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).
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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.
EDITOR'S NOTE: “Letters to 87,” a documentary that explores Dwight Clark’s unique bond with his fans, will premiere commercial-free on NBC Sports Bay Area on Tuesday, Aug. 21, at approximately 8 p.m. (following Giants Postgame Live).
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The words of 17 fans are heard in the 27-minute documentary “Letters to 87.”
In all, nearly 150 letters were taken to Dwight Clark at his ranch in Whitefish, Montana, just two weeks before he died of ALS.
The sentiments expressed to Clark ran the gamut of experiences and emotions.
Here is just a sampling of the letters Clark heard when a group of close friends sat around his bed on May 20 and read what his fans sent for him:
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I was 9 years old. My friends and I gave up and went outside to toss the football around. My memory is vivid of my mom coming out to the front porch to tell us the Niners had scored a touchdown.
While none of us imagined how iconic "The Catch" would become, it did immediately teach me a lesson. And that lesson? Never give up and continue fighting. You have continued to teach myself and others this lesson.
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We moved to So Cal in ‘79 from No Cal. Back then there were no highlights or Internet. We’d looked at the stats, but there were no pictures attached. Truth be told, until ‘80 due to no TV coverage in SoCal, we thought the Dwight Clark who was making these catches in the stats was a “speedy lil black receiver from Clemson.” True story.
During the NFC Championship game, our cable kept going on and off. So we scrambled and had a TV with rabbit ears in the living room. The game would go out. We’d sprint to the rabbit ears. It would come back. We’d sprint back. When you caught the ball, white stuff was raining down on me. It was the popcorn ceiling stuff that I hit when I jumped up in jubilation.
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We watched the 49ers march to our end of the stadium. Everyone was on their feet and the place was rocking. When you caught that ball, the old place shook. The roar was incredible. My friend, Charlie, leaped on me and we both tumbled down a few of the walkway stairs. That was the happiest we’d ever been as fans. Once the final seconds ticked off, it was bedlam.
We’ve kept our tickets all these years. My daughter, son-in-law and our two grandsons use the tickets most games. Both of our daughters turned out to be Niners fans. The grandsons are big fans, and "The Catch" had a big influence on cementing that relationship.
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I was watching the game with my wife Jan, father-in-law Bill, who went to a lot of games at Kezar, my mother-in-law Bea and my wife’s grandmother, 79-year-old Nan. We were all diehards.
Nan knew nothing about football. She just enjoyed being around people and was a great lover of brandy and water. As you can imagine, we were extremely nervous throughout the entire game. Hell, the entire week before.
When you caught that ball, Dwight, it was pandemonium. My father-in-law actually ran into the street yelling, “We won!” Of course, Jan and I were jumping all over the place. My mother in law was stunned. And Nan . . . remember, she was 79. She came out of the chair and actually jumped a few inches off the floor. We talked about that day for years.
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I was old enough to remember Dallas ended every previous 49ers chance at a Super Bowl. I was also conditioned to believe that championships happened for fans of other teams in other cities. Not San Francisco. And then Montana rolled right. And you climbed high into the sky. And you came down with the ball. We went crazy! We shouted from the balcony. We hugged and jumped and screamed some more. I remember it still. . . like it was yesterday.
Lincoln, Rhode Island
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Oh, man, it was a huge game. I was with all my buds, watching the game in Santa Clara. My father, Eddie Forrest, was on the original 49ers team in 1946. As you can imagine, my blue blood made me the most popular one at the party.
There we were, packed in this room like sardines. When you made "The Catch," it was like a bomb went off.
My good friend, Pierce, was the first to hit the floor. Then, the darndest thing happened. Every single one of us, at least 30 people, jumped onto the pile. We were like college kids stuffing a telephone booth. I don’t think it unraveled in time to watch the end of the game.
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My dad lived in San Jose and was neighbors with Leo Nomellini and some other 49ers, and I grew up a 49er fan from a young age. I am 63 now and 2 weeks ago gave a speech at my dad's celebration of life gathering, as he recently passed away. He was 93, and some of the best memories I have of him involve our sports time together. "The Catch" was definitely one of the best sports and life memories that we had.
These memories are priceless and will live forever in our hearts. Thank you for being a part of our lives.
Jean Paul Martinet
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Words cannot express how much you have meant in my life. You occupy a place in my heart that is reserved for childhood heroes that exceed your expectations in real life. These are the people that, when you meet them and get to know them, you find out that they are more than you ever dreamed possible. That is what you are to me. You are a Superhero, one that will occupy a place in my heart forever.
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I was sitting on my pillow couch and when you caught the ball from Joe, I leaped up, hitting the hanging lamp above me along with shorting out all the power to our house. There was obviously time left in the game, so I had to scramble into our basement to find another fuse and we were able to barely watch the exciting finish.
Keith Van Dyke
Cottage Grove, Oregon
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When Joe threw that ball to you and you made THE CATCH, my dad, who grew up in The City and suffered through bad seasons and previous heartbreaks to the Cowboys, was so happy and excited, he jumped up!
But when he did, he jumped up, went backwards and wound up knocking himself out. He had friends over at our house and was watching in one room while I was watching the game in another room with my mom. My dad told me that his friends helped him regain consciousness. He came up to the room where my mom and I were, and he had a big smile on his face.
Brazell Carter II
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I was only 7 years old in 1982. I lived in the same small town that I still live in today. My parents weren’t football fans. My friends weren’t football fans. My extended family weren’t particularly football fans, either, except one – my grandfather.
I don’t think I ever asked who he considered his team in any sport. I knew my grandfather watched for the sport, but I do remember asking one time who he thought would win a particular game we were watching and he said, “49ers.” So that was my team from then on.
I don’t remember knowing it was the NFC Championship game. But I knew I wanted to watch that game. It’s the first memory I have of feeling like I understood what was happening on the field. I felt the intensity of the game and the excitement of “The Catch.”
To me, “The Catch” wasn’t about watching my team win. It defines the moment I started to become the fan I am today. Thanks to my grandfather, and the excitement of the 49ers’ 1981 team, I am a fan for life. And, from the looks of it, my kids are following right behind me!