There are several welcome light moments in the Dwight Clark documentary that premiers Tuesday night on NBC Sports Bay Area.
One of the so-called “Letters to 87” features a note from an 49ers fan whose family lived in Southern California at the time who confessed that in the days before the internet and 24-hour highlights, he saw the stat lines in the paper and just assumed Clark was “a speedy little black receiver from Clemson.”
How did Keena Turner read that letter with a straight face.
“I didn’t,” the former 49ers linebacker cracked. “That one took a few takes.”
The half-hour documentary, which will air commercial free starting at 8 p.m., is essentially the brainchild of Clark himself. The man behind “The Catch” never tired of strangers stopping him on the street (or at the airport … or in a coffee shop …) to tell him where they were at the time he rose into the twilight to snare Joe Montana’s pass on Jan. 10, 1982.
Years ago, Clark even proposed collecting letters for a book project. Instead, in February, longtime reporter and friend Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area suggested to the two-time Pro Bowl selection that it might make more sense to make a short film about his connection to the fans.
The resulting “Letters to 87” chronicles the journey to bring a stack of correspondence to Clark’s deathbed in Whitefish, Montana. Members of the 49ers family, such as Turner and Ronnie Lott gathered round Clark to read page after page of inspiration, encouragement and happy memories.
The group got together at Clark’s ranch in Montana to read the letters to Clark two weeks before he died. Clark died on June 4, at age 61, of ALS. As the film recounts, Clark’s health was lagging on the day the letters arrived — but the messages almost magically revived his energy and spirit.
“I took every letter up there. If not every letter was read, Dwight felt every letter,” Maiocco said after a recent private screening at Levi’s Stadium.
Maiocco had seen this effect before. He and Clark once teamed up for a charity event at Humboldt State where, for four hours, Maiocco watched a steady stream of fans approach Clark to tell them a personal story about “The Catch.”
“And every time, Dwight acted as if it was the first time he ever heard that,” Maiocco said. “His face lit up. And he’d start asking the person more questions.”
For the documentary, several members of the 49ers family read letters directly into the camera. Montana, DeBartolo and Turner prove up to the challenge of capturing just the right tone, whether that meant somber, funny or deeply profound. (Lott was not among the people who read letters for the documentary, but he did read letters directly to Clark and he offered perspective during the documentary on that day in Clark’s bedroom.)
Sometimes in the film, the letter-writers themselves read their personal message to Clark, and the cumulative effect keeps building until you’re reminded, again, just how much that victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship Game changed the Bay Area sports landscape forever.
“What ‘The Catch’ meant to me is that you could do it,” said Bobby Grabrian, an IT consultant from Novato, who attended the screening and saw his letter read by Turner and Montana. “You could slay the dragon, no matter how big or bad it was.”
For a measure of Clark’s impact, consider how many former teammates attended the screening. Notables included Jerry Rice, Harris Barton, Bill Ring, Eric Wright, Lawrence Pillars, Dan Bunz, Jesse Sapolu, Lee Woodall and Milt McColl.
By the end of the surprising final scene, the only sounds in the 100-seat theater were the scattered sniffles of a dozen NFL tough guys. (As Pillars joked later: “A little water came out of my eyes. I don’t cry.”)
Emmy-award winning producer Sean Maddison, who directed the film, said the emotional wallop prompted him to ask the network to run the 27-minute film uninterrupted.
“I said, ‘How can you do commercials in the middle of this? Usually, sales says, ‘Too bad,” he said.
Not this time. And as a result, the film captures Clark’s connection to the fans and vice versa — right down to the letter.
“Putting it altogether was a challenge,” Maddison said, “but also crazy inspirational.”
After the debut (Tuesday at 8 p.m.), “Letters to 87” will re-air on NBC Sports Bay Area on Aug. 23 at 2 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 26 at 5 p.m. and Wednesday, Aug. 29 at 2:30 p.m.