49ers

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

dwight-clark-ecu.jpg
AP

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.

Jed York has full trust in John Lynch, Kyle Shanahan despite two losing seasons

Jed York has full trust in John Lynch, Kyle Shanahan despite two losing seasons

PHOENIX – Jed York “mutually parted ways” with Jim Harbaugh after the 2014 season to begin a string of three consecutive years in which the 49ers fired their head coach.

He canned Jim Tomsula after the 2015 season, during which the 49ers won five games.

York went back to work just 12 months later. He pulled the plug on Chip Kelly’s tenure with the 49ers after a 2-14 season as part of an organizational overhaul that included the firing of general manager Trent Baalke.

Yet, things are a lot different after two losing seasons with coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch in charge.

York is actually showing some patience.

Since York signed Shanahan and Lynch to six-year contracts in 2017, the 49ers have won just 10 games. But instead of being on the hot seat after two seasons, Shanahan and Lynch have earned even more confidence from York.

“And I wanted to send the message to them and send the message to our fans, send the message to our players on the roster and potential free agents going forward that these guys,” York said of the six-year contracts.

“We’re probably not going to get it all right in the first year, first two years, but this is something we’re going to try to build and I believe we have a very good foundation. I think the future is bright for us.”

Does York feel as good about Shanahan and Lynch now as he did the day he hired them?

“I feel even better,” York said Sunday at the NFL owners meeting.

York said he has confidence that his coach and GM will continue to work in unison to build the 49ers into a contender. He said his trust in them is borne from watching them work together to formulate their plans for free agency and the draft.

After the 2016 season, York set forth to put together a team in which there was cohesion between the head coach and general manager. The previous coach-GM tandems were often at odds.

Two rough seasons later, York is not disappointed with the Lynch-Shanahan union. He said he is pleased with the chemistry that has been formed.

“I see that in spades,” he said. “It’s just awesome to watch those guys work together.”

York said he was willing to show more patience with Shanahan and Lynch because of the decimated roster they inherited and the realization that there would be a learning period as neither man had previous experience in his respective role.

“You don’t know what you don’t know when you’re in those positions,” York said. “And I think it’s been interesting to watch these guys really come together and show they’re a stronger bond today than what they were two years ago and it’s only getting stronger.”

[RELATED: 49ers were aggressive in pursuit of Odell Beckham Jr.]

York has not exactly exhibited patience during his time calling the shots with the 49ers. But he said something is different with Lynch and Shanahan.

“I have a lot of patience with these guys,” York said. “I think there are reasons we’ve had the records we’ve had the last two years. And I feel very, very good about the team those guys are putting together.”

Jimmy Garoppolo's offseason plan has included rehab, recruiting free agents

Jimmy Garoppolo's offseason plan has included rehab, recruiting free agents

PHOENIX — Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is embracing his role as the leader of the franchise as he looks toward the start of the 2019 season.

49ers CEO Jed York spoke at the NFL owners meeting about Garoppolo like a proud parent.

He has been keeping an eye on his quarterback’s rehab and reports that he sees Garoppolo developing into a true leader. He said the two of them chat regularly.

“I’m not going over film with Jimmy,” York said, “so I don’t think we have to worry about anything from that standpoint. I see Jimmy, whether it’s in the lunch room or if I’m down in the training room or if we’re working out.”

Garoppolo has been working out with 20 to 25 teammates at the club's Santa Clara facility, York said. He is not allowed to throw passes to teammates at the team's training complex, a team spokesman said. Garoppolo has future workouts with his teammates scheduled for the Los Angeles area.

“It’s great to see that,” York said. “The team is really, really jelling and watching them come together as a unit, that’s what you need. It’s not a collection of individuals. It’s a team.”

Garoppolo’s involvement doesn't stop there, though. 

He was very active during free agency, playing the role of recruiter by calling some players the 49ers were interested in.

“I know he called the guys who we were interested in on the first day or so of free agency and expressed his interest in getting guys here,” York said. “I’m fairly certain that he called Kwon (Alexander) during that negotiating window when you can start talking to people.”

York explained that this is a new aspect of Garoppolo’s role as the face of the franchise.

“Those are things that he wants to do,” York said. “That’s where it’s different when you come in and you’ve been a backup, now being the guy. It’s hard when you’re the guy, you’re the highest-paid player, but you’re not playing for (the) team.”

Obviously, York would have preferred to have Garoppolo on the field for the entire season in 2018, but he sees the positives that came from Garoppolo's season-ending knee injury.

“I think he was able to learn a lot of the cerebral things,” York said, “and a lot of the things that come with that leadership position over the last year, which really excites me for him going forward.”

[RELATED: 49ers were aggressive in pursuing Odell Beckham Jr.]

York said Garoppolo is ahead of schedule on his path back to the football field after sustaining a torn ACL in Week 3 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Garoppolo looks as if he has added some muscle to his frame while going through his daily rehab, York said.

“He’s just grinding every single day to get better personally and to get better as a team and understanding how important it is to do those things as a team leader,” York said.