The invite arrived last month via phone, email or, in some cases, text message.
Mr. DeBartolo wants to bring you out to his ranch in Montana to see Dwight. Can you come?
The responses were immediate.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” said Roger Craig.
“I WILL be there,” wrote Russ Francis.
“FAITHFUL THEN, FAITHFUL NOW,” wrote Keena Turner
“It will be an honor to visit with DC,” wrote Carlton Williamson.
And on it went: Ronnie Lott and Harris Barton and Dwight Hicks and Gary Plummer, men who’d played alongside Dwight Clark, the iconic 49ers receiver.
They all knew the situation. Clark—the man who reached up into the night air in January of 1982 and came down with The Catch; who helped alter the direction of a franchise, triggering a run of Super Bowls; who was admired for his charm and work ethic and loyalty, first as a nine-year player and then as a team exec—had been diagnosed with ALS in 2015. The following March he announced it publicly on the website of DeBartolo, the former 49ers owner and franchise paterfamilias. Last October the team held Dwight Clark Day at Levi’s Stadium, back when Clark could still walk, and he addressed a roaring crowd (“I’m going through a little thing right now,” he told the fans). That same month Clark began having weekly lunches with old teammates and friends near his house in Capitola, Calif., reliving memories and telling jokes. By March he and his wife, Kelly, had decided to move to a ranch in Montana, 15 minutes from where DeBartolo spends half the year. Throughout, Clark has put on a brave face, but ALS is a merciless disease. No cure exists, and it wastes little time, systematically shutting down body functions. Clark is now confined to a wheelchair. His once-boisterous laugh has dimmed, if not his smile. Originally DeBartolo had planned a summer event. Better, he now decided, to hold it in late April.
So on Sunday, April 22nd, 27 men—former coaches, staffers and teammates—descended on Whitefish, Mont. A dozen came from the Bay Area, on DeBartolo’s private jet. Plummer and Dwight Hicks flew together from southern California. Garrison Hearst came in from Atlanta. Kevin Gogan drove seven hours from Ellensburg, Wash. DeBartolo, as always, picked up the tab.
No one said it out loud, because that’s not how football players are, but they understood why they were there. “I assumed,” says Plummer, “that this is probably the last time I’ll see Dwight.”
In an era when pro sports owners are viewed alternately as profit-hungry, eccentric, and blindly focused on winning, DeBartolo sticks out more than ever. A real estate scion from Youngstown, Ohio, he put his fortune, and his heart, into the 49ers after buying them in 1977. To play for the team was to have your wife receive flowers on her birthday, to fly to Hawaii on team trips, to bring your kids to the Christmas party and find real, live reindeer there to greet them. To be treated, as Lott puts it, as part of an ever-growing family.
It’s been 40 years, but DeBartolo is still looking out for his guys. “Like a guardian angel for us,” says Craig, citing how DeBartolo has helped dozens of former players with medical expenses, eventually launching the Golden Heart Foundation with a million dollars of his own money (challenging the Yorks, who succeeded him as owners, to match it, which they did), providing a fallback for retired players who slip through the cracks. For Clark’s event, DeBartolo insisted on paying for everything—“They wouldn’t even let me put my damn credit card down at the hotel,” says Gogan—just as DeBartolo paid for Jeff Fuller’s care after the safety suffered partial paralysis on the field, and flew Clark to Japan for an experimental treatment, and took care of the old Niners team operations guy, Dave Rahn, after he was stricken with cancer. “I played for five different football teams and five different owners, and within 10 minutes of being in the NFL you know if you’re on a good team or not,” says Gogan. “Everyone knew in the ’70s and ’80s that when Mr. DeBartolo owned the team, that was the team to be on. And I finally got a taste of it later in my career. I don’t care how much money you make, if you treat guys with the utmost respect, you’re going to get so much more out of them.” (DeBartolo’s tenure as owner ended after he was suspended by the league as part of a racketeering scandal in Louisiana, during which he pled guilty to failing to report a felony; in 2000 he decided to transfer ownership of the team to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016.)
DeBartolo’s bond with Clark was always especially strong. The receiver is best remembered for The Catch, but longtime Niners fans recall other parts of his story: how Clark dated a future Miss Universe and wore a fur coat to the Super Bowl parade, how he sang backup for Huey Lewis and earned the nickname “Hercules,” because to go out on the town with Dwight was to unfailingly come back with a tale to tell. Handsome, successful and charismatic, he seemed to live a charmed life.
