NFL

The Tragic Death of 49ers Dwight Clark Who Made ‘The Catch’

San Francisco 49ers receiver Dwight Clark is known for making one of the most iconic catches during the 1981 NFC Championship game. Of all the impressive receptions ever made in the 100 years of the NFL, only Clark’s reception from Joe Montana is called “The Catch.” He played his entire career for the San Francisco 49ers before retiring after the 1987 season. Sadly, he died a couple of years ago after a short battle with ALS.

Dwight Clark drafted by the 49ers

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Dwight Clark was never destined to be a star in the NFL, let alone make one of the greatest catches in NFL history. The fact that Clark got drafted, much less made it on the roster of an NFL team came as a surprise to many. That’s because Clark’s discovery came about by accident.

New San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh visited Clemson in 1979 to take a look at quarterback Steve Fuller, Clark’s roommate. Clark had plans to play a round of golf and was headed out to play when he answered the phone. The 49ers representative convinced Clark to skip golf and serve as Fuller’s receiver during the quarterback’s workout. After the workout was over, Walsh was impressed.  

What Clark displayed during the workout was something the 49ers and no other team had seen on tape. That’s because Clark was never a featured receiver at Clemson. His senior season, he hauled in an amazingly few number of receptions at 11. To his credit, when he did catch the ball, he made it count and averaged 18.8 yards per catch. He scored a pair of touchdowns.

Following his workout, the 49ers selected Clark with the first pick of the tenth round, or 249th overall pick, in the 1979 NFL draft. 

Clark’s career and ‘The Catch’

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After a less-than-memorable rookie season where he caught just 18 passes, Dwight Clark made his mark with the 49ers catching 80 passes in 1980 from quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve DeBerg, including eight touchdowns. After a couple of early-season losses in 1981, San Francisco, with Montana in charge, cruised into the playoffs with a 13-3 record, which included a 45-14 thumping of the Dallas Cowboys earlier in the year. 

The 49ers defeated the New York Giants in the divisional round and then hosted the Cowboys in a rematch with much more on the line—a berth in Super Bowl XVI. In the game, momentum shifted back and forth between the two teams. In the second quarter, Clark caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Montana that gave the 49ers a 14-10 lead.

Late in the fourth quarter with the game in the balance and the 49ers trailing 27-21, Montana guided San Francisco down the field. With under a minute remaining and facing 3rd-and-3 from the Dallas 6-yard line, Montana rolled right, pump-faked, then fired to Clark, who made a leaping grab in the back of the end zone. The PAT was good, and the 49ers were Super Bowl bound.

Clark played his entire nine-year career with the 49ers and earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in 1982. He also won another Super Bowl in 1984. He retired after the 1987 season. The team retired his jersey in 1988.

Dwight Clark’s tragic death from ALS

After retiring Dwight Clark remained a part of the 49ers organization working as an executive in the front office. He left in 1998 to become the general manager of the expansion era Cleveland Browns. Clark stayed with Cleveland until 2001.

In 2002, Clark resigned from the Browns and returned to his roots in North Carolina where he operated a real estate business. In 2017, Clark shocked the sports world when he announced that he had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease or ALS. He said he suspected numerous concussions during his playing days contributed to his disease. 

“Who knows how many times you get your bell rung,” Clark said on the 49ers Insider Podcast. “John Taylor was better than I was, so I couldn’t come out of the game. Guys would take my job. So you just kind of shake it off. Plus, back then, that was just football. You get dinged and you go back in or you stay in.”

On June 4, 2018, Dwight Clark died from the disease. He was 61. In October 2018, the 49ers unveiled a statue outside of Levi’s Stadium featuring Clark making his famous catch.

All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.