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 restaurant reservation at Casey's. 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.