Really, though, his is more of a grinder’s story. As a boy he dreamed of playing in the NBA, but he topped out at 6'4". At Clemson, he caught all of 11 passes his senior year. The NFL was not on his radar. Then, as Clark often recounts, Bill Walsh happened to visit Clemson to scout quarterback Steve Fuller, and Clark happened to be Fuller’s roommate, and happened to answer the phone when Walsh called to ask if he could see Fuller throw. Well, Fuller would need someone to catch those passes, so Dwight came along. Walsh was intrigued by the lanky kid with the enormous hands who caught anything remotely near him. So they watched game film together, Walsh quizzing Dwight about those 11 catches: What was he thinking here, what did he see there? At the time, Walsh envisioned a different type of offense, one predicated on options and split-second choices; he thought Clark might be able to pull it off. That June of 1979, the 49ers drafted Clark with the 249th pick, reportedly to the dismay of Walsh’s personnel crew, who argued that they could just sign Clark as a free agent if they really wanted, because who else would draft him? But Walsh saw in Clark a potential linchpin, a steady, smart route-runner around whom he could fashion his offense.
Clark didn’t know this though. That first training camp, he’d sneak in the back way to the cafeteria, on the logic that no one could cut him if they couldn’t find him. He did make one friend, though. On one of his first days, Clark ran into a scruffy, scrawny blonde dude with a patchy Fu Manchu. Clark assumed he was the team’s kicker. Turned out his name was Joe Montana. The two became fast friends.
Clark never tires of telling the next part of the story. Two years later, there they were: 58 seconds left, down six against the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game, a luckless franchise trying to topple America’s Team. “Freddie, be ready,” Montana said in the huddle, nodding at wideout Freddie Solomon. “And Dwight, I’ll come to you later if I don’t have anything else.” That was the essence of Clark: the guy who made it happen when a QB had nothing else, who never stopped doubling back. Says Lott: “I remember in practice there were times where he’d go back and forth trying to get open, and I was like, Man, will you stop! But that was Dwight.”
On that afternoon, Clark ran a sprint right option, Montana rolled right and pumped once, paused, then lofted the ball. You know what happened next.
A magical decade followed for Clark and the Niners: a ring against the Bengals, then another against the Dolphins. In 1988, the Niners retired his number, 87, only months after Clark stopped playing. To a generation of sports fans in the Bay Area, Clark would forever be a touchstone.
Thus when he announced his diagnosis in 2016, it hit hard. Clark was only 59 at the time, not much older than many of the fans who so identified with him. Heroes like Dwight—handsome, funny, ageless—weren’t supposed to be mortal.
On the first night in Montana, Clark arrived shortly after 5 p.m. at Whitefish Lodge, rolled in by his good friend, the former Navy Seal Rick Winters. Even for those who’d seen Clark in the previous months, the contrast was jarring. He’d lost more than 80 pounds from his playing weight. Breathing had become difficult. His energy came and went.
But then, remembers Kirk Reynolds, the former Niners PR director who’s been instrumental in arranging events like the lunches and last week’s trip, “He saw us all and just lit up.” Before the drinks could begin to flow—and flow they did—DeBartolo brought out his surprise guest: Huey Lewis. Back in the ’80s, Montana, Lewis and Clark were known alternately as the Three Musketeers and the Three Stooges, and they’d remained close. (Montana wasn’t at the event but has been visiting Clark regularly.) Now the two friends embraced. “The smile on Clark’s face, I mean, oh my god,” says Carmen Policy. In lieu of a speech, Clark cracked, “I ain’t got a goddam thing to say,” and the tone was set. Says Plummer: “Dwight made everybody comfortable in the most uncomfortable situation.”
And with that, they were off. Whereas Clark had held forth at the lunches in Capitola, back when his voice was better, now he needed only start one of his stories, if haltingly, and an old teammate would jump in and take it the rest of the way. At dinner, guests rotated to Clark’s table, so he had a chance to see all of them. Clark made it to 8:30 and, as Carmen Policy says, “he would have slept there in his chair if they let him.”
The next day the group visited Clark’s ranch, where his wife, Kelly, is working with rescue horses, before heading to DeBartolo’s 5,000-acre spread for dinner. When they arrived, DeBartolo led the group down a gravel path to a field. And there, in the midst of a grassy patch in Montana, stood the old goalposts from Candlestick Park, the ones behind Clark as he made The Catch. The uprights are faded by time, and bordering on lime green, but unmistakable. (Funny story about that: According to some of the attendees, the Yorks think they have the Candlestick goalposts, not knowing that DeBartolo had them shipped out in pieces.)
