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.