March 30, 2017

Everson Walls doesn't want to talk about The Catch, and not just because he wasn't the one catching the ball.

''It's not fresh anymore,'' Walls said. ''I can't make it any more than it was.''

He does want to talk about Dwight Clark, who leaped high over him that fateful day at Candlestick Park in a play that will live in NFL lore. And he does want to talk about a football culture that for far too long ignored the price he, Clark and other players paid on the field.

It angers him every time he hears about ''a suicide or illness you know is related to the game we love,'' Walls said. ''Some of the old-school owners and even coaches back in the day never even cared about players, and then they feign sympathy after the fact. To me that's the most important thing about what's going on with Dwight right now.''

What's going on with Clark, he revealed last week, is that he has ALS, the devastating muscle disease that is always fatal. Clark wrote that he already has weakness in his hands and midsection, and can't run or play golf anymore.

The only bright spot for Clark is that the disease seems to be progressing slower than with most others.

Walls and Clark became friends while appearing together in autograph shows, signing their names to the famous photo of The Catch on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Walls plans to call the man he will be forever linked with to offer support.

''A great receiver and he gave everything he had to the game,'' Walls said. ''We're actually pretty good friends.''

It was 1982 and Walls and the Dallas Cowboys were locked in a titanic battle with the San Francisco 49ers. The winner would go to the Super Bowl, and with time running short in the fourth quarter it looked like the Cowboys would come out on top.

Then Joe Montana led the 49ers on an 83-yard drive that got them to the 6-yard-line with 58 seconds left. It was third down and 3 when Montana, under pressure, scrambled toward the sideline and threw a pass that seemed way too high to the back corner of the end zone.

With Walls chasing him, Clark leaped to somehow grab the ball. The extra point would put the 49ers ahead and they held on to win a spot in their first Super Bowl.

A few days later a photo of the catch by Walter Iooss Jr. graced the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Clark was well off the ground, completely extended as he pulled in the winning pass. Walls was reaching up helplessly behind him, his place in football history secured whether he liked it or not.

''I was telling my wife the other day that, God forbid, whenever something happens to me, what are you going to show for me?'' Walls said by phone from his home in Texas. ''What play? I'm kind of (mad) about it.''

Walls was finishing a spectacular season as a rookie corner for the Cowboys when Clark soared above him to make the winning catch. He would go on to play 14 seasons in the NFL, making the Pro Bowl four times and earning a Super Bowl ring in 1991 with the New York Giants.

Walls actually made the cover of Sports Illustrated after that Super Bowl, too, raising his arms aloft in victory. He was the only player between Buffalo's Thurman Thomas and the end zone late in the fourth quarter when his tackle helped save the game for the Giants.

Some think Walls, as well as Clark, should be in the Hall of Fame. Walls himself isn't happy he's not in the Cowboys ring of honor, though he remains a big fan of his hometown team and attends every home game.

He's 57 now, with a second career as a motivational speaker working with children. He still loves football, even as he sees the toll it has taken on those who played the game.

His knees crack every time he takes a step, and his neck pops out all the time. Walls says his back is always sore but he's ''never been a medication guy'' and refuses to turn to pain pills for any relief they might give.

He's angry players of his time weren't taken care of better by their teams, especially when it came to hits to the head.

''No one mentioned it at all. No one,'' he said. ''You got your bell rung and it was a source of pride. If you piss blood after the game it's a source of pride. Any scar was well earned and well thought of. But that's not the point. The point is they didn't try and protect us better based on the information they had. They ignored it because it was always a choice of money over a person's well-being.''

So far at least, Walls is one of the luckier ones. His mind is fully intact and he's relatively healthy.

But watching the reaction on Clark from afar makes him wonder. Will his legacy one day also be tied to one play in a career of many?

''Every time I go on a show or do an interview, that's all they want to ask me about,'' he says. ''When my time comes you've got to have more than that. If not, you've missed a remarkable career. A whole bunch of stuff happened to me after my rookie season.

''I tell people, `Just Google me.'''

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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