George Kittle and the late Dwight Clark will always be linked in San Francisco 49ers lore.
In August, Kittle became the first-ever recipient of the Dwight Clark Legacy Award, presented to a 49ers player who best exemplifies Clark’s spirit of teamwork.
Clark, the beloved 49ers wide receiver whose “Catch” in the 1981 NFC Championship Game propelled the team to its first Super Bowl title 40 years ago this season, died of complications from ALS in 2018.
Proceeds from the ceremony featuring the award, presented to Kittle as part of the Dwight Clark Legacy Series, went to benefit the Golden Heart Fund, a charitable organization created by the 49ers to help players transition from NFL careers to their next phases in life.
“The amount of great things that coaches and teammates have to say about [Clark] is honestly just overwhelming,” Kittle told The Athletic in September. “He was appreciative to play the game of football, for getting to make great friends, for getting to make all those incredible memories with all of them.”
On Sunday, Kittle made some memories of his own. His record-setting performance in a 26-23 overtime victory over the Cincinnati Bengals included a play that had football fans everywhere recalling Clark’s historic grab.
Kittle goes where no tight end has gone before in the NFL record books
Kittle has long been regarded as one of the best, if not the actual best, tight end in the NFL. Since entering the league in 2017, Kittle has been a two-time Pro Bowler (2018, ’19) and a first-team All-Pro in 2019. No tight end has accumulated more yards in their first three seasons in the league than Kittle’s 2,945.
But what Kittle has done in the past two weeks is completely unprecedented for the position. In a Week 13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, Kittle had nine catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
That set up Sunday’s 26-23 overtime victory against the Bengals.
In a performance that erased the sting of last week’s loss and put the 49ers back among the three wild-card teams in the NFC with four games to play, Kittle caught 13 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown. In the process, he became the first tight end in NFL history to have consecutive games with at least 150 receiving yards and a touchdown.
“I know that when coach Shanahan calls my name, I’ve just got to go out there and execute,” Kittle said after the game, per NFL.com. “When you have that opportunity, you’ve just got to make the play, and fortunately, I made the play more than I didn’t make it tonight.”
Late in regulation, Kittle incredibly re-enacted The Catch and nearly won the game
The connections between Kittle and Clark on Sunday were impossible to miss.
The 49ers were playing the Bengals, the opponent in Super Bowl 16 in January 1982, two weeks after Clark’s iconic leaping catch in the corner of the end zone with less than a minute to play at Candlestick Park gave the 49ers a 28-27 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game.
But Clark was much more than just his legendary fingertip grab. Even after his death, he continues to inspire, including a generation of players not even born when Clark was thrilling 49ers fans with his play.
“I read and hear the stories about a man that lived each day to the fullest and brought some kindness along with him each time,” Kittle told The Athletic. “I try to do the same. My family always taught me to treat others how I’d want to be treated, and I really think that translates well into the locker room and the organization.”
The 49ers were in the process of what appeared to be another last-minute, game-winning drive on Sunday, marching into Bengals territory with 20 seconds remaining in a 20-20 tie. On 3rd-and-10 from the Bengals’ 48-yard line, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo sailed a pass in Kittle’s direction but lofted it high to elude a Bengals defensive back.
But in a remarkable example of déjà vu, Kittle rose high and pulled in the pass with his outstretched fingertips before landing on the 29-yard line with a 19-yard catch that set up a game-winning field-goal attempt.
“That’s a different dude,” 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk said after the game “Huge third-down plays, just plays all over the field. … That’s a special dude — real special dude.”
In overtime, Kittle’s 13th grab set a record and set up the winning score
Alas, kicker Robbie Gould did not have the proper sense of history and missed the last-second field goal that would have won the game. Instead, the teams trudged into overtime tied at 20-20, but that only allowed Kittle to have his record-setting moment.
The Bengals won the overtime coin toss and drove downfield on the opening drive to kick a field goal to take a 23-20 lead. But that gave the 49ers a possession to either tie or win the game. It also gave Kittle the opportunity to set his NFL record.
At the end of regulation, Kittle had 10 catches for 113 yards. With the 49ers trailing and in a must-score situation, he came through again, hauling in three more catches for 38 yards on the winning drive, including a 9-yard reception on 3rd-and-5 from the Bengals’ 21-yard line that set up Aiyuk’s 12-yard sideline scamper for the game-winning score in a 26-23 victory that vaulted the 7-6 49ers into the No. 6 seed in the NFC Playoff race.
“We tried like hell to take him away,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of Kittle. “And he just finds a way to make those plays.”
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference