Talking Inspiration with Dwight Clark: Preparation and Opportunity

A word from Gino Blefari, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices …

This post is the first in our new “Talking Inspiration” blog series by Dwight Clark, former All-Pro wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers. I was lucky enough to be a 49ers fan in the 1980s and watched my pal Dwight play for my favorite team. Dwight is a five-time Super Bowl champion—two as a player and three in management—but who knows if his great run would’ve ever happened if it wasn’t for that incredible Sunday in January of 1982 … that’s when “Too Tall” Jones and what seemed like the entire Dallas Cowboys defense was chasing quarterback Joe Montana and Dwight was trying to lose Cowboys’ defensive back Everson Walls running across the back of Candlestick Park’s end zone. What happened next has been since memorialized in sports history books forevermore: Dwight caught the winning touchdown pass thrown by Montana and the 49ers won the NFC Championship Game that year. Today, “The Catch” is known as the #7 most memorable play in the NFL and #1 for the 49ers. Dwight’s “Talking Inspiration” posts will provide ongoing perspectives about tackling challenges—in sports, business and life—and I hope you enjoy these pieces of wisdom from a great man, a true football legend and my friend. – Gino 

By Dwight Clark

When I reflect on my career playing with the San Francisco 49ers, one word comes to mind: fortunate. And fortune, as I define it, is the place where preparation meets opportunity. If you think about your life’s most extraordinary featswhether it’s winning Super Bowls or winning business—yes, there’s always some measure of luck involved but there’s also a whole lot of training, planning and hard work that has to happen long before luck arrives. Then, if you’re fully prepared at the exact moment luck finally does ring, you can pick up the phone and answer its call.

My earliest example of the powerful connection between opportunity and preparation took place decades ago, just as I finished my final year of football eligibility at Clemson University …

Back then, joining the NFL was a lifelong, though uncertain, dream. Lifelong because it began around age 10 when I first learned to play football, and uncertain because my senior year of college I only caught 11 passes, with a total of about 33 receptions during my entire four years as wide receiver for the Clemson Tigers. Yet what I lacked in numbers I made up for in determination, perseverance and pure grit, traits I put on display for the two NFL teams that asked me to work out: the four-time world champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who didn’t really need a receiver at my skill level, and the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs, I thought, might sign me as a free agent; I had an impressive practice with them—running a 40 yard dash in 4.5 seconds—and the Chiefs’ receiver coach commented on my quick speed for a 218-pound, 6’4” receiver. I only hoped agility would be enough to send me to Kansas City.

That was still the hope a few weeks before the 1979 draft as I headed out the door of the three-bedroom, off-campus apartment I was renting with Clemson quarterback (and ACC Offensive Player of the Year) Steve Fuller and our tight end, Cliff Bray. I was off to play a round of golf and had just pushed open the apartment door when the phone rang. And rang. And rang again. I paused, golf bag slung across my shoulder, one hand on the doorknob, one foot out the door.

My first thought: Better not get that. It’s probably someone who wants me to do something and then if I do it, I’ll never play golf today.

My second thought: What if the call is for Steve? It’s a big deal he’s going in the first round of the NFL draft, someone important could be calling him. 

As luck would have it, I decided to pick up the phone.

“Hello?”

“Hi,” said an unfamiliar voice. “This is Bill Walsh. Is Steve Fuller there?”

At the time, I knew the name Bill Walsh as the recently hired head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. I also knew Coach Walsh was traveling the country working out quarterbacks for the upcoming draft and had just arrived at Clemson to see Steve.

“Hold on, I’ll get him,” I said.

“Wait a minute,” he replied. “Who is this?”

“Dwight Clark.”

“Dwight Clark … didn’t you play wide receiver?”

“Yes sir, I did.”

(Now here comes that whole opportunity part …)

“Well look, if you don’t mind, would you come over and join Steve’s work out to run routes and catch the ball?” Coach Walsh asked. “This way, I won’t have to do it and can concentrate fully on Steve.”

“Sure,” I told the man who would soon become one of the most celebrated coaches in the history of football. “I’d be happy to.”

During the Bill Walsh workout, something happened that might best be described as the realization of the earlier-mentioned sweet spot when opportunity meets years of dedicated preparation: Steve was having a tough day but I still caught everything. High throws, low throws, throws that were behind me, even a few one-handed catches; it was like no matter what he threw, the ball couldn’t help but find my fingers.

At the end of practice, Coach Walsh spoke to Steve for a while and to my surprise, asked if I would stay and chat.

“Can I see some of your film?” he questioned.

“Coach, I didn’t play very much,” I told him. “I only caught 11 passes this year.”

He thought a minute. “Well, was there any game where you caught two passes?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Against the North Carolina Tarheels.”

“Let’s watch that.”

And we did. Over and over we reviewed the clips of those two receptions, one of which involved a pass going over the middle that I had to stretch to catch, leaving myself wide open for a hit and subsequently getting crushed by some pretty large Tarheels players, though still holding onto the ball, then standing up and returning right back to the huddle.

Coach Walsh asked me endless questions about the play, and at the time I took his inquiries as more informal curiosity than serious interest. What I didn’t realize was that the determination Walsh saw in the challenging catch I completed against North Carolina—coupled with the countless others I made that day—most likely sealed my fate weeks later. As the story goes, on May 3 and 4, 1979, the NFL draft took place and I went in the 10th round to Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers.

So that’s how the ultimate meeting between opportunity and preparation resulted in the start of my pro football career. Yet, I know this tale could’ve had a very different ending if I hadn’t spent years running drills, if I hadn’t practiced all those long hours, if I hadn’t worked my hardest on the field each and every day. Because if none of that ever happened, the phone call would have meant nothing. But I did and it did, turning a dream once thought out of my reach into something that could fall right into my hands.

DWIGHT CLARK is a consultant to Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices. You can follow him on Twitter @DwightC87.

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