49ers

49ers reissue Bryant Young's number

49ers reissue Bryant Young's number

SANTA CLARA -- For the first time since Bryant Young retired following the 2007 season, the 49ers have placed his old number back into service.

Linebacker Dekoda Watson was issued No. 97 for the team’s organized team activities this week.

Young was a four-time Pro Bowl selection and eight-time winner of the Len Eshmont Award as the 49ers’ most inspirational and courageous player. No 49ers player has worn No. 97 in the past nine seasons or offseasons.

Rookie defensive lineman Solomon Thomas is now wearing No. 94 after being issued No. 96 for the rookie minicamp. Linebacker Reuben Foster is wearing No. 56.

Rookie defensive tackle D.J. Jones now wearing No. 96. Cornerback Rashard Robinson switched back to No. 33 after an earlier change to No. 26. Running back Kapri Bibbs is now 26. Rookie running back Joe Williams is No. 32 after wearing No. 33 at the NFLPA Rookie Premiere in Los Angeles over the weekend. Veteran running back Tim Hightower is wearing No. 22.

The 'special' story of how Dwight Clark took a piece of 'The Catch' with him

The 'special' story of how Dwight Clark took a piece of 'The Catch' with him

Dwight Clark’s March 2017 announcement of his ALS diagnosis was devastating news to the Foley family on multiple levels.

So when Matt Foley heard Clark’s wish to receive letters from his fans, he felt he could provide him with a unique memento of “The Catch,” which powered the 49ers to their first Super Bowl.

Like all 49ers fans, the Foleys held Clark in the highest esteem. They felt shock and sadness that the man who authored the greatest play in franchise history was stricken with a deadly disease for which there is no known cure.

But the impact might have been even more disheartening for the Foleys because of the family’s cruel history with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Eight family members have died from ALS from 1968 to 2012.

“ALS is something that’s personal to our family,” said Matt Foley, 41, of San Rafael.

Foley lost both grandfathers (Walt Mishork, 42; Lawrence Foley, 81), three uncles (Jeffrey Mishork, 34; Jimmy Mishork, 49; Johnny Mishork, 55), one aunt (Marilyn Silva, 51) and two first cousins (Megan Mishork, 27; Tim Silva, 34) to the progressive neurodegenerative disease.

His parents, Don and Margy Foley of Sonoma, watched the NFC Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys in January 1982 from their eastside seats at Candlestick Park. Afterward, as fans were allowed to do, they emptied onto the field to exit through the northeast tunnel and into the parking lot.

“On his way out, and through his euphoria, my dad ran to the spot where you leaped into the air and landed, and grabbed the biggest piece of turf that he could,” Foley wrote in his letter to Clark.

“He kept it for more than three decades, and at Christmas a few years ago, he gifted me a bag of the turf . . . Today, for the first time ever, I have opened that bag of Candlestick grass and have re-packaged some of that turf for you.”

That letter was the final one read to Clark in his bedroom on May 20, when a group of close friends, including Ronnie Lott and Keena Turner, sat in chairs around him to serve as the voices of those letters from the fans.

Turner read the final portion of Foley’s letter:

“My dad is now 82, and when I told him that I would have the chance to share the turf with you, he cried. That’s how much ‘The Catch’ and the 49ers meant to him and my family.”

Turner then opened the envelope to remove a zip-lock bag that contained a piece of turf. The red paint from the end zone was still visible. Turner placed the swath of history in the hands of an awestruck Clark.

“It was special,” Turner said. “We all felt it. What came across was how special he was to that family and how important it was for them to give that moment back.

“You could hear it in Dwight’s voice and with his reaction that he felt it.”

When Turner prematurely reached for the turf in Clark’s hands to put it back in the envelope, a big smile came across his face.

“Hey, give that back to me,” Clark said.

In the short time he became aware of the turf and saw it up close, Clark already had made a powerful and poignant decision.

“I’m taking that with me,” Clark said. “I’m taking a piece of ‘The Catch’ with me.”

Said Turner: “To hear him say he wanted to take it with him, to take a part of the moment with him, to take a part of all of these stories with him, to take a part of all of the fans and all of us who were part of it at the time with him. . . . I was just so amazed after all these years that all that interaction was so special to him.”

When former 49ers owner and close friend Eddie DeBartolo visited later that week, Clark told him how much that piece of sod from the spot of “The Catch” meant to him.

“It moved him,” DeBartolo said. “It moved him a lot to have somebody be that much of a fan and for that to have meant so much to the father, the son and the family. I think it just kind of sunk in.”

Clark’s close friend, Rick Winters, stood in the back of the room as the letters were being read. Clark passed away on June 4. He was 61. And Winters made sure the connection between Clark and his fans was complete.

