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Art Spander: Dwight Clark changed the course of 49ers history

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Former San Francisco 49er wide receiver Dwight Clark passed away at 61 on Monday. (Courtesy: San Francisco 49ers)

The talk was all about the failures and the disappointments — the halftime lead blown against Detroit back in ’57, the fumble by Preston Riley against the Cowboys on that fateful Saturday in ’72. For almost four decades, the San Francisco 49ers were defined only by negative history.

Until January 10, 1982.  Until “The Catch.” Dwight Clark grasped a football seemingly beyond his reach and changed not only the scoreboard — the 49ers taking the lead in the NFC Championship, 28-27 — but the culture of San Francisco pro football.

“You can stop writing we can’t win the big one,” Bill Walsh, the Niners coach would tell me.

Clark died Monday, age 61, victim of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” for which there is no cure, from which there is no escape. He had contracted it some three years ago, but kept the news private until March 2017.

He made a public appearance last October during a Cowboys-Niners game at Levi’s Stadium, surrounded by numerous teammates from those early 1980s teams, each of whom was attired in Clark’s  retired No. 87 jersey.

That was a particularly bittersweet afternoon, with the effects ALS all too noticeable, Clark fighting to get out his words.

Clark had been living on Eddie DeBartolo’s ranch in Montana — the former 49ers owner, as always, sparing no expense for his players, who he considered friends rather than employees.

As always, DeBartolo — the all-too-generous former 49ers owner — had financed the travel of those in attendance. “I just want to see my teammates one more time,” Clark told DeBartolo. Everyone knew what Eddie D’s response would be.

Candlestick Park, where Willie Mays roamed in centerfield, where Clark made “The Catch,” is gone now, razed. After winter rains, the field was a mess —“That slowed down the others to my speed,” Clark joked.  

A completely new field was installed before the Dallas game. The week before, during the playoff against the New York Giants, the so-called Sod Squad had continually had to replace large divots.

Against the Cowboys, it seemed the Niners offense was what needed replacing. A team that had turned over the ball only 25 times in 16 regular season games, turned it over six times in that NFC championship.

The Niners trailed, 27-21, when with 4:54 remaining they got the ball at their own 11. In the stands, 60,525 fans—including a 4 1/2-year old named Tom Brady, whose father owned 49er season tickets—stood and chanted. But not DeBartolo.

“It looked helpless,” DeBartolo explained. He headed down to the Niners locker room to commiserate and tell the players how proud he was of their attempt. Walsh, in his third season as head coach, was of a different mind. “There were almost five minutes left,”  Walsh said. “I liked our chances.”

The clock was down to 58 seconds. The ball was down to the Cowboys’ six, third and three. Clark and Montana both had been taken in the 1979 draft. They became close friends. They would become part of San Francisco sporting lore.

Joe Montana, nearly tackled by Ed “Too Tall” Jones, had thrown in desperation. “It should have ended up in the third row of seats,” said Jim Tunney, the referee now retired in Carmel.

Instead, at the culmination of a play called “Sprint Right Option,” it ended up on the fingertips of Clark, who was — What, miles? — well, a couple feet above the Dallas defensive back Everson Walls.

The man and the moment. Unforgettable.  “It seems it was our destiny,” Clark would say some years ago. “No matter what, we were going to win that game.”

There was a photo on the cover of Sports Illustrated. There were numerous pictures. But the single greatest was by John Story of the Examiner, taken when Clark was at the apex of his leap.

“It was over my head,”  Clark told us. “I thought, ‘Oh, oh, I can’t go up that high.’ Something got me there.”

And Clark got the Niners on their way to five Super Bowl wins.

We’ll miss the man who didn’t miss his chance.

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