when Matt told us about his trip. When Matt said Dwight cried, Matt cried. His voice caught, his eyes reddened and filled with tears, and Ann, who was sitting next to him, rubbed his back until he regained composure. I looked at Matt and Ann, and felt so sad for Dwight and so happy for him. People loved Dwight. Even journalists, skeptical by nature, loved him.

Our dinner was last Friday. Ann, Matt and I spent most of our time talking about Dwight. How generous he was to us. How he always returned phone calls and met us for coffee if we needed a story, or just needed him. None of us expected Dwight to go this quickly. Such an awful disease. Ann and I thought about traveling to Montana, and several 49ers were planning to visit him again.

Dwight’s death — premature — hurts so many. But there’s something else. His illness brought together the old 49ers — the great 49ers, the Super Bowl champion 49ers. Brought them together one more time. And it was because of Dwight. It always was because of Dwight. Even in illness, he gave joy and made old teammates feel like teammates yet again. And he brought you together with your friends and your memories. He did that for me and Ann and Matt. Always will.

Rest in peace, dear friend.

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