Dwight Clark, who starred at Charlotte’s Garinger High and played at Clemson in the 1970s before scoring an iconic touchdown immortalized as “The Catch” for the San Francisco 49ers, died Monday of complications from ALS. He was 61.
Along with Steph Curry, Bobby Jones, Jim Beatty, Walter Davis and a handful of others, Clark ranks as one of the most famous former Charlotte high school athletes to ever make it really big.
With the 49ers, where he played his entire NFL career from 1979-87, Clark won two Super Bowl rings as a player and made the Pro Bowl twice. He said when announcing he had ALS that he “suspected” his football career had something to do with him developing the incurable disease, which systematically shuts down all bodily functions.
Before being diagnosed with ALS in 2015 — severe weakness in the left hand that helped cradle so many Joe Montana passes was the first sign for a player who sustained multiple concussions — Clark had appeared to live something of a fairytale life.
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Clark only caught 33 total passes for the run-happy Clemson Tigers during his entire college career. But Bill Walsh took a 10th-round flyer on Clark in the 1979 NFL draft and made him a star, along with Montana.
Clark loved to tell the story about how Walsh discovered him in the first place: Walsh was actually scouting Clemson’s quarterback, Steve Fuller, and when Fuller threw for Walsh, the 6-foot-4 Clark came along only because someone needed to snag Fuller’s passes.
“That was a lucky day for me,” Clark told the Observer in 2005, when he was living in Charlotte, working as a real-estate developer and coaching his son’s Pop Warner football team. “I caught everything.”
'The Catch' and the Cowboys
I don’t mind telling you that before I ever met Clark, I hated him. In January 1982, I loved the Dallas Cowboys with the fervency of the teenager originally from Texas that I was.
My favorite cornerback on the Cowboys was Everson Walls, who was constantly attacked by other teams’ offenses because he wasn’t particularly fast. But Walls also intercepted everything he could run down and talked a great game. Walls already had picked off Montana twice in the moments before “The Catch,” but no one remembers that.
Clark beat Walls on his fingertip catch in the back of the end zone on a 6-yard pass from Montana to win the NFC Championship Game in January 1982. “The Catch” gave San Francisco a 28-27 victory over Dallas and is often credited with beginning the 49ers’ 1980s dynasty — San Francisco would win its first Super Bowl later the same month.
But I really didn’t like Clark simply because he made that incredible play, plus some simmering jealousy over the fact that Clark was movie-star handsome (he, Montana and rock star Huey Lewis made quite the trio when they went out together in the Bay Area in the 1980s).
Walls, though, certainly forgave Clark. The two would eventually establish a close friendship and did a bunch of autograph shows together. He stayed in touch with Clark through everything.
That’s the way Clark was — once you knew him, you liked him. It’s one reason he made such a good NFL executive, for both San Francisco and Cleveland, once his playing days ended. I was the same way, of course. The few times I met Clark he struck me as honest, funny and true to his Carolina roots even though he did once wear a fur coat to a 49ers Super Bowl parade. I liked him, just as everyone did.
'That's why you play'
After seeing “The Catch” hundreds of times, Clark’s memory blurred as to what he truly remembers vs. what he had seen on video. He told the Observer in 2007 for a story commemorating the 25th anniversary of “The Catch”:
“I don't know if I remember actually catching the ball or I've just seen it so many times now that it's etched into my brain.”
But he definitely remembered the celebration. “Running to the sideline, that's an unbelievable moment in your life,” Clark said. “You've made a play for your teammates. That's why you play, to do something like that then run to the sideline to celebrate.”
Clark lived in Montana with his wife, Kelly, toward the end, near a ranch owned by former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo. He tried experimental treatments for ALS. It was DeBartolo who flew in more than two dozen old 49ers in April so they could have one final weekend with Clark, who by then was in a wheelchair and had lost about 80 pounds, according to a Sports Illustrated story that chronicled the weekend.
DeBartolo had also commissioned a 40-minute movie from NFL Films for the Montana reunion that was all about Clark, from his North Carolina days through the diagnosis and the fight against ALS. Toward the end, Clark speaks directly about contracting the disease.
“I’ve gone back and forth with this,” he told the camera. “Would I want 20 more years? Or would I want to (play in) two Super Bowls and win, and then be part of the (San Francisco 49ers) organization for the other three, five world championships, playing with Joe Montana and Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott and Bill Walsh and Eddie DeBartolo? I mean, it was just a great life.
“I might negotiate: OK, two championships and let me live 10 years longer,” Clark continued with a laugh. “But it would be hard to say I’ve had a bad life, even though I’ve had a bad break now. I just don't think I'd change anything.”
Clark’s “great life” concluded Monday, with his wife announcing his death on Twitter.
ALS finally caught him. But “The Catch” will live forever.