Dwight Clark: The Catch
June 11, 2018
Entering training camp 1980 the San Francisco 49ers had lost fourteen games two straight seasons and weren’t generating much enthusiasm in central California or anywhere else. Still, even as a temporarily disengaged fan, I wanted to learn a little about the team and didn’t change channels when a Sacramento sportscaster interviewed one of the players. A summer afternoon sun bored straight into the young man’s face, and I remember thinking, “Is it possible that guy’s so good looking even lit like that? Who is that, anyway?”
The sportscaster thanked Dwight Clark for his time. I’d never heard the name. Perhaps he meant Dwight Hicks, whose name I vaguely knew. Now, I’d probably jump online and emerge with pages of information. In that prehistoric era I learned nothing until a couple of weeks later when I read in a newspaper that Dwight Clark was dating Miss Universe, Shawn Weatherly, his girlfriend at Clemson. There was also a photo of the beautiful couple.
In a story now legendary, coach Bill Walsh had gone to Clemson a year earlier, in 1979, to scout quarterback Steve Fuller. The usually meticulous Walsh hadn’t scheduled any receivers for Fuller to throw to and hurriedly asked his hosts, “Can’t we get someone, anyone? Clark? He was on your team? Okay, what’s his phone number?”
Dwight, golf bag on his shoulder, was preparing to drive to the links and almost decided not to answer what could be an intrusive phone call, but he picked up the receiver and heard, “I’m Bill Walsh, new coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and would be awfully grateful if you could come to the practice field and catch some passes.”
“I’d be happy to,” said Dwight.
Steve Fuller didn’t throw well that day, but his inaccuracies showcased Dwight Clark catching balls too high or low or behind him, and Bill Walsh surely figured, “This guy’s six-four and two-fifteen and has great hands and decent speed. Maybe I can take him late in the draft.”
Walsh selected Joe Montana in the third round, a historical draft bargain. Dwight Clark was taken in the tenth round, also a shocking position, but only from hindsight: Clark had caught barely thirty passes during his college career. And in his rookie year with the 49ers, he grabbed but eighteen. Montana meanwhile completed only thirteen passes for a solitary touchdown. The two men became close friends and on the field their second season began to forge one of the most formidable passing combinations in the league. Clark caught eighty-two passes while Montana earned the starting job – Walsh in fact waited too long to promote him – and convinced many, including me, he was going to be one of the best quarterbacks ever.
Bill Walsh had armed his West Coast offense but the defensive secondary was worst in the league. Responding with insight and courage that characterized his career in drafting, Walsh selected defensive backs with three of the first four picks in 1981. Ronnie Lott instantly proved a first-round prize, pounding opponents, intercepting passes, and elevating the team’s confidence, and several weeks into the season, as Montana, Clark, and company dissected defenses, the 49ers were playing the best football in franchise history, and emphasized their new status by dismantling the Dallas Cowboys, America’s Team and a traditional nemesis, forty-five to fourteen.
The 49ers won thirteen games during the regular season and earned home field advantage in the playoffs. The conference championship would be played in San Francisco against the Cowboys who won twelve and began the playoffs by shutting out Tampa Bay thirty-eight to nothing, and afterward said they didn’t respect the upstart 49ers and this time would beat them. The teams exchanged the lead four times in the first half. Dwight Clark scored on a twenty-yard pass from Montana and Tony Dorsett rushed in from five yards to give the Cowboys a seventeen-fourteen edge at the break.
Dallas looked formidable. San Francisco looked better. For the game the 49ers produced ten more first downs and a hundred forty-three more yards. The Cowboys had advantages in two key areas: turnovers and penalties. Montana, yet to establish himself as Joe Clutch, threw three interceptions and lost one of three San Francisco fumbles. Championship games usually aren’t won by a team that gives away the ball six times to three for its opponent. And the 49ers also faced Cowboys wearing stripped shirts who whistled the home team for some phantom penalties, assessing a hundred six yards and, inadvertently or not, helping the Cowboys lead twenty-seven to twenty-one in the fourth quarter.
