Eddie DeBartolo

How Dwight Clark's idea for 'Letters to 87' caught on with 49ers fans

How Dwight Clark's idea for 'Letters to 87' caught on with 49ers fans

Dwight Clark considered it a shared experience.

He came down with the most improbable, important and well-timed pass reception in 49ers history, but the impact of the play was more than he could have ever imagined.

The story of the NFL would be incomplete without a large section devoted to “The Catch.” But Clark always seemed to feel he was not alone as he leaped and fully extended his 6-foot-4 frame to make a finger-tips grab of Joe Montana’s pass on Jan. 10, 1982.

And, sure enough, the story of many lives would be incomplete without mention of Dwight Clark, too.

“The way he connected with the fans, personally, really brought them together,” Montana said. “Once you met Dwight, it was hard not to like him. His personality was fun, upbeat and jovial -- always.”

Through the years, Clark enjoyed hearing the perspectives and stories of fans -- many of whom had not yet been born when the 49ers beat the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game and went on to the organization’s first Super Bowl.

As Clark battled ALS, he made a request during the final interview of his life.

“I’ve often thought if I could get the word out somehow to get the stories, I should put a book together of the stories that these 49ers fans lived through at that moment,” Clark said on The 49ers Insider Podcast on Feb. 27. “Hopefully, long after I’m gone, 49ers fans will still enjoy that play and that year, that team that started it all off.”

The word got out that Clark wished to receive letters from the public, and his fans did not disappoint. The letters poured in. Some were hilarious. Some were emotionally moving. Some recounted the personal experiences of that day. Others described the wide-ranging impact that Clark’s play had on a life, a family.

Each of the letters conveyed a sense of love and appreciation for Clark as a player but, mostly, as an individual.

Clark died on June 4, 2018. Two weeks earlier, a group of friends visited him at his ranch in Whitefish, Montana. The group sat around Clark’s bed and read letters to him for nearly two hours.

“Letters to 87,” a documentary that explores 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).

“He really seemed to understand from a fan’s perspective how it felt, what it was,” former 49ers teammate Keena Turner said. “And he seemed to really want the fans to walk away feeling good about the interaction in the moment.

“He felt a genuine love that came, and he wanted to reciprocate. He wanted the fan to understand that it was a shared feeling.”

The impact of listening to the letters was something Clark carried with him. Former 49ers owner and close friend Edward J. DeBartolo Jr. was not in the room that day, but he heard plenty about it from Clark himself.

“He was thrilled,” DeBartolo said. “Getting the letters made him very, very happy. He was sick, but he was just thrilled to know he wasn’t forgotten.”

Ronnie Lott was among the people in Clark’s bedroom on Sunday, May 20, when the letters were read to Clark.

“When he wanted fans to express their feelings, he was trying to capture the same feeling that he had when he did it and how did they feel?” Lott said. “Were they as excited as he was?

“When fans write their letters, there’s a spirit there. There’s a connection. That connection was something we can take for granted.”

DeBartolo seeks information surrounding 49ers' old Redwood City practice field

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AP

DeBartolo seeks information surrounding 49ers' old Redwood City practice field

Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo knows all about the history of the organization.

And he recognizes how the stories of Matt Hazeltine, Gary Lewis and Bob Waters relate to the battle Dwight Clark is currently waging against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Hazeltine, Lewis and Waters were 49ers teammates in the 1960s. Twenty years after they played together, they were each diagnosed with ALS within a short period of time. Lewis died in December 1986. Hazeltine passed away in January 1987. Waters died in May 1989.

DeBartolo told NBC Sports Bay Area last week he plans to commission a study to see if there is a higher incidence of ALS within in a one- or two-mile radius of the 49ers’ old team headquarters, where all four men practiced during their careers with the 49ers.

“I have a strange feeling that there have been more cases of ALS outside of that Redwood City facility than we know about,” DeBartolo said. “I’m not even talking about players. I’m talking about civilians who lived in that area.”

The 49ers practiced at 711 Nevada Street in Redwood City from the early 1950s until the team moved into its Santa Clara headquarters in 1988. Clark’s nine-year NFL playing career ended in 1987.

In observance of ALS Awareness Month, NBC Sports Bay Area on Tuesday re-released the podcast, “One of the Great Mysteries: The Story of Three 49ers Diagnosed with ALS.” The podcast first aired last year.

Waters devoted the final years of his life trying to find answers. He contacted as many of his former teammates as possible in hopes of detecting a pattern. The fertilizer used on the practice field was one of many potential causes of the disease that was widely speculated.

