I’ve learned that one of the reminders you get in life that you are in fact getting older is watching your childhood heroes pass away.
For me, a particularly tough one to swallow was the death of Dwight Clark last week from ALS. Dwight Clark was at the center of one of my best sports memories when I was a kid.
In the summer of 1981, my dad’s four-pack-a-day smoking habit caught up with him. He died of lung cancer at the age of 49. I was 16. I was already pretty angry at the world like a lot of 16-year-olds and then my dad’s death came along, which just put me in a more black place. I kind of stopped caring about my grades, stopped caring about playing sports for a while.
Growing up in Northern California, I had kind of been a 49ers fan when I was a kid. I emphasize “kind of” because the 49ers of those days didn’t make it easy to stay a fan.
When I was really young, the 49ers were briefly pretty good in the early 1970s behind John Brodie, Ted Kwalick and Gene Washington. But, then the bottom dropped out and the 49ers became pretty much the worst team in the NFL in the 1970s.
There was a revolving door of coaches and quarterbacks — Steve Spurrier, Jim Plunkett, Steve DeBerg, Tom Owen, Norm Snead (yes, Norm Snead played a year for the Niners in the mid-70s). I couldn’t even name the coaches, to be honest.
I totally gave up on the 49ers. If I cheered for any team, it was the big, bad Raiders.
Then in 1981, something amazing started happening. Very slowly at first. The 49ers actually started getting good. I will always remember the turning point was an early season game in which the 49ers beat the obnoxious Cowboys 45-14.
From that point on, I started paying attention to the 49ers. And they just kept on winning, game after game.
Fast forward to the NFC championship game. You have to understand the era. The 49ers had never won a championship, had been an embarrassment for nearly a decade. They weren’t really that great in the 1960s. They were one of the sad sacks of the NFL, one of the bottom tier teams well below the Raiders, Steelers and the Cowboys. They were down there in the muck with the Cardinals, Saints and Lions. One of the hopeless teams. The idea that the 49ers might actually go to the Super Bowl was so utterly alien, it was almost impossible to wrap your head around it.
For 14 or 15 weeks that year, the 49ers were a respite for me, and all that anger over my dad’s death. For three hours a week, I could forget about it all. And here we were, one game away from the Super Bowl.
But, those damn Cowboys were in the way. The team that always won. The team that knocked the 49ers out of the playoffs twice 10 years earlier. Considered the best team in the NFC. They weren’t taking the 49ers seriously. I’ll never forget an interview with Butch Johnson of the Cowboys where he was literally laughing at the 49ers. I wasn’t sure I could believe they would really beat the Cowboys. I think I was afraid to allow myself to believe it.
I watched the game with my brothers. The 49ers actually played terrible that day. They were marching up and down the field, but Montana threw three interceptions. There would be no 45-14 blowout. They marched down the field one last time and with less than a minute to play, Montana rolled out to the right, had a trio of Cowboys in his face, and falling backward, seemed to throw the ball away out of the back of the end zone.
And then …
…. he caught it.
He caught it! He caught it! He caught it!
That is actually Lon Simmons’ famous call of “The Catch.” I still get chills when I hear it. Dwight Clark had literally come of nowhere and leaped the highest he had ever leaped in his life to snatch that pass.
It’s a moment I’ll never forget. We all have those moments — Fisk waiving the ball fair, the bloody sock game, John Taylor’s catch in the Super Bowl, Bourque raising the Cup, Griffey Jr. scoring from first base, Sherman’s tip in the end zone. If you’re really lucky, you have moments like that with your own kids. We all have those moments, of teams and players we’ve invested in emotionally or even spiritually.
The 49ers finally slayed that obnoxious, annoying Cowboys beast. They finally played in (and won a Super Bowl), a game that was almost anti-climatic by comparison. They were finally champions. Finally. None of the other 49er championships meant quite as much as that one.
So, I would have loved to have told Dwight Clark that story. I would have loved to have thanked him for that moment. All I could think of last week when I heard about his death was that game, that year of my life and how Dwight and the 49ers helped me get through it.