By David Mullen
A player that changed Dallas Cowboys football forever passed away on June 4. And he never played for the Cowboys.
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark, who made one of the most famous catches in NFL history, died a little more than one year after revealing he had ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). He was 61.
On Jan. 10, 1982, my 23rd birthday, the young 49ers hosted the Cowboys in the NFC championship game at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The Cowboys were 13-3. San Francisco was 14-2, but in 1978 and 1979 had suffered through 2-14 seasons and was just 6-10 in 1980.
Living in Oakland, we were aware that the Raiders were contemplating a move to Los Angeles, which did not sit well with the Raider Nation. While not being a huge 49ers fan, we were aware that this was a fun team with a unique offense — “The West Coast Offense” — designed by former Stanford and then San Francisco head coach Bill Walsh.
And we really knew the Dallas Cowboys. They were “America’s Team.” They were lead by Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry and were a team of veterans and superstars like Danny White, Tony Dorsett, Drew Pearson, Tony Hill, Randy White, Harvey Martin, Everson Walls, Charlie Waters and Ed “Too Tall” Jones, to name a few.
The Niners were a team of relative no-names. Dallas supporters and other football fans knew third-year quarterback Joe Montana because he led an epic 35-34 comeback victory for Notre Dame over the Houston Cougars in the 1979 Cotton Bowl. But few knew of Clark, rookie Ronnie Lott, Bill Ring, Ricky Patton, Earl Cooper, Lenvil Elliott and Keena Turner.
The game set up to be old school versus these youthful upstarts. On that cool January Sunday at Candlestick Park, the Cowboys had a 27-21 lead with less than a minute to play.
With the 49ers facing a third down at the Dallas 6-yard line, Walsh called “Sprint Right Option,” where Montana would roll out and look for anyone that was open. Jones and Cowboys defensive lineman Larry Bethea would chase Montana.
Off of his back foot, Montana floated a pass into the corner of the end zone. Clark seemed to leap 10 feet off of the ground and made a fingertip grab that would forever be known as “The Catch.”
The 49ers won 28-27, won the Super Bowl two weeks later and would go on to win three more Super Bowls in eight years. It would take the Cowboys 11 seasons to return to the Super Bowl.
In a statement regarding Clark’s death, former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. said: “My heart is broken. I lost my little brother and one of my best friends. I cannot put into words how special Dwight was to me and to everyone his life touched. He was an amazing husband, father, grandfather, brother and a great friend and teammate. He showed tremendous courage and dignity in his battle with ALS and we hope there will soon be a cure for this horrendous disease.
“I will always remember Dwight for the way he was — larger than life, handsome, charismatic and the only one who could pull off wearing a fur coat at our Super Bowl parade. He was responsible for one of the most iconic plays in NFL history that began our run of Super Bowl championships, but to me, he will always be an extension of my family. I love him and will miss him terribly.”
DeBartolo recently hosted a reunion of 49ers players that served as a send-off for the affable Clark. “He will forever live on in our memories for ‘The Catch’ but also for his kind, gentle and courageous spirit,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said.
Little did I know I would move to Dallas two years after “The Catch,” and live here ever since. But I will never forget where I was when Dwight Clark made the play that changed San Francisco 49ers history forever.
And I know that Dallas Cowboys fans won’t forget where they were, either.