“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. He worked closely with Waters following his ALS diagnosis.

“We never quite resolved why there had been three players amongst a small group that developed ALS."

But DeBartolo’s curiosity has nothing to do with the condition of the practice fields at Redwood City. After all, ALS is a disease without a known cause or cure.

”You can test the field, but what are you going to find? Nobody knows what causes ALS,” DeBartolo said.

Dr. Appel said there is no evidence head trauma causes ALS. But he said he believes repeated hits to the head can "aggravate ALS, even if it doesn't start it."

Clark, who sustained three severe concussions in his NFL career, recently told NBC Sports Bay Area he believes playing football caused ALS.

“I’m not a scientist or a doctor, but I don’t know how it could not have some affect with all these guys who have it,” Clark said.

Sheri Waters expressed disappointment on behalf of her late husband, Bob, that there has not been more progress made in ALS research in the nearly 30 years since his death. She provided the following poignant words for the podcast:

”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."

From The Catch to The Barn, DeBartolo throws two-day dream for Dwight Clark and 'family'

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Brad Mangin

From The Catch to The Barn, DeBartolo throws two-day dream for Dwight Clark and 'family'

Editor's note: In late February, Matt Maiocco caught up with Dwight Clark for a two-part podcast. You can listen to Part 1 right here and Part 2 right here.

***

They walked around an 8,000-foot building known as “The Barn,” mesmerized by the photos and mementos on the walls and ceiling.

Eddie DeBartolo had this structure on his ranch in White Fish, Montana, converted to its current form many years ago. It stands as a personal museum – a tribute to his years of 49ers ownership that produced five Super Bowl championships.

The men moved slowly around the perimeter of the building, staring at the signed photos and other memorabilia. They were transported back to a time when they worked together for the goal of winning football games. DeBartolo will tell you those were special times with special men.

And something else is going on now that makes DeBartolo every bit as proud as watching his team outwork, outsmart and dominate opponents on the field.

It is all centered on Dwight Clark, whose steady hands produced “The Catch” against the Dallas Cowboys and, two weeks later, snatched a fluttering onside kick out of the air in the final seconds to secure the 49ers’ first Super Bowl title.

“You name me one NFL team that can go back for 40 years and have the enormous amount of players who’ve stuck together through thick and thin, through good times and through the horrible times like Dwight is going through,” DeBartolo said this week. “You can’t do it. We had something that was special, and it will not be repeated.

“We did it in 1977, and it’s still going on 40 years later. And these guys from those teams, and throughout that period of time and those decades, we’re just family.”

It has been more than 20 years since DeBartolo stepped down from controlling the 49ers and ultimately transferred ownership to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York. But DeBartolo, now a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, remains an active part of his former players’ lives.

The team is still working together, but the goals and motivation have changed as the players have gotten older and many have dealt with life’s struggles. On April 22 and 23, DeBartolo provided transportation from all parts of the country and hosted 25 former players and staff members in Montana for a celebration of Dwight Clark. DeBartolo covered every expense, bought every drink.

Clark, 61, and his wife, Kelly, recently moved from Capitola on the California coast to Big Sky Country, 15 minutes away from DeBartolo’s ranch. Clark continues to battle amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – a disease without a cure.

“It’s beautiful here,” Clark said over the phone. “It’s so peaceful.”

There was not much peace and quiet for those two days, however. There were plenty of drinks, stories and raucous laughter.

“I wish I could tell you there was just one highlight,” Garrison Hearst said. “But you have Charles Haley out there, so there are a bunch of things that are going to happen.”

Conspiracy theorists are already trying to connect the dots on exactly how Haley – of all people – was the one who crumpled to the ground after a stool on which he tried to sit inexplicably collapsed under his weight. Even rock star Huey Lewis, drink in hand, was curious, moving in for a closer look while Haley was on the ground amid a cacophony of laughter and taunts.

To everyone except for Haley, it was a light-hearted moment that makes gatherings like this even more special and memorable.

“Two days with that group is powerful stuff,” said assistant coach Paul Hackett, who developed a special bond with Clark during three seasons as his position coach.

“That’s Dwight. Football has brought all of us together. He had talent, but what he got out of himself inspired everybody else. You had Charles Haley there and Ronnie Lott there. He affected everybody, and now we’re going to be there for him. And Eddie DeBartolo is the point of everything going on.”