Before dinner of salmon and ribeye in the barn—really, more like a 49ers museum—DeBartolo introduced a video, one he’d commissioned months earlier from NFL Films especially for this occasion. Forty minutes long and titled “The Gift of Grab,” with NFL Films’ trademark production values and orchestral soundtrack, it follows Clark’s life, career and path to his diagnosis, with perspective from Montana and Rice and Craig and Lott, among many, many others. Huey Lewis narrates, and appears toward the end in a F*CK ALS t-shirt bearing the silhouette of The Catch. When the video finished playing, the lights came up on a bunch of grown men bawling.
In the end, as those on hand recounted, the weekend had more laughs than tears. Charles Haley and Kevin Gogan took turns telling unprintable stories. Players from different eras became friends over the course of a night. Strangers became brothers. Perhaps the emotions were heightened by the sense of urgency. Too many knew friends who were in trouble, or who had passed away. Lott’s best friend, Eric Scoggins, a former teammate at USC and with the Niners, died of ALS. Freddie Solomon passed before his 60th birthday. At one point Lott and a handful of others sat at one table, commiserating about filling out the NFL CTE forms and the endless bureaucracy. This is their new reality.
For the 71-year-old DeBartolo, the experience is hard to stomach. For many of these players he was like a big brother, to others a father figure. But he didn’t play the game. Didn’t sustain the concussions. Now, seeing them fall ill and wither is a bit like a parent watching a child go before they do. “Some of the players that are more vociferous were quieter this weekend,” he says. “I think everybody, truly, when you’re in a situation like this you start to realize your mortality, and you see something as horrendous as ALS and see that they have nothing to do for you. They have made almost zero progress [in research for a cure] over all these many, many decades.”
“We talked about that,” he continues. “And these guys are all feeling the effects of the game. Either minor or much more serious CTE. And what could the NFL do? They’re trying. I know Roger [Goodell], he’s a friend of mine. But what the hell can you do? The players are bigger, stronger, faster. Nobody’s yet been able to develop a helmet that protects the head. How can you? Just for that alone, for CTE. It’s taken its toll. The problem is, sometimes it doesn’t rear its ugly head for decades.”
Left unspoken was the timing of the get-together. This wasn’t officially a final goodbye. Clark will see others in the months to come, but probably not in a group this size again, and not while he can still communicate this well. Dealing with that fact isn’t easy.
“It was absolutely heavy duty man,” says Gogan. “Like f--- this, this isn’t fair.” He pauses. “We’re not conditioned or taught to share your feelings because for 20 years in the NFL you didn’t say f---ing nothing. And now you’re supposed to come out and look weak and say I don’t feel well?”
“I cried when Dwight first told me, and I cried again this weekend,” says Craig. “It’s such a cruel disease. All this technology we have in the world today. We’re so advanced. Why can’t they figure it out?”
Plummer, a hard-charging linebacker in his day and the bluntest of the former players, had gone through this before, when he hosted a send-off at his home in San Diego for Rahn, the former team operations guy. When some players vacillated about showing up, Plummer didn’t mince words. “I told the guys, I don’t give a f--- if you don’t do death, I don’t give a f--- if you don’t do this, you’re going to be here. I’d just gone through it with my mom dying and had family that didn’t want to be involved in her care. I had other family members in the Bay Area that were like, I want nothing to do with this. None of us want to do it, none of us like to do it, but this could be you next. And if you want to stay at arm’s length, that’s your choice, but I kind of want to be surrounded by people I love at the end.”
This, says Plummer, is what he saw at Clark’s event. “People think of football players and think of Neanderthal, violent and aggressive.” He pauses, starts to tear up. “The number of I love yous and hugs that were exchanged over three days—seeing that with your own eyes, you understand the power of love and friendship and reminiscing.”
On Tuesday the players flew back to their respective homes, and Clark headed to his ranch to rest, surrounded by his loved ones and his horses and three dogs. Meanwhile, Reynolds and Lott set about planning the next way to brighten Dwight’s spirits, and DeBartolo made his regular lunch visits to see Clark. A few days later, after processing the weekend, Clark provided a comment, relayed by Reynolds. “It was such a memorable visit. It was like being in the locker room again after a big win. Everyone was happy, telling stories. … I love all those guys. We’re like family, always will be, and that’s all because of what Eddie has done all these years.
It brought to mind a moment late in the video, in which Clark talks about perspective. “I’ve gone back and forth with this,” he tells the camera, voice a bit scratchy. “Would I want 20 more years? Or would I want to [play in] two Super Bowls and win, and then be part of the organization for the other three, five world championships, playing with Joe Montana and Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott and Bill Walsh and Eddie DeBartolo? I mean, it was just a great life.”
“I might negotiate: okay, two championships and let me live 10 years longer”—and here he chuckles—“but it would be hard to say I’ve had a bad life, even though I’ve had a bad break now.”
“I just don’t think I would change anything.”