San Francisco 49ers

49ers pay tribute to Dwight Clark, intentionally and otherwise

49ers' Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch reflect on Dwight Clark's life

San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch talk about Dwight Clark’s impact on the franchise, on fans, and on awareness about ALS.
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San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch talk about Dwight Clark’s impact on the franchise, on fans, and on awareness about ALS.

One day after Dwight Clark's death, back-of-end zone touchdown catches were commonplace at 49ers practice.

It started when Jimmy Garoppolo, from the 9-yard line, fired a pass to Garrett Celek that the big tight end wrestled away from cornerback Tyvis Powell for a touchdown.

On the next snap, Garoppolo and receiver Kendrick Bourne connected on the end line despite good coverage from strong safety Jaquiski Tartt. One play later, Garoppolo lofted the ball into the right-hand corner where another tight end, George Kittle, leaped high in the air for a two-handed grab while managing to keep both feet in bounds.

Those Tuesday tributes to Clark's famous play were unintentional, of course, but they also were unmistakable a day after the beloved former 49ers receiver succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, which he had been battling for nearly two years.

Other gestures were orchestrated.

During practice, coaches and staff members wore the red, No. 87 shirts the 49ers had created in October in honor of Dwight Clark Day at Levi's Stadium. Players, most of whom weren't born during Clark's final season in 1987, watched a short film about his famous catch on Jan. 10, 1982. Then Keena Turner, the team executive who was Clark's teammate for eight seasons, spoke about the man and what made him special.

"It wasn't a coincidence that team was so tight," said coach Kyle Shanahan. "To hear what kind of teammate he was, what kind of friend he was from Keena – that's what we're trying to build here. That's why they had a great culture then. It started out with great people, starting with Dwight. And that's what we're trying emulate."

Shanahan said he first met Clark when Shanahan's father, Mike, was offensive coordinator in the early 1990s and Kyle was a summer-time ballboy. He remembered that Clark and Vinny Cerrato were in the 49ers' personnel department at the time.

"They just always used to pick on me left and right," Shanahan recalled. "I was their guinea pig. And they'd send me on errands. They'd all have golf carts and make me race next to them and I'd have to run and I'd always lose. I think I entertained them a lot. I just looked up to all of them. I didn't know it at the time. But now that I'm older and look back on that stuff, it had a huge impact on who I am now. And I feel very fortunate to be able to grow up around people like that, especially him."

General manager John Lynch said he met Clark twice. Turner took him to Clark's home in Capitola for one of the many lunches he had over the last year with ex-teammates and acquaintances. Clark also met him just after Lynch was hired in 2017. After all, they both were former players who became general managers, and CEO Jed York thought Clark would have good advice for a first timer like Lynch.

That advice: "Trust your instincts," Lynch said. "Don't make this more than it is. Hire good people around you. Also have some fun doing this. It should be fun. This is football. You had fun playing, have some fun in this role. Don't take it too seriously. So that will always stick with me."

Lynch said the 49ers would work with the NFL and come up with some way – a patch or a helmet decal to commemorate Clark on their uniforms this season.

"I promise you, we'll come up with a nice way to honor him," he said. "Not only nice, but fitting. He deserves it. He earned it. I talked about how beloved he was with this fan base. He earned that. We'll do the right thing and be happy to do so."