By Gino Blefari
“[Quarterback Joe] Montana … Looking … Looking … Throwing into the end zone … Clark caught it! … It’s a madhouse at Candlestick …”
This week my travels find me in Northern California, working and preparing to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with friends and family. I’m feeling particularly grateful this year not only for my wonderful family but also for the friends who enrich my life in ways inextricable, intangible and extraordinary.
Leaders, as you know, are not born, they’re made, and the fabric of leaders is sewn from all the intelligent, inspiring people around them. One leader I’m thankful to call my close friend is Dwight “The Catch” Clark,” once an obscure, 10th-round draft pick in the 1979 NFL draft—the 249th player chosen—who went on to become Sports Illustrated’s NFL Player of the Year in 1982.
I was lucky enough to be a San Francisco 49ers fan in the 1980s and watched my pal Dwight play for my favorite team. He’s the owner of five Super Bowl rings—two as a player and three in management—a two-time All Pro and caught 506 receptions in his career. But who knows if his great run would’ve ever happened if it wasn’t for that amazing Sunday in January of 1982 when “Too Tall” Jones and what seemed like the entire Dallas Cowboys defense was chasing 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and Dwight was trying to lose Cowboy’s defensive back Everson Walls running across the back of Candlestick Park’s end zone. The next moment would be memorialized in sports history forevermore: Dwight caught the winning touchdown pass thrown by Montana and the 49ers won the NFC Championship game that year.
Now, I say I was lucky in the ‘80s to watch Dwight play but I’m even luckier now to share a friendship with him and find inspiration in everything he does. He’s a leader defined by perseverance, resiliency and an unwavering desire to reach out his hand and “Catch” for others. Earlier this year, Dwight announced he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Those same qualities of resiliency and perseverance are front and center as he fights the debilitating effects of ALS today.
But he isn’t fighting alone. In fact, the entire 49ers family is right by his side, cheering him on as he fights such a difficult opponent. Part of that support comes by way of the Golden Heart Fund, established by the 49ers and Pro Football Hall of Fame owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. The fund assists former players during times of need. (If you feel, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, that you’d like to donate, please click here.)
Other support comes by simply showing Dwight we—an entire town, an entire fan base—are there.
Several weeks ago, on Oct. 22, Dwight was honored during halftime at Levi Stadium, when the 49ers took on the Cowboys, a testament to their beloved hero. And on Nov. 9, I was fortunate to accept an award on Dwight’s behalf at the SAP Center—he was inducted that day into the San Jose Sports Hall of Fame. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as Dwight, who couldn’t make it to the ceremony, delivered a poignant video speech thanking his fans, his family and all those who’ve supported him along the way.
“Now I’m praying for another Catch—a cure for this dreaded disease,” Dwight said with characteristic optimism. “I am praying for a research doctor out there with the equivalent arm of Joe Montana. You know that pattern, Doc. Just launch that cure like a Montana pass; I’ll be waiting again at the back of the end zone. I’ll even take a high one again just to make us both look good.”
The greatness of Dwight—in addition to his historic play—is also found in his altruism. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “No man stands as tall as when he bends down to help a child.” And for me, when I think of that eternal quote, I think of Dwight Clark. I don’t think of the Catch that he had to jump so high to make I think of the many times I watched him bend over to help a child in need. You may not know this but Dwight was an integral force in helping the Intero Foundation, which provides resources to children in need, raise more than $4 million in grants and support.
As Joe Montana explained in the highlight reel that played during Dwight’s induction ceremony: “He’s a people person, so helping people comes naturally to Dwight. You can just see it on his face. The ‘tell’ is all there.”
So, what’s the message? Let’s pass this one to Dwight, and on Thanksgiving, recognize all those incredible friends in our lives who make everything that much better just by their mere existence. Thank you, Dwight, for all you’ve done to help those in need. Thank you for always putting others first and for brightening this world with your shining spirit of positivity. Now that you’re looking to us as you fight against ALS, know that we’re sending our love and prayers to you, a great and awe-inspiring leader who continues to field catches in the game of life, no matter what is thrown your way.