Dwight Clark is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he never will be. But he’s in mine. In fact, he’s been there for years.
But there’s a catch … and, no, it’s not The Catch.
It has nothing to do with Clark’s heroics on the football field and everything to do with our relationship off it. I was the beat writer covering the San Francisco 49ers, and he was the team’s GM and director of football operations.
But, as I quickly learned, he would be … and was … much more than that.
He wasn’t Dwight Clark, former star athlete. Instead, he was one of the most personable, charming, charismatic and charitable individuals I’d come across in decades covering the NFL. I tell people today that I could count on one hand the individuals in league or club front offices who never crossed or misled me over the years, and Dwight Clark was one of them.
I first got to know him when I covered the San Francisco 49ers in 1994 for the San Jose Mercury News. It was mid-summer, and San Francisco was gearing up for another run at a Super Bowl … which meant it was gearing up for another run at defending Super Bowl champion Dallas.
I was on my first tour of the team’s Santa Clara facility, introducing myself to the people I had to get to know, when a public-relations employee led me past Clark’s second-floor office.
“Hey, wait a minute,” Clark yelled out from behind his desk. “Come in here.”
I knew who he was, Heck, anyone who watched the 49ers in the 1980s did. But we’d never been formally introduced. So I introduced myself.
“Well,” he said, “anybody named Clark is alright with me.”
And then he laughed.
And when I think of Dwight Clark today, that’s what I remember most. It wasn’t The Catch, Joe Montana stories or fans clamoring for autographs. It wasn’t the courageous fight he put up the past two years against ALS, either, a merciless disease that claimed him Monday at the age of 61.
Nope, it was that laugh and that smile.
Dwight Clark had it all. He was tall, as in 6-feet-4 tall. He had movie-star good looks. He was a terrific athlete and a fan darling. But all of that took a back-row seat to a radiant personality you couldn’t resist. He was a marvelous story teller who knew how to hammer a punch line. He was the best of teammates. He was a comedian. He was a helping hand. He was a handshake waiting to happen. And he was a good friend.
In essence, he was simply someone who loved being around people as much as they enjoyed being around him.
He was the guy you always wanted to be … but never could. Yes, he was a pro football star, but he didn’t act the part. He was always … and I mean always … accessible and treated people as if they were his next-door neighbors.
And that’s what I miss most about Dwight Clark: His presence. I miss sitting across the table from him and hearing his stories or chortling over something we just witnessed or heard. When Bay Area reporters met with him earlier this year, he laughed as they recalled memories from Dwight’s days as a player and team exec.
“Reminiscing is healthy,” he said.
And when a Sports Illustrated reporter joined him and his former teammates in late April for a reunion at Clark’s Montana ranch, he knew just what to tell his audience when he was called on for a speech.
“I ain’t got a goddamn thing to say,” he said.
Then he burst out laughing, just as he had so many times before. And, so, the tone was set for the evening, with people reliving the past and sharing too much wine with a friend and former teammate they knew they’d never see again.
“Dwight made everybody comfortable in the most uncomfortable situation,” former 49ers’ linebacker Gary Plummer told SI.
But that was Dwight Clark. And that was what made him irresistible.
“Being there in Montana,” Plummer told me Monday night, “I heard a lot of stories I didn’t know a lot about. I didn’t hear the ‘Hercules’ stories. When Dwight was around, I used to hear people say, ‘Hercules! Hercules! Hercules!’, and I didn’t know the context. But he was larger than life when he was playing, and guys didn’t forget that.
“But what made him special was that he was as surprised and shocked as anyone that he was who he was … because he didn’t expect to be drafted. He literally told (former coach) Bill Walsh, ‘I had six catches my senior year. Don’t draft me.’ It was so funny hear him tell the story about not unpacking his suitcase his rookie year, and Joe Montana telling him, ‘Dude, what are you doing? You’re not getting cut.’
“We look at athletes today and look at prima donnas and look at egos, and there was no ego with Dwight Clark. He was a guy living a dream, and he appreciated every moment of it. And, to me, that defines him. It made him such a likeable guy, and there should be more.
“There should be more pro athletes like Dwight Clark that appreciate the opportunity they’ve been given and realize how fortunate they are to be in the position they’re in. Dwight never forgot that, and that’s why fans related to him and loved him so much. He lived the dream of every boy who wanted to be a pro athlete.”
I consider it a privilege to have known Dwight Clark and to have been within his orbit, albeit for a short time, but long enough to consider him a good and treasured friend … and one I will never forget.
But I’m hardly alone.
“I have one last story I hope you would print,” said Plummer. “My final memory of Dwight … and you have to remember he struggled the entire three days we were there in Montana … but my final memory was when we all piled into vans and SUVs when we were leaving his ranch. It was a circular driveway, and as we drove past the front porch, I saw he was with Kelly (his wife) and a Navy SEAL who had been helping him the last two years.
“Two of them were standing, and he was in his chair. But as we passed, he straightened up and waved goodbye. He was probably 130 pounds at the time, but I’ll never forget: He smiled that iconic, Dwight Clark smile.
“That will be forever etched in my mind. It was such a powerful and symbolic gesture to have that memory to take away. It was pretty special.”