“That turf represented how much he touched the lives of so many people, even those he’d never met,” Winters said. “So for them to bring that back around full circle to him was a gift he absolutely cherished.

“Dwight had such huge hands, but it rested there just as softly as any football. You could tell it just seemed perfect. It seemed perfect that he would take that with him. That’s the last time I saw him.”

Kelly Clark gave some of her husband’s ashes to DeBartolo. He commissioned a memorial to Clark near the old Candlestick north goalpost on his Montana ranch in the precise location where Clark would have made “The Catch.”

Some of his ashes, along with that piece of Candlestick turf, were placed at the site.

It is a tribute to the man who turned the fortunes of the 49ers franchise.

And it also serves as a reminder of the mutual admiration between Dwight Clark and the fans – the ones he impacted along the way and those who lifted him when he needed it most.

Heartfelt letters lifted Dwight Clark's spirit on a bad day

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Brad Mangin

Heartfelt letters lifted Dwight Clark's spirit on a bad day

EDITOR'S NOTE: “Letters to 87,” a documentary that explores the unique bond between Dwight Clark and his fans, will premiere commercial-free on NBC Sports Bay Area on Tuesday, Aug. 21, at approximately 8 p.m. (following Giants Postgame Live).

* * *

A group of friends was scheduled to have lunch in Whitefish, Montana, with the man they traveled to see that day.

But Dwight Clark was not feeling well enough to join his visitors to dine at the popular Central Avenue restaurant at which they planned to meet. He was growing increasingly weak as his ALS symptoms were rapidly worsening. Clark would be spending that entire day in bed.

The group was encouraged to keep the noon reservation. Then, everyone was invited to head out to the ranch where Dwight and his wife, Kelly, had lived for a couple months since their move from Capitola.

Before the move, Clark expressed his desire to hear from fans as he faced an unimaginably difficult road ahead against an untreatable, deadly disease.

Clark created the most important play in San Francisco sports history with his leaping 6-yard touchdown catch of a Joe Montana pass in the NFC Championship game in January 1982.

“The Catch,” as it quickly became known, lifted the 49ers to their first Super Bowl. Clark loved to hear stories about how that play, that team, that season, was remembered. And this was the day some of those letters would be read to him.

“He was really excited about that day because of the letters that were going to be read from his fans,” said Rick Winters, a former Navy SEAL and close friend who helped Kelly care for Dwight as his ALS symptoms worsened.

“The day came and it was a rough morning. He was struggling a lot, having a hard time catching his breath and speaking.”

Former teammates Ronnie Lott and Keena Turner were there that day, just as they were a month earlier when former 49ers owner Edward J. DeBartolo Jr. held a two-day party in Clark’s honor. Clark’s property is just a 15-minute drive from the 800-acre ranch DeBartolo has owned for decades.

Clark tried to carry the conversation as much as he could for more than an hour. Then, it was clear he needed a break. It was his turn to just sit back and listen. He asked to hear letters.

Former NFL executive Lal Heneghan and KNBR radio host Brian Murphy were among those who joined Lott and Turner in reading the letters to Clark.

“What I saw that day was how much people cared about the letters and the spirit of the letters and who they were representing,” Lott said. “To me, that’s what was so powerful about what we were all trying to accomplish. What Dwight felt was something that a lot of times you don’t necessarily get a chance to appreciate.

“The letters were amazing and powerful and loving, and it was heartfelt. Those are people giving their gesture of appreciation. You’re reading somebody’s work, you’re articulating somebody’s heart, and that’s what makes it so special.”

Some of the first letters were punctuated with colorful language that elicited laughter, most notably, from Clark. The room would fill with laughter.

“You could see the color change in his face,” Winters said. “The smile was back.”

Over the course of the next 90 minutes, Clark was fully engaged and soaked in every syllable that was read to him. There were tears from laughter. And there were tears from raw emotion.

“There were things that people said you were like, ‘That’s good; that’s really good,’ ” Lott said. “And you had things that people said that you went, ‘Wow,’ and it took the breath out of you. And there were moments that you wanted to feel like you had to cry because somebody, it impacted their life more than just being a game.”

Turner had seen this before during his attendance at many Tuesday lunches in Capitola. Clark might have been experiencing a difficult day, but he always seemed to find strength in his interaction with friends.

“He was listening to the letters and you could see that he was participating in the moment,” Turner said. “It was always amazing to me that after such tough mornings he could be so engaged and participate in the moment. It was something I’ll always remember.”

Said Lott, “It got all of us in that room that day just how lucky we were to have a chance to be around it.”

Clark died just two weeks later on June 4. He was 61.