(Photo via Brad Mangin)

There were also more than a few tears shed as the men watched a 43-minute NFL Films piece created for the occasion, “The Gift of Grab: The Dwight Clark Story.” The film chronicles the rise of a seldom-used receiver at Clemson to becoming a favorite of Bill Walsh. Clark does not try to avoid confronting his fight with ALS, and the film tackles that subject matter in the same up-front manner, too.

The group met Sunday, April 22, for dinner at the Lodge at Whitefish Lake. Clark, while still astonished that so many people would come to this remote location just to see him, was especially surprised when he saw one particular long-time friend. He also gave the film of his football life a big thumbs-up.

“Huey shocked me.” Clark said. “I didn’t think he was going to be there. I hadn’t seen that tape, either. They did a great job with that. That was typical Eddie D. He always does everything the best.”

These two days were a manifestation of the culture DeBartolo instilled with the 49ers. It was not just a football team. It was not merely an organization. He took pride in transforming the business into a family. Walsh, John McVay and Carmen Policy helped him create that culture, he said.

Clark has good days and bad days as he tries to manage the progressive neurodegenerative disease. The two days in April were good days – great days – for him and everyone who attended.

Clark has always been quick to point out that “The Catch” would be just a footnote in 49ers history if it had not been for the defensive stop that followed. Lawrence Pillers forced the fumble of Cowboys quarterback Danny White as they were nearing field-goal range.

Pillers, who now lives in Jackson, Mississippi, admits it used to bother him that he was not given a lot of credit for the play. So it means so much to him that Clark will single him out for the game-clinching strip sack he made on that day, Jan. 10, 1982.

“It builds up my self-esteem and brings back memories of the camaraderie, the love we have for each other, the way we look after each other, the way we pull together as a team and as a unit,” Pillers said.

“Dwight will always say something to me. The last time I was there, I walked over and hugged him, and he said, ‘Lawrence, my catch wouldn’t have meant anything if you hadn’t hit the quarterback and made him fumble.’ I said, ‘Thank you, my brother. I love you.’ ”

Clark has spent most of the past year catching up with important individuals from his past. He attended weekly lunches through the fall and winter near his former home in Capitola. There will be smaller groups who will visit him monthly at this new home.

“It’s always good to see those guys because we’ve been through so much,” Clark said. “We had a lot of laughs and told a bunch of lies about how good we were. I had a good time. It was a small enough group that I got to visit with everybody over the two days.”


(Photo via Brad Mangin)

DeBartolo visited Clark again this week before returning to Florida. He will be back in Montana later this month and plans on being there until the beginning of October, he said.

“It really was a tough weekend, but it was great for Dwight,” DeBartolo said. “It was great for the players who were there. It was like the old days. Everybody just had a great time. Dwight fit right into everything. He was happy.”

The bigger message to Clark and his wife are that they are not fighting this battle alone.

“Family is the one thing you can count on, and that’s the way it feels with this organization,” Hearst said. “You’re sitting around with a bunch of guys who fought for the same thing. And now you’re out there fighting for a guy who is part of the family. It’s easy to fight for Dwight because he’s family.”

Clark was not considered a legitimate prospect for professional football until Walsh discovered him while working out Clemson quarterback Steve Fuller, his roommate, before the 1979 draft.

In the four decades that have passed, Clark made a franchise-changing play, had an exceptional nine-year career, had his No. 87 retired, continued to establish bonds as a team executive, and has received immeasurable support from DeBartolo and others connected with the 49ers in his time of need.

“I got lucky to get drafted by the 49ers,” Clark said this week.

After the two days of celebrations -- culminating with a group photo under the goal posts from Candlestick Park that now stand on DeBartolo’s property – all the attendees returned to their homes with a mixture of emotions and a same sense of the good fortune that connects them.

“When you leave, you have this great sense of sorrow, but you also have this exhilaration of how incredible this whole experience was for all of us,” Hackett said. “This man, alongside Eddie, is at the heart of it all. I’m so fired up at the same time I’m feeling so badly.”

Clark is mostly confined to a wheelchair and his voice is a bit weaker these days. Still, when he addressed the group at the end of both nights, there was no way he was going to do it sitting down. These were powerful moments that resonated with everyone in attendance. And for rare times over those two days, the room fell silent.

“Just to see the fight in him to stand and say something to the guys, how can you not love that?” Hearst said. “He stood up to tell everyone, ‘Thank you for coming out.’

“If you know Dwight, you know Hercules.”