One of the great mysteries: Clark's ALS diagnosis recalls three 49ers from 1960s


One of the great mysteries: Clark's ALS diagnosis recalls three 49ers from 1960s

Editor's note: "One of the great mysteries -- The story of three 49ers diagnosed with ALS" will be published on Wednesday, May 10. Subscribe to The 49ers Insider Podcast and have it delivered right to your phone.

When Dwight Clark announced in March he has ALS, it was a devastating blow to those around him and to his many fans.

For individuals who were around the 49ers in the mid-1960s, the news brought back some painful memories. More than 20 years after they were 49ers teammates, Gary Lewis, Matt Hazeltine and Bob Waters passed away from the rare disease.

As part of ALS Awareness Month, the latest edition of "The 49ers Insider Podcast" remembers those men with, "One of the great mysteries -- The story of three 49ers diagnosed with ALS."

The incidence of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is two per 100,000 people in the United States and it is estimated more than 20,000 Americans may be living with ALS at any given time, according to the ALS Association. Yet, on this one 49ers team, three players developed ALS and died within a short period of time in the late-1980s.

-- Matt Hazeltine graduated from Tamalpais High in Mill Valley and was a star at the University of California. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame posthumously in 1989. Hazeltine played 14 seasons with the 49ers from 1955 to ’68 as a linebacker.

He died on Jan. 13, 1987, at the age of 53. That year, Bill Walsh introduced the Hazeltine Iron Man Award, which is given annually to the 49ers most courageous and inspirational defensive player.

-- Gary Lewis went to high school at San Francisco’s Polytechnic High, across the street from Kezar Stadium. He also played running back at City College of San Francisco before finishing his college career at Arizona State.

Lewis was a sixth-round draft pick of the 49ers in 1964. He played six seasons with his hometown team. Lewis was diagnosed with ALS in November of 1986 and died less than a month later. He was 44.

-- Bob Waters played four seasons with the 49ers from 1960 to ’63 as a quarterback and defensive back. He was on the 49ers during training camp in 1964 before going into coaching. Waters threw the first touchdown pass out of coach Red Hickey’s shotgun formation in leading an upset over the two-time defending NFL champion Baltimore Colts in 1960.

Waters served 20 seasons as head football coach at Western Carolina. He devoted the final years of his life trying to find answers to solve this mystery. Waters contacted as many of his former teammates as possible to see if they were experiencing similar problems.

Studies were done that examined the use of DMSO, painkillers and, even, the fertilizer used on the 49ers practice field in Redwood City.

“He led a single-minded, tough, courageous mission to get as much information as possible,” said Dr. Stan Appel, chair of the department of neurology at Houston Methodist, who worked closely with Waters.

“We never quite resolved why there had been three players amongst a small group that developed ALS.”

Waters died on May 29, 1989. He was 50.

Waters’ wife, Sheri, said she was saddened to learn of Clark’s diagnosis.

"I am very sorry to learn about Dwight Clark's ALS diagnosis,” Sheri Waters told NBC Sports Bay Area in a statement. “I know how difficult it will be for Dwight and his family, as they adjust to this news. Bob would be very sad to know that after all his efforts to seek information to help find a cure for this horrible disease, ALS continues to affect these good men.

“I know that Bob died believing that one day there would be no more ALS. I am still so proud of Bob for his courage and willingness to help others. I wish the very best for the Clark family."

While publicly disclosing his condition on March 19, Clark made the following statement:

“I’ve been asked if playing football caused this. I don’t know for sure. But I certainly suspect it did. And I encourage the NFLPA and the NFL to continue working together in their efforts to make the game of football safer, especially as it relates to head trauma.”

Said Dr. Appel, “What Dwight Clark is saying is right on target. Namely, let’s do everything we can to find the causes, to find the therapies that are meaningful for him and for all present and future cases of ALS.”

Former 49ers running back Ken Willard, 73, has not experienced any alarming physical conditions in his post-football life. He cautions against automatically assigning blame to the sport of football.

“Some people try to simplify this issue, but it’s a very complex issue,” Willard said. “I think there’s a lot of research that’s yet to be done. (But) as far as being concerned, I think you’re a fool if you’re not concerned.”

Dr. Appel pointed out there have been studies that claim the incidence of ALS with former football players is four times greater than the general population. But, he said, the data is “far from convincing from a scientific point of view.”

“We know that any sort of trauma can be aggravating in a number of conditions,” Dr. Appel said. “But whether trauma causes it, there is no evidence that trauma causes it, and therefore there is no evidence in football players that trauma will cause ALS.

“Now, there are data that suggests that perhaps once you’re going to get ALS that it can make it worse. And that data is still contested. But I’m a believer that trauma can aggravate ALS, even if it doesn’t start it.”

This edition of the “49ers Insider Podcast” is dedicated to the memories of Gary Lewis, Matt Hazeltine and Bob Waters.

Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in


Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in

The 49ers concluded the first wave of the free-agent signing period with the signings of players to fill the team’s biggest offseason needs.

--Cornerback. Aqib Talib would have been the answer in a trade with the Denver Broncos, but he wanted to play elsewhere. Instead, the 49ers signed veteran Richard Sherman, whom the Seattle Seahawks cut a day earlier.

--Interior offensive line. Center Weston Richburg was the player the team had rated as their top target in free agency, and they signed him to a lucrative five-year deal.

