SAN FRANCISCO — Maybe some persons would call what happened here Wednesday morning a memorial service, but it wasn’t. Not really. It was more like what it was billed — “a celebration of life” — and it was a celebration of the life of former 49ers’ star Dwight Clark.
And it was perfect.
“It was,” as former 49ers’ assistant George Stewart (now an assistant with the L.A. Chargers) put it, “just the right touch. It was a great send-off for Dwight Clark.”
Clark died in June at the age of 61 after suffering from ALS, and his death provoked an outpouring of emotion from those who knew him and knew of him. But on Wednesday it provoked an outpouring of anecdotes, accolades and wonderful memories at Grace Cathedral before an estimated 400 persons.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was here. So were former 49ers’ head coaches George Seifert and Steve Mariucci. Mike Holmgren. Joe Montana and Steve Young. Ronnie Lott. Charles Haley. Jerry Rice. Roger Craig. Harris Barton. Former San Francisco mayors Frank Jordan and Willie Brown. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Huey Lewis. The York family. Terrell Owens.
Yes, Terrell Owens.
Clark’s three children were here. So was wife Kelly Clark. Clark’s brother, Jeff. Geri Walsh, wife of former 49ers’ coach Bill Walsh. John McVay. Carmen Policy. And, of course, Eddie DeBartolo.
All were brought together by the loss of someone who, as Montana said, loved being around people as much as he loved being around him and who was “always there” when you needed him. And while nobody needed Dwight Clark on Wednesday, those who came here wanted him. They came here wanting to remember him as the man who made them laugh and cheer and as the man they miss.
“Dwight had every gift but enough years on this earth,” said DeBartolo.
Montana told a story about when he and wife Jennifer not so long ago visited Clark and his wife in Capitola, just outside of Santa Cruz, and Clark called him outside to speak privately for what Montana called “one of the more shocking” conversations he had with his former teammate and long-time friend.
“He said, ‘Will you speak at my funeral?’ ” Montana said.
Joe thought he was kidding. He was not.
“I graciously accepted,” said Montana, “and it’s hard to be here today.”
Yet, like others, he persevered, because as Clark’s brother, Jeff, said, “he would want an all-out celebration. And he would want it not to be about him but to be about us.”
And so it was, with Montana sharing inside stories — as when Clark was hospitalized with a torn ACL after getting hit in a 1983 game by former Dallas lineman Randy White. When Montana stopped by the hospital after Clark underwent surgery, he brought a couple of gifts: A poster of White with a bullseye … on his knee — and a dart gun for Clark to take aim.
“I never saw so much joy with someone with a knee injury in my life,” said Montana.
Of course, Montana and Clark were involved in one of the most memorable plays in NFL history — with Joe throwing the touchdown pass that Clark caught in a 1981 NFC championship game defeat of Dallas. It became known as “The Catch,” and it did more than launch the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
It launched them to four in the next nine years — all of which they won.
“He always said, ‘You know, they don’t call it ‘The Throw,’ ” Montana said, smiling. And while he couldn’t disagree, he did make sure he got in the last word when he spoke to Clark one last time here.
“When I see you, D.C, I will say, ‘That’s true,’ ” he said, ” ‘and I will catch you on the other side.’ ”
Montana was followed by DeBartolo, so fond of Clark he called him “like his little brother.” And, like Montana, he regaled listeners with stories of Clark’s kindness, loyalty, compassion, strength and one memorable evening in DeBartolo’s home in Youngstown, Ohio.
DeBartolo had invited Montana and Clark there to negotiate their contracts himself — an idea that Policy, then the team’s legal counsel and team president, thought ill-advised. But DeBartolo didn’t … and, besides, he owned the team. So after a night of shooting pool and sharing tequila, DeBartolo completed the deals — with Montana signed for $1 million and Clark for $500,000.
When Policy the next day saw Clark drive away in DeBartolo’s Ferrari, he went immediately to the team owner.
“What the hell happened?” he said.
“All I can say is: They won,” said DeBartolo.
Decades later when DeBartolo had the two autograph a photo of his ranch in Montana, Joe signed it “Thanks a million” and Clark with “Thanks a half-million.” That drew a laugh, too, as did other stories by the owner whom Clark called “Boss.” And if there were a surprise it was only that DeBartolo didn’t crack during his 14-minute eulogy.
“It took me so many times,” he told me later of his speech. “The first time I (rehearsed) it to my wife over the phone from Montana to L.A., I couldn’t get through it. And she said, ‘You better get your act together. You’re going to have to compose yourself.’ It was very difficult.”
Yet DeBartolo pulled it off. And he did it adroitly.
“I told Mr. D. you made me laugh, and you made me cry,” said Mariucci.
When DeBartolo finished, the bells at Grace Cathedral rang out, not signaling the end of the service but the 12 o’clock hour. Nevertheless, it was an appropriate conclusion to an unforgettable occasion. Because just before he was finished, DeBartolo punctuated the one-hour celebration with one of the last conversations he had with Clark.
“He said, ‘Don’t cry because it’s over,’ ” DeBartolo said. ” ‘Smile because it happened.’ “