Dwight Clark, whose dramatic catch near the end of the 1981 NFC Championship Game helped transform the San Francisco 49ers into an NFL dynasty, died Monday from complications associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He was 61.
Clark’s leaping reception came to be known simply as “The Catch,” and gave the 49ers the go-ahead score in a 28-27 win over the Dallas Cowboys. Two weeks later, the 49ers won the first of three Super Bowl titles under Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh.
Clark’s death was announced Monday on Twitter by his wife, Kelly.
“I’m heartbroken to tell you that today I lost my best friend and husband,” she wrote on Dwight’s Twitter account. “He passed peacefully surrounded by many of the people he loved most. I am thankful for all of Dwight’s friends, teammates and 49ers fans who have sent their love during his battle with ALS. Kelly Clark.”
In 2015, Clark was diagnosed with ALS — also called Lou Gehrig’s disease after the former Yankees’ star died of the disease — after he began experiencing symptoms. Only those closest to him knew he was suffering from the disease until he made a public announcement about his condition on March 19, 2017.
“While I’m still trying to wrap my head around the challenge I will face with this disease over the coming years, the only thing I know is that I’m going to fight like hell and live every day to the fullest,” he wrote in a statement.
Clark was honored last October at Levi’s Stadium on “Dwight Clark Day,” and he addressed the crowd at halftime of a game against the Cowboys. It was a fitting opponent, with Clark having made his most famous play as an NFL player against Dallas. With Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana scrambling toward the right sideline and facing a heavy pass rush, he found Clark near the back of the end zone and threw a high pass that only Clark could reach. He leapt over cornerback Everson Walls to make the catch. The 49ers then held on for the win and went on to become one of the greatest teams in NFL history.
“My heart is broken,” former 49ers owner Ed DeBartolo said Monday in a statement. “I lost my little brother and one of my best friends. I cannot put into words how special Dwight was to me and to everyone his life touched. He was an amazing husband, father, grandfather, brother and a great friend and teammate. He showed tremendous courage and dignity in his battle with ALS and we hope there will soon be a cure for this horrendous disease.”
DeBartolo said he “will always remember Dwight the way he was — larger than life, handsome, charismatic and the only one who could pull off wearing a fur coat at our Super Bowl parade. He was responsible for one of the most iconic plays in NFL history that began our run of Super Bowl championships, but to me, he will always be an extension of my family. I love him and will miss him terribly. Our hearts and prayers are with his wife Kelly, his children and the entire Clark family.”
Clark was an unlikely star for the 49ers. After growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, he played at Clemson University and had just 33 catches for 571 yards and three touchdowns. Walsh visited Clemson in the spring of 1979 to work out quarterback Steve Fuller, Clark’s roommate.
Needing someone to catch passes from Fuller, Walsh asked Clark if he’d help out. Clark agreed, and performed spectacularly well, leading Walsh to consider him for the draft, even though few had expected Clark to be selected, no less get an invite to an NFL training camp.
But Walsh selected him with the first pick of the 10th round, and Clark made the team as a rookie. He wound up playing nine seasons and caught 506 passes for 6,750 yards and 48 touchdowns. In nine playoff games, he had 48 catches for 726 yards and three touchdowns. None was bigger than “The Catch.”
Clark won two Super Bowl championships as a player and later worked as a 49ers’ front-office executive, as the team won three more Super Bowl titles. Clark later worked under former 49ers president Carmen Policy when the Browns returned to Cleveland as an expansion franchise in 1999.