Less than five minutes remained when the 49ers got the ball far from victory, on their eleven yard line. Bill Walsh, the master play caller, stood on the sideline and began to compose a drive. When the 49ers faced third and four from their seventeen, Joe Montana threw to Freddie Solomon for a first down. Lenvil Elliot followed with two rushes that surprised the Cowboys and advanced the ball to the thirty-four. After Elliot dropped a pass, and another third down lurked, the Dallas rescued the 49ers by jumping offsides and yielding a first down. Two plays later Walsh shocked his opponents, and most observers, by running a flanker reverse to fast Freddie Solomon who dashed fourteen yards to the Dallas thirty-five. Montana then hit Dwight Clark for ten yards and Solomon for thirteen. First down at the Dallas twelve with seventy-five seconds to play. Montana threw an incompletion and Elliot rushed for six to the Dallas six.
On third down Walsh called a play, Dwight Clark screening Freddie Solomon’s defender, that had enabled the latter to score a touchdown in the first quarter. This time, Solomon slipped and Clark ran from the right side of the line to the middle of the end zone and then, as he and Montana had practiced, broke to his right, near the back line. Montana, meanwhile, was pursued by three defenders including six-nine Too Tall Jones, and faded back and to his right and an instant before being inundated he threw a soft pass high, and the rangy Clark, who could stand below the rim and rise to dunk a basketball with two hands, leaped high as he could and with fingers from both hands brought the ball down, making The Catch, and landed for a touchdown, and a dynasty was born as the 49ers finished the Cowboys and in two weeks beat Cincinnati to win their first Super Bowl.
Dwight Clark continued to play superb football and Bill Walsh said he was one of the best in the league, not merely receivers but players irrespective of position. He looked like a leading man but was also a tough hombre who jawed with aggressive defenders and made difficult catches, snaring from fifty-two to eighty-five passes seven years in a row. A knee injury abruptly reduced his effectiveness, and Walsh forced the reluctant Clark into retirement in 1987. The following season Walsh retired after his team won a third Super Bowl. He left too soon. The 49ers captured their fourth title in 1989.
Clark remained a 49er, working in the front office. He’d married a Southern lady named Ashley, and a few years earlier the couple had briefly taken in a roommate, Joe Montana, after his second divorce. Relations between the colorful combo coarsened in the early 1990s as injured Montana struggled to heal and regain his starting job, and Clark, coach George Seifert, and other 49ers committed to younger and stronger Steve Young. After not speaking to Clark for a long time, Montana and his new wife Jennifer reached out and the two men were again in sync. On the field the 49ers captured their fifth Super Bowl title following the 1994 season. By 1998 Clark had risen to director of football operations and the team finished the regular season at twelve and four. He then joined the Cleveland Browns, along with team president Carmen Policy, and served three years as general manager. The Browns floundered the first two years, winning five games total, then finished seven and nine in 2002. Improvement encouraged him but the Browns gave personnel authority to the new coach and Clark resigned.
After that, Dwight Clark receded from public view. Several years later he appeared at a 49ers event at Candlestick Park and a sportscaster asked, “What have you been doing?”
“Building houses in Charlotte,” he said.
Financial problems and a divorce followed. Clark rebounded by marrying Kelly, and the couple lived near the sea in Capitola, Santa Cruz County. Last year Clark announced he’d been suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis since 2015. This disease had felled Lou Gehrig, the great Iron Horse of the Yankees, and is always fatal. Clark’s hands weakened first and he lost weight and struggled to walk, switching to a motorized wheelchair. He regained some weight and strength after being fed by tube. He also flew to Japan for medications unavailable in the United States. Clark, the competitor, regretted he couldn’t fight and ultimately defeat ALS but he continued to live. Most Tuesdays in Capitola he hosted some former teammates and they reminisced about the gridiron glory that still inspires those of us who loved the 49ers and their displays of determination and excellence. Dwight Clark may have passed on but his presence and The Catch are forever.