--Running back. The team decided Jerick McKinnon was a better fit than Carlos Hyde. They wrapped him up with a four-year contract.

--Edge rusher. Lacking many options in free agency, the 49ers signed Jeremiah Attaochu to a one-year contract in hopes he will earn a spot on the team and make a contribution at the “Leo” position.

The 49ers can still use more help at a number of different positions, including cornerback, wide receiver, offensive line, linebacker and edge rusher. While the 49ers might add some role players in the second wave of free agency, most of the major acquisitions at this point are likely to come in the draft.

On the 49ers Insider Podcast, 49ers vice president of player personnel Adam Peters addressed what positions he believes are strong in this year’s draft.

“I think running backs, absolutely. It’s a deep position,” Peters said. “Quarterbacks at the top is deeper than it was last year. Secondary, corners, it’s not deeper than it was last year, but it’s a strong class of corners. Those are the main ones. The offensive line class is a little better than last year, too.”

The 49ers got major contributions from their rookie class last season. Tight end George Kittle, receiver Trent Taylor, quarterback C.J. Beathard, running back Matt Breida, defensive lineman Solomom Thomas, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Adrian Colbert each played more than 300 snaps.

The 49ers feel good about Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, as a starter with Sherman on the other side. Peters said a lot of the team’s rookies played larger roles than expected in 2017, but Witherspoon might have been at the top of the list.

“I don’t think he was active for the first four games,” Peters said of Witherspoon. “And he ended up playing at a high level at the end. Really driven, conscientious player who wants to be great. 

"We were lucky we got a chance to play a lot of rookies because that’ll help us moving forward.”

Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense


Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense

The player Kyle Shanahan studied on video was a lot better than the player he saw on the stat sheet.

The 49ers coach said he places a lot more emphasis on how he projects a player in his offense than what the player did with his former team.

And that is why the 49ers placed a large priority on signing former Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnonon the first day of the free-agent signing period. McKinnon comes to the 49ers on a four-year, $30 million contract with $11.7 million guaranteed.

McKinnon's stats might not suggest he is anywhere near a top running back in the NFL, but Shanahan sees it differently. And that is why the 49ers opted to pursue McKinnon instead of Carlos Hyde.

“I don’t know the numbers until I like the guy,” Shanahan said. “I always watch the guy first, and turn on the tape and get lost in it for a while. There were so many things I liked about him, visualizing how we would use him and stuff he would do. And even though there wasn’t a ton of it, you still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. Where he did it, he excelled a ton and was very good at it.

“Eventually, I look at the numbers and it did surprise me. Then you go back and you try to see why. I’m not going to get into all the whys, but I know all the stuff we liked about him, we cut up those numbers. I think they would’ve been good numbers.”

In four NFL seasons as a part-time player, McKinnon (5-9, 205), averaged 4.0 yards per rushing attempt. The past two years, he gained 539 and 570 yards with rushing averages of just 3.4 and 3.8 yards.

Hyde (6-foot, 230) is a bigger back with more production in his career. He rushed for 988 and 938 yards in 2016 and ’17 with averages of 4.6 and 3.9 yards.

Shanahan said he looked at every player who was available, and McKinnon was the player he evaluated to be the best of all the free agents. Shanahan has long valued running backs who are versatile in the run and pass games with an ability to make defenders miss.

“A good run is when you get more yards than what it was blocked for,” Shanahan said. “Sometimes, runs are blocked for negative 1 (yard) and the best run in the game was a 1-yard carry.

“Sometimes the one that most people could do is a 60-yarder because it was a busted coverage or a busted front and nobody was there. Numbers do tell stuff, but it’s never an absolute."

The 49ers signed McKinnon to be the starting running back with Matt Breida likely mixing into the action. The 49ers could also be in the market to add to the competition and depth through the draft.

Shanahan is likely to deploy multiple players, just as he did successfully with Atlanta Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. McKinnon is expected to take Freeman’s role. In each of Shanahan’s two seasons as Falcons offensive coordinator, Freeman accounted for more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage. He rushed for 1,056 and 1,079 yards while catching 578 and 462 yards in passes.

“I’m just excited to be in the offense that I feel is a perfect fit for me,” McKinnon said on Thursday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

“Things that coach Shanahan has done with the backs like he did in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, I see myself doing those kinds of things. For me, I feel like the scheme is right. The fit was just perfect for me. I feel like I can’t be in a better situation as a player.”

Shanahan said he liked McKinnon as a draft prospect in 2014 out of Georgia Southern but it was more difficult to evaluate him because he mostly played quarterback in college.

But in studying McKinnon while with the Vikings, he saw a runner who has speed and elusiveness while also exhibiting the strength to break arm tackles. He set the record at the NFL Scouting Combine for running backs with 32 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press in 2014. But McKinnon's best asset might be his ability to be a factor in the passing game in blitz pickup, while also being a dependable receiver out of the backfield or in the slot.

“When it comes to separating and beating linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, I definitely think he’s an issue for teams,” Shanahan said. “I think this league, when it comes to third downs and things like that, you move the chains based off of matchups, which allows you to get points in the long run. I think Jerick is very versatile and we can do a lot of things with him.

“He’s good enough to make it as a runner alone in this league. He’s good enough to make it in the pass game as just a third down threat alone, but when you can do both of those, it gives you a lot of freedom as a coach.”