Underscoring not just his place in 49ers’ lore but how beloved he is among former teammates, 37 members of the team’s 1981 squad arrived at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday to honor Dwight Clark.
The former receiver, whose soaring touchdown in 1982 is the franchise’s greatest moment, is now in a wheelchair, his strength ebbing and his speech slowed as he battles ALS, the terminal disease with which he was diagnosed earlier this year.
“I think you all know I’m going through a little thing right now,” Clark said during a halftime speech from a private suite, a tearful Eddie DeBartolo, the team’s former owner, standing by his side.
Former teammates and those who knew Clark initially asked themselves whether they could stand to see Clark – so tall, handsome and charismatic in his prime – in his current state. On Friday, most of the players from the 1981 team, all of them dressed in red T-shirts with No. 87 on them, walked onto the field at halftime.
Joe Montana – who along with Clark was part of the 49ers’ draft class in 1979 and who threw the pass on the legendary play simply called “The Catch” – spoke for the group.
Montana noted that Clark, taken in the 10th round, never thought he had sealed a roster spot, not even after his iconic reception.
“He always thought he was going to get cut,” he said. “But here he is. He’s stood the test of time.”
Former executive Carmen Policy said the show of support Sunday was a testament to the brotherhood the 49ers had in the 1980s. He said it was hard to watch Clark struggle in a wheelchair. But he also said he was lifted by what he saw over the weekend.
Said Policy: “One of the great things we’ve been able to witness is bringing Dwight into the mix and seeing the guys he knew and loved helping him button shirts, helping him put on a jacket, helping him in a chair – ‘It’s no problem. He’s my brother.’ That kind of thing.”
Asked if teams today have that sort of camaraderie and connectivity, Policy shook his head.
“I don’t know if that’s being replicated,” he said. “There’s too much of a hedge-fund mentality in professional sports today. Not just football, professional sports. It’s a big business.”
Before Montana and Clark took the microphone, the 49ers showed a short video of Clark that was narrated by Vin Scully, the broadcaster during the 1981 NFC championship game in which Clark rose to fame.
Sports photographer Walter Iooss Jr. was working for the Cowboys that day. He said his camera was shooting five frames per second and that the shots immediately before and after Clark’s catch were unusable.
“But the motor went off at that perfect 5,000th of a second where the ball entered his hands,” he said. “It’s lucky to have a moment like that in your life. How many people have a moment that even resembles that? Dwight Clark does.”
Though he spoke slowly and with effort, Clark’s message was clear. He is grateful. He thanked fans and teammates and the York family, who organized the event. The 49ers asked him what he wanted – a fundraiser, a foundation in his honor?
“I just want to see my teammates,” he said. “And the 49ers heard that and flew all these players in so I could see them one more time.”
Clark even had the presence and strength to outlast the stadium public address announcer, who cut him off prematurely so that the second half could begin on time.
Clark wasn’t finished. He still had one more person to thank.
“Forty years later, he’s still taking care of me,” Clark said of DeBartolo. “He’s called all over the world trying to find the best remedy for ALS. He’s sent me to Japan to get medicine there. I think I can never, ever thank the DeBartolo family and Eddie D. for what he’s done.”