SANTA CLARA -- The obvious truth is that history is for the old and the present is for the young because it will someday become their history, and their next generation won’t want it. It’s the hamster wheel of life -- you go as fast as you can and realize at the end you’re right where you began, and your kids get their own wheel and their own history.
But there are times when history transcends birthdates, and those are usually in times when the present sucks. When that happens, the good old days really are, no matter your age or cultural position.
Which is how Dwight Clark became an icon, and now a statue fit for unveiling. The San Francisco 49ers, whom he helped make as a brand and an artistic force, are at one of their occasional and profound competitive ebbs, which means that, just as 1981, he comes along at just the right time.
Clark died this year, believing that the thing that made him an icon was the instigator of his death. But whatever bitterness he may have harbored in unguarded moments remained his and his alone, so he entered the next realm of his fame as unsullied as he lived the last one.
So when his statue commemorating The Catch is unveiled Sunday, the young can forget being 1-5, looking at not only a likely defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Rams, but one of the worst seasons in franchise history. The old can remember the likeliest reason why they and their children bothered to care about the 49ers to begin with.
The story of The Catch has been told a million times by 500,000 voices, and Clark’s story almost as often and by almost as many people. But one thing bears repeating as many times as there will ever be – he changed this franchise.
[WATCH: Letters to 87 -- a special tribute to 49ers legend Dwight Clark]
If he can’t jump high enough, or if Everson Walls can, or if Too Tall Jones tips Joe Montana’s pass, or if Montana overcompensates for Jones’ malevolent presence, the 49ers lose yet another playoff game to the Dallas Cowboys, the first Super Bowl appearance is delayed, and maybe 1984 doesn’t happen at all. Maybe Bill Walsh decides in one of his bouts in melancholy-driven frustration to remake the roster to figure out a different way to beat the Cowboys.
There are an infinite number of parallel universes, and in more of them than not, Clark is not delivering The Catch.
But in this plane of reality, none of those things happen, and Clark does jump higher than he has any business doing. The 49ers go on to beat Cincinnati in the first true wintry Super Bowl, proceed from there to own an entire decade of the National Football League and are defined differently from that moment forward.
His statue sits in front of a stadium he helped build, two decades before he even knew he could, and baby boomers and millennials share what interest they have in this football team because of him.
Not only because of him, of course. As with every play in the history of the sport, everything had to be just so. Even the most minute planning, Walsh’s calling card as a coach, was subject to last-second improvisations. Everyone who contributed The Catch gets their share, and their stories.
But as mythmaking must always be reduced for easy-to-digest portions, the story is still going to be distilled down to Dwight Clark, and history is typically the end product of that distillation, in the same way that people remember the beer rather than the hops.
So Sunday is about history, made in one generation for the ones that follow. The present-day 49ers are rendered into as a sidepiece on a day when yesterday is more important than today because without yesterday, today probably does not even exist in its current form.
You know, like the difference between devoting your leisure time to a five-time Super Bowl winner rather than the Detroit Lions.