Passing It On


Dwight Clark, the man who made The Catch, shares his joy and good fortune.

Three decades ago, Dwight Clark played on one of the greatest football teams of all time: the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s. He was there under the legendary coach Bill Walsh and the swashbuckling young owner Eddie DeBartolo, on the field with Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig and Ronnie Lott.

With that team, Dwight Clark made the single most famous play in the history of his sport—in fact, one of the most famous plays in the history of all sports.

So you might expect him to be a nostalgic man, one of those guys who lives in the past.

Not at all.

Talking in late December about his work for the 49ers, especially his work with kids for the 49ers Foundation, Clark is brimming with enthusiasm about what’s going on this week. Hearing him describe his work, his Capitola home, his daily walks on the beach with his wife Kelly and their dogs, nobody could possibly think that Dwight Clark is pining for the good old days.

“I love my life right now,” he says. “I feel great. I’m working for some awesome people. I get to do a lot of appearances and hang out with fans and hear their stories. And to tell you the truth, I don’t have to do a 9 to 5, which I just don’t think I could do anymore. So I’m very spoiled.”

Even if this man is not fixated on the past, we must return to the moment 34 years ago that made him immortal, an event so profound they didn’t bother giving it a fancy name.

It is simply The Catch.

Many local sports fans, even those who weren’t born yet, have the play memorized. In a league championship game that would send one team to the Super Bowl, the Niners are inside the Dallas Cowboys’ 10-yard line. Less than minute left on the clock. Cowboys up by six. Montana drops back with Ed “Too Tall” Jones in pursuit. He throws the ball over Jones and into the back corner of the end zone, 12 feet up in the air. Dwight Clark flies in out of nowhere and pulls the ball out of the sky with his fingernails.

The Catch was not just a highlight-reel play; it was a moment that changed football history. The Cowboys dynasty was over. It was time for the Niners. They would win five Super Bowls in the next 14 years. Dwight Clark, as a player and then a team executive, has all five rings.

A man could not be blamed for wanting to relive that era and that moment forever—and of course Clark probably gets to do so every other day. But life now is as good as it gets.

For starters, he is back with his old team. Clark left the 49ers in 1998 to follow team president Carmen Policy to Cleveland.

After three years with the Browns, Clark retired from football and returned to North Carolina, his home state. Within a few years, a big real estate deal went south, and he found himself broke, stranded and divorced.

At that moment, his old friend and boss, Eddie D., sent Clark a check and suggested he consider heading west.

“So I moved back out to California, where I have a little bit more notoriety, and started doing appearances and charity forums,” Clark recalls. “I am very appreciative to the organization for helping me out during the time of need.

“And I love working for the 49ers. Everything I do for the Niners—it’s always first class. It’s always so organized for me that I can just be myself and do my thing.”

His thing often involves distributing food, toys and other goodies to needy families. “You can tell when they come in from the shelters that they don’t have anything,” he says. “So the appreciation, and the looks on their faces, it’s all very gratifying to be a part of it.

“And all I’m doing is handing it out. The 49ers are footing the bill!”

Recently Clark participated in an event at a shelter in the Tenderloin, a cooking competition where he and his team took first place with a hearty spaghetti Bolognese.

“The cool thing about being there in the Tenderloin was that I got to meet the founders of the shelter, a husband and wife that came from nothing, did well and then started this thing to help out the kids, because they knew what it was like to have nothing.

“They were 49ers fans, and had seen The Catch play and all that. So it was cool to meet someone who had started something from the ground up.”

SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 14: Dwight Clark of the San Francisco 49ers looks on before during pre-season game at Candlestick Park on August 14, 1982 in San Francisco, CA. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers)

SAN FRANCISCO – AUGUST 14: Dwight Clark of the San Francisco 49ers looks on before during pre-season game at Candlestick Park on August 14, 1982 in San Francisco, CA. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers)

Joanne Pasternack of the 49ers is clearly thrilled to have Clark representing the organization in its community outreach programs.

“He shows up, rolls his sleeves up, gets to work, and is such a great ambassador,” Pasternack says, “whether it’s doing a cooking show for kids or a hedge fund convention where he’s speaking to a bunch of bankers. Dwight always shows up and puts his all into it.”

In addition to the rewarding work, Clark gets to spend a bunch of time at a pretty cool venue: the new Levi’s Stadium.

“Top to bottom it’s one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever been,” he says. “Candlestick has all kinds of history, and I loved playing there. But this stadium—I don’t know if I’ve been to a better place than Levi’s Stadium. I even love the name! I used to have to dress up to do suite visits—and now I wear my Levi’s!”

Apparently, even more important than the nice new digs, Clark is happy to return to the scene where two mentors set him up for the heroic life he has been living.

Dwight Clark’s big break came when Bill Walsh came to look at a promising quarterback at Clemson, where Clark was a semi-successful wide receiver.

“Bill came to work out my roommate, Steve Fuller,” Clark recalls. “I happened to answer the phone and Bill asked me to come catch. And I had a good day where I caught everything. And Bill saw something in that workout that nobody in college had really seen.”

Walsh drafted Clark the following year.

“I owe my entire career to Bill and his knowledge of the game, and how he can find little diamonds in the rough,” Clark says. “I love him. His name’s still in my phone, even though he passed on. He changed my life forever.”

Walsh is universally revered as the leader and strategist that made the 49ers great, but Clark gives a lot of credit to the boss, owner Eddie D.

“I loved him, too. He would have suited up and gone out and played with us in a second. He was tough as nails.”

It wasn’t DeBartolo’s toughness that ultimately touched Clark, but his tenderness: “I’m from the South—I’d never hugged a guy or kissed a guy in my life. With Eddie DeBartolo I got hugged and kissed every time I walked into the locker room.

“Eddie made us a family. And Bill, with his expertise, made us champions.”

Dwight Clark will be at JCO’s Place, 45 N. Santa Cruz Ave., on Thursday, Jan. 14, to celebrate the opening of the exhibit ‘Art of the NFL.’

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