A young Casey Harrold knew her father was a big deal, although Dwight Clark did nothing to make his children believe he was anything but Dad. She knew he was a San Francisco 49ers fan favorite — after all, she was there as a child when they honored her father at Candlestick Park after when he retired in 1987. And she knew about “The Catch” — Clark’s legendary reception in the back of the end zone that led the 49ers over the Dallas Cowboys in the 1982 NFC championship game.
“We had turned on the television and they were doing a show about the 50 greatest catches of all time,” she said. “I said I thought Dad might be in it. My mom said, ‘Yes, you should watch it.’ So we sat and watched. When they got to 10, I said, ‘I guess Dad is not going to be in it.’ Mom said, ‘You’ve watched so far, let’s watch the rest of it.’ We did and now more obviously to me it was No. 1. I was so shocked. I truly was not raised to think of him as anything but my Dad.”
“The Catch” is seen as more than the greatest catch of all time. Many consider one of the greatest plays in NFL history, right up there with the Franco Harris-Pittsburgh Steelers “Immaculate Reception.”
Clark’s clutch play kicked off the 49ers’ Super Bowl era, as San Francisco went on that year to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl — the first of five NFL championships the franchise would claim from 1981 to 1994. The Niners are back this week to face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV for a chance at their sixth.
There will be many references and replays this week of “The Catch,” which is fine with Harrold and her family. Clark, who died in 2018 at the age of 61 of ALS, lives forever in the grainy video of No. 87, soaring high into the air to snag Joe Montana’s pass.
“I still love seeing it,” Harrold said. “I think anyone would be proud of a family member who did something that meant so much to so many people. And especially now that he is gone, it is such a lovely way to remember him. So many people don’t have a chance to leave a legacy that lives on. He was fortunate enough to do something in his life that altered the course of his life and allows him to live on. It allows me to have random moments where I will turn the TV on and I’ll get to see him. I think it is wonderful.”
Younger brother Mac Clark wasn’t yet born when his father played. Like his sister, he didn’t fully appreciate the place his father had in league history until his friends gave him an idea. “When I got into middle school and kids would ask for my Dad’s autograph, that’s when it hit that this was a bigger deal than I thought it was,” he said.
“My Dad was so humble, we didn’t talk about it,” Mac Clark said. “We didn’t have shrines all over the house. I didn’t understand the magnitude of the play until I was older. I live in Dallas now, and everybody here are Cowboys fans. So it’s fun to give my co-workers a little crap about it.”
Jeff Clark was a freshman at UNC Wilmington playing baseball when his older brother Dwight made that iconic catch. “I was living in the dorm, and when he made that catch, I went out into the hall and tackled my whole baseball team,” he recalls.
“I had no idea impact that the catch would have, or the impact of that season. I heard that Dianne Feinstein, who was the mayor of San Francisco at the time, talked about how the city was so divided at the time, and when the 49ers started winning, everybody stopped fighting and getting along. Everybody loves a winner.”
Almost four decades later, his big brother’s catch still captivates.
“I stop in my tracks when I see them playing it anywhere,” he said. “I still get excited every time I see it.”
The play that has become such an iconic NFL moment is also a reminder of the game’s toll on players.
Clark said before he died that he suspected he suffered from Lou Gehrig’s Disease because of football. “I’ve been asked if playing football caused this,” Clark wrote. “I don’t know for sure. But I certainly suspect it did.”
Clark’s suspicions sent a tremor through the game.
He wasn’t just a former player — he was management as well, having served as vice president of player personnel for the 49ers and director of football operations with the Cleveland Browns.
“He did think it had some hand in him contracting ALS,” Harrold said. “I believe as an executive who was such a sort of player’s executive, if he had more information at the time may have made some different decisions or done what he could. But now, with so many people knowing so much more and with the research of it, he was using whatever notoriety he had to push that forward and to bring awareness to it any way he could.”
Mac Clark said he had conversations with his father about the connection between football and ALS. “We talked about it,” he said. “It’s tough not to listen to the studies and the statistics. I feel that football probably played a role in his disease. Don’t get me wrong, my family loves the game of football. My Dad loved the game of football and would not have changed a thing. That was the price he paid, unfortunately. It hurts. I get sad thinking about him.”
“The Catch” — the glory of the game and the price of that glory.
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