Dwight Clark, the beloved former 49ers wide receiver whose leaping touchdown catch in 1982 is the greatest play in team lore and perhaps the most iconic moment of the modern NFL era, passed away Monday from complications of ALS. He was 61.
His wife, Kelly, broke the news on Clark's Twitter account, which he used in March 2017 to publicly announce he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable neuro-muscular ailment that impairs the muscles needed to move, speak, eat and breathe. Clark began experiencing symptoms the previous fall.
"I’m heartbroken to tell you that today I lost my best friend and husband," Kelly Clark wrote. "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."
Clark spent the last year visiting with friends and former teammates and reliving the memories of the team's glorious past. Those visits began at the Clarks' home in Capitola before they moved in the spring to Whitefish, Montana.
His soaring, fingertip catch on Jan. 10, 1982 — known forever as "The Catch" — propelled the 49ers over their bitter rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, and toward their first Super Bowl victory. The 49ers retired Clark's No. 87 jersey in 1988, one year after his final season, and he was part of the the inaugural class in the 49ers’ Hall of Fame in 2009.
Speaking to how popular Clark was, the man he beat to make his famous grab, Cowboys cornerback Everson Walls, was one of the 35 former players who came from all over the country to attend Dwight Clark Day in October when the 49ers hosted the Cowboys and honored their failing hero.
"I just want to see my teammates,” Clark told the crowd during a halftime speech. “And the 49ers heard that and flew all these players in so I could see them one more time.”
Clark mostly was confined to a wheelchair at that point, but he rose and gave a warm and memorable speech, one that was full of gratitude, especially for Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who was at his side and holding his hand at the time, as he had been throughout the receiver's ordeal. The former 49ers owner, famous for his compassion and largesse, took Clark to Japan for a drug that could slow the effects of the disease and in the spring organized a reunion of 49ers players at his Montana ranch for one final farewell.
“Forty years later, he’s still taking care of me,” Clark said of DeBartolo in October. “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.”
DeBartolo issued a statement following his friend's death.
"My heart is broken," he said. "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 only one who could pull off wearing a fur coat at our Super Bowl parade."
The foundation for Clark's legendary status among 49ers fans was his humble beginnings.
He was born in Kinston, N.C., in the eastern part of the state, and attended Clemson. His best season there came when he was a junior and caught 17 passes for a ho-hum 265 yards and a touchdown.
The 49ers drafted him in the 10th round in 1979 — seven rounds after they selected quarterback Joe Montana — after he caught Bill Walsh's eye during a workout on campus. Walsh was there to evaluate Clemson quarterback Steve Fuller. Clark was the quarterback's roommate, agreed to take part in the throwing session and then snagged every pass that went his way.
Despite being a coach's favorite, Clark never felt he had it made in the NFL. Montana would joke in later years that the big receiver always kept his bags packed during training camp because he didn't know when he would be asked to leave.
The one-time teammates who spent time with Clark at the October event initially asked themselves whether they could stand to see Clark — so tall, handsome and full of life in his prime — in his current state. They did and more. The sense of brotherhood and togetherness was powerful among those successful 49ers squads, and the former teammates intimately aided Clark in buttoning his shirt and helped him in and out of his wheelchair.
They all wore red No. 87 jerseys onto the field, and the man who threw him the famous pass 36 years ago spoke for the group.
"We thank you for all the joy you brought to our life, and we love you," Montana said.