I’m often asked why I am a San Francisco 49ers fan since I grew up on the East Coast of the U.S. and have never set foot in the City by the Bay.
My usual response entails describing how great Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana was and how he and “The Genius” head coach Bill Walsh built a four-championship dynasty during the 1980s.
At the same time, I generally mention how bad my local New York teams were during that era and how ripe I was for the fandom picking.
But, it dawned on me last week when former 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark passed away, that I don’t owe my allegiance to San Francisco because of Montana and/or Walsh.
Clark is the reason that I, a young girl almost 3,000 miles away sitting on the couch next to her Dad, perked her head up and paid attention to a west coast team on the rise.
When Clark made “The Catch” on January 10, 1982, a thunderbolt echoed far and wide across the country that signaled the birth of the best era for the 49ers. And, with it, a wave of new fans crashed to the surface.
I’m happy to say I was one of them…
Younger NFL fans may not realize it, but a middle-class family like mine during the 1970s and 1980s had only a couple of local television stations and random national games on the weekends to watch football.
There were no computers. No internet. No cable TV. No satellite TV. No cell phones.
We could only watch what games were in front of us and it generally did not include cross-country teams.
Our only real outlet for big sporting events was the Wide World of Sports during late Saturday afternoons. Newspapers and magazines helped fill in the gaps.
So, it is astonishing to think that one ball thrown from Montana to Clark in 1982 near the Golden Gate Bridge touched the football community and the nation like it did.
I’m living proof of how important that moment was in the history of football.
Just think of it: when Dwight Clark stretched high into the air and he reeled in that game winning touchdown in the 49ers’ 28-27 victory over Dallas with 51 seconds remaining in the NFC title game, it ended the Cowboys’ long run of dominance and put into motion the first of what would be many Super Bowl wins for San Francisco.
If not for that one play, the Cowboys may have gone on to the Super Bowl instead of the 49ers to beat the Bengals. They may have even won more in subsequent years.
Instead, “America’s Team” faded into the football landscape and didn’t win another Lombardi Trophy for eleven more seasons (1992). San Francisco then became the team to embark on the path towards dominance.
It’s all because Clark caught that ball from Montana; a play known as the “Sprint Right Option”...
There is some irony that Dwight Clark was the one who made the play which changed the Cowboys’ fate in history.
According to Gary Myers’s book, “The Catch – One Play, Two Dynasties and the Game that Changed the NFL”, the Dallas Cowboys graded Clark in the 1979 draft as “undraftable.”
In fact, only a couple of teams actually worked Clark out before the draft.
A native of North Carolina, he had made only 33 catches in 34 games while attending Clemson University.
Originally signed as a quarterback on a scholarship, that position didn’t work out for Clark at Clemson. So, he was shifted towards defense and then to the receiving corps. He was so unhappy about it that he even contemplated quitting football for basketball.
Luckily for Clark, his dad talked him into staying at college and seeing it through.
Towards the end of his tenure with Clemson, San Francisco head coach Bill Walsh traveled to South Carolina to work out a quarterback, Steve Fuller. Clark was on the receiving end of the catches and lit it up. Walsh really liked what he saw in the 6’4” wideout.
Eventually, the 49ers drafted the 22-year-old Clark in the 10th round of the 1979 Draft. He was shocked and elated that a team with such stature believed enough in him to give him a try. Clark even worried about getting cut each and every day before the first game of the regular season.
But, San Francisco liked that Clark was big, had tactical speed and great hands. They also liked that he had excellent chemistry with his fellow rookie, quarterback Joe Montana. The two had quickly gelled, became close friends and learned to trust each other. Former 49ers president Carmen Policy referred to them as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
It made for great synergy on the field, which ultimately led up to the transcendent year for Clark, 1981, when he made The Catch. He also made the Pro Bowl that season and made first-team All Pro.
In the locker room, Clark had a charisma and sunny personality that the players and team also liked.
He always seemed to be grateful for the chance to play in the NFL with the 49ers and gave back to the fans and reporters, with whom he was perpetually gracious with.
His upbeat attitude was contagious, and even years later, several former 49ers talked about how much they enjoyed his personality and were touched by his presence.
Ultimately, Clark would spend his entire nine-year career with the 49ers (1979-1987) and finish with 48 career touchdowns and 506 receptions for 6,750 yards - third in the franchise’s history behind Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens. He earned two Pro Bowl appearances and made two Super Bowls with the team. His number 87 was retired in 1988.
After he finished playing football, Clark went into San Francisco’s front office for ten years and to the Browns as their general manager for three years. He then went on to live a more private life away from football, but made personal appearances on behalf of the team and did some announcing.
In 2017, he announced he was suffering from ALS. A little over a year later, Clark would die of the disease.
In the days since his passing, Clark’s legacy has been reconfirmed. Many players and even people not involved with football have discussed how much he touched their lives, on and off the field.
Perhaps the great Jerry Rice summed it up the best when he recently emulated the feelings we all have for the wonderful man and player Clark was, "I just loved the guy, man, and idolized him… I would just sit back and just watch him, and I just wanted to try to emulate him, on the football field, off the football field. ... This guy -- he was one of the greatest football players to ever play the game, but also he was a great individual."
Rest in peace, Dwight Clark. We will miss you…
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