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Spotlight on: Dwight Clark and the San Francisco 49ers

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On June 4, 2018, the world lost the beloved NFL legend, San Francisco 49ers Dwight Clark, to ALS. On the day of his passing, his wife, Kelly, announced the sad news on Twitter:

“I’m heartbroken to tell you that today I lost my best friend and husband. He passed peacefully surrounded by many of the people he loved most. I am thankful for all of Dwight’s friends, teammates and 49ers fans who have sent their love during his battle with ALS.”

Dwight Edward Clark was born on January 8, 1957 in Kinston, North Carolina. Clark graduated from Garinger High School in Charlotte, where he played quarterback. At 6 ft 4 in, his first love was basketball, but he continued to play football at Clemson University. The San Francisco 49ers selected Clark in the first pick of the tenth round of the 1979 NFL Draft, and played with the team until 1987. His career statistics are impressive. During his nine seasons with the team, Clark played 134 games, tallied 506 catches for 6,750 yards and 48 touchdowns, along with 50 rushing yards, and was a member of the 49ers’s first two Super Bowl-winning teams (XVI and XIX).

Clark retired following the 1987 season, and, to honor his contribution to the 49ers, the club retired his jersey number-#87-in 1988. After his retirement, Clark became a front office executive where he was a part of three more Super Bowl victories, first as a team executive and General Manager for the 49ers and then as the General Manager and Director of Football Operations for the Cleveland Browns. He later moved into a consultant role for the Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. 49ers Hall of Fame.

Clark is best remembered for “The Catch,” a play that sent the San Francisco 49ers to their first Super Bowl in 1982. In the NFC Playoffs against the Dallas Cowboys, the 49ers were trailing 27–21 with 58 seconds left in the game. Clark leaped high and caught a 6-yard pass from quarterback Joe Montana in the back of the end zone with his fingertips to tie the score. Ray Wersching’s extra-point kick advanced the 49ers to Super Bowl XVI. The play is now simply known as “The Catch,” arguably the single-most famous moment in Bay Area sports history and one of the greatest in NFL history.

In September of 2015, Clark started feeling weakness in his left hand. After months of tests and treatments, he was diagnosed with ALS. It was in March, 2017 that Clark publicly announced that he had ALS, making him the fourth 49ers player to have been diagnosed with the devastating disease.  He stated that he believed he developed ALS as a result of the three concussions he sustained during his football career.

“I’ve been asked if playing football caused this. I don’t know for sure. But I certainly suspect it did. And I encourage the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) and the NFL to continue working together in their efforts to make the game of football safer, especially as it relates to head trauma.”

Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., a close friend of Clark’s and the former 49ers owner, provided support to Clark’s treatment. In 2017, DeBartolo sent Clark to Japan to bring back a three-month supply of the drug Radicava before it became available in the United States. Also, DeBartolo and the Yorks, (DeBartolo’s sister’s family who owns the team), each donated $1 million to the creation of the Golden Heart Fund. The Fund provides financial support and relief for 49ers alumni players in times of physical, emotional and financial need.

Many staff members of the San Francisco 49ers Community Relations department created a team for the 2017 Silicon Valley Walk to Defeat ALS to honor Clark, and the 49ers also served as a sponsor for the event.

In addition, Roger Craig, a three-time Super Bowl Champion and dear friend of Dwight Clark, showed his support by joining Team Challenge ALS and dedicating his participation in the 2017 Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose Half Marathon to the fight against ALS.

On October 22, 2017, the San Francisco 49ers held “Dwight Clark Day” at Levi’s® Stadium during their game against the Dallas Cowboys. A special halftime presentation included a video tribute of Clark and “The Catch.” The video features Joe Montana, Eddie DeBartolo, and Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr. and is narrated by Vin Scully, who had the iconic call of the play.

Led by former quarterback Joe Montana, 30 members of the 1981 team took to the field for a moving tribute to honor their teammate. Clark then addressed the crowd and expressed his thanks.

Dwight Clark and his wife Kelly had a long time love of the countryside of Montana and decided to relocate there in early 2018. DeBartolo, who also makes his home for about half of the year in Big Sky Country, hosted a reunion where many of Clark’s former teammates visited to reminisce with Clark and to share a final goodbye. Clark shared many of his thoughts and spoke in depth about living with ALS on The 49ers Insider Podcast on February 27, and on March 6.

“There’s nothing stopping it or reversing it. It’s just slowing it down, which I guess is the best I can hope for. … As an athlete, at least give me something I can fight. I’m fighting with the few little weapons I have. It’s very frustrating as it progresses…I used to pick up a cup and take a drink. Now, it’s two hands and make sure my fingers are underneath it, so I don’t spill it. I drop 50 things a day. It’s tough thinking that I’m going to miss out on that…. What I’m trying to do is, I’m 61 and I’m just trying to make it to 62. And when I get there, I’ll just try to make it to 63.”

The San Francisco 49ers Organization issued the following statement:

“The San Francisco 49ers family has suffered a tremendous loss today with the passing of Dwight Clark. We extend our condolences and prayers to Dwight’s wife, Kelly, his family, friends and fans, as we join together to mourn the death of one of the most beloved figures in 49ers history.

“For almost four decades, he served as a charismatic ambassador for our team and the Bay Area. Dwight’s personality and his sense of humor endeared him to everyone he came into contact with, even during his most trying times. The strength, perseverance and grace with which he battled ALS will long serve as an inspiration to so many. Dwight will always carry a special place in our hearts and his legacy will live on as we continue to battle this terrible disease.”

DeBartolo, released his own statement on Clark’s death:

“My heart is broken. Today, I lost my little brother and one of my best friends. I cannot put into words how special Dwight was to me and to everyone his life touched. He was an amazing husband, father, grandfather, brother and a great friend and teammate. He showed tremendous courage and dignity in his battle with ALS and we hope there will soon be a cure for this horrendous disease.

“I will always remember Dwight the way he was — larger than life, handsome, charismatic and the one who could pull off wearing a fur coat at our Super Bowl parade. He was responsible for one of the most iconic plays in NFL history that began our run of Super Bowl championships, but to me, he will always be an extension of my family. I love him and will miss him terribly. Our hearts and prayers are with his wife Kelly, his children and the entire Clark family.”

Throughout Clark’s battle with ALS, representatives from the Golden West Chapter, including Advisory Trustees Lucy Wedemeyer and Matt Chaney, Gladstone Institutes and the Neuro Collaborative’s Dr. Steven Finkbeiner, UCSF ALS Center Clinic Director Dr. Catherine Lomen-Hoerth, and President & CEO Fred Fisher, were featured as a part of news coverage about this hero in the ALS community. 

In August 2019, the San Francisco 49ers officially declared the date 8/7 as Dwight Clark Day, to represent Dwight’s jersey #87 and to celebrate his  legacy and his accomplishments on and off the field. The 49ers invited members of our ALS community to the team’s training camp Community Corner. The 49ers coaches at training camp wore “87” merchandise to honor Dwight as well. The 49ers also showed their support for the ALS community and the Golden West Chapter through their participation in our Walk to Defeat ALS and other Community Outreach events

Unable to gather in person in 2020, the 49ers continued to demonstrate their commitment to honor Dwight Clark’s legacy. They marked the day by illuminating Clark’s statue with spectacular lighting at Levi’s® Stadium and LED ribbons and video boards featuring special 87 Day messaging. They also continued their support of the mission of the Golden West Chapter through their participation in Champions for Cures and Care.

This year for Dwight Clark Day, 49ers fans will be allowed inside Levi’s® Stadium – for the first time since January of 2020. All of us at the Golden West Chapter are grateful for the awareness and support for the ALS community inspired by the brave efforts of Dwight Clark and the San Francisco 49ers. 

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