A contingent of 16 San Francisco 49ers alumni huddled together inside Paradise Beach Grille in Capitola, Calif. Dwight Clark wanted to make sure they took a group photo before anything else happened. The former 49ers wide receiver and member of the franchise’s Hall of Fame positioned himself in between a collection of his old teammates and colleagues.
For what was a trivial Tuesday afternoon in early March to many, was anything but for Clark. That’s because this gathering would be the final “Tuesday with Dwight” – an unintentional tradition that evolved into weekly lunches featuring prominent individuals who shaped Clark’s nine-year career with the 49ers.
The get-togethers began on Oct. 10, 2017. Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott, former director of public relations Kirk Reynolds, former director of security Fred Formosa and former director of marketing Rodney Knox all joined Clark for lunch at Paradise Beach Grille. They spent hours running through memories and “laughed the entire time because the stories were hysterical,” as Reynolds put it. Clark astutely pointed out that they should do it more often and “Tuesdays with Dwight” were born.
“I’d forgotten some of the stories. Others I’m sure have gotten bigger over time,” Clark joked. “They probably weren’t as true as they were coming out.”
Reynolds estimates that 100 different people – from family to former players, coaches, equipment managers and other 49ers staffers – attended a total of 20 or so Tuesday lunches. The goal was for Clark to reconnect with as many people as possible before moving to his new home in Montana.
Clark, then 61, was in the midst of a battle against ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) and was already confined to the aid of a motorized chair. The purpose of Clark's move to Montana in late March was for the extra space needed to continue his treatment compared to his former beachfront home in Capitola, Calif. But his time in Montana was brief. Clark passed away peacefully on June 4 while surrounded by loved ones.
But even in his final months, Clark relished opportunities to get the band back together.
“It meant a lot to me that people would take the time to come and just say goodbye one more time,” Clark said. “These lunches will always give me good memories.”
The same went for everyone else who had the opportunity to show up on a given Tuesday. Each lunch featured an unmistakable display of affection for a man who remains revered by so many.
Some, such as former offensive coordinator Paul Hackett (1983-85), made cross-country trips in order to be in attendance. So while Clark may be grateful to those who took the time to join him for lunch, it’s far more about those individuals acknowledging the significance of their beloved friend.
“I think the impact that Dwight Clark had on his teammates and the other people in the 49ers organization is more obvious than ever,” said Hackett, who had flown in from Boston that morning. “The outpouring is just tremendous. It says a lot about the man. He’s a Forty Niner through and through. It’s a real tribute to the man.”
After taking the photo, the group moved outside to a few conjoined tables set up on the patio. The ensuing 2.5 hours were spent enjoying the ocean breeze, sharing stories and busting chops. There were moments when Clark held court. He had the entire table howling as he recounted some of his favorite memories with the 49ers. At other times, people shuffled their way around the table in order to catch up with everyone in attendance.
The highlight of the afternoon was a questionnaire that Hackett put together. Hackett passed out sheets of paper to everyone as they finished their meals. Initial confusion was replaced with laughter as guys started to read the questions. Hackett knew in advance who would be in attendance and made it so each question pertained to someone sitting at the table.
“It was a discussion about the people that we shared those times with,” Hackett said. “We brought up a lot of memories that put a smile on our faces. I figured it would prompt some stories, and it did.”
Several of the questions were fun anecdotes about Clark. For instance, which player on the team was nicknamed “World”? That would be Jerry Rice. And who gave him that nickname? Clark did – during Rice’s first minicamp back in 1985.
“We’d never seen anyone like him in the world,” Hackett said of Rice’s skill set.
Here’s another. Who always brought the latest CDs on the plane during each road trip? That was also Clark.
“He kept us all in-tune with the latest stuff in the music world,” Hackett said. “Whatever came out that week, he would always have it.”
Former 49ers defensive lineman Lawrence Pillers (1980-84) flew in from Jackson, Miss., in order to be in attendance. Clark requested that Reynolds reach out to Pillers specifically as a former teammate he really wanted to see. It was a humbling gesture that, as Pillers put it, was indicative of their relationship during five seasons together in San Francisco.
“I know what Dwight and I meant to each other and the camaraderie that we had. He was a hell of a teammate,” Pillers said. “He is a hell of a person, too.”
As lunch concluded, some said their goodbyes and parted ways. Others stayed for at least another hour. Pillers was a part of the handful who remained out on the patio as Clark continued his fireside chat.
At one point, Clark directed his attention squarely on Pillers. He brought up the 1981 NFC Championship Game vs. the Dallas Cowboys. What’s lost in all the hoopla over “The Catch” is Dallas’ final possession. Following Joe Montana’s famed 6-yard touchdown pass to Clark, the Cowboys took the ensuing kickoff to their own 25-yard line with 47 seconds left on the clock.
Danny White fired a 31-yard dart to Drew Pearson on the first play of the drive to the 49ers 44-yard line and called a quick timeout. Trailing 28-27, Dallas still had 39 seconds and one timeout to play with, needing just a field goal to win. The TV copy of the game shows then owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. pacing nervously on the 49ers sideline.
On the very next play, Pillers bull-rushed through the middle of the Cowboys offensive line, sacked White and forced a fumble. Jim Stuckey jumped on the loose football to secure San Francisco’s first NFC crown. The 49ers went on to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI and win the franchise’s first of five Lombardi Trophies.
Clark made sure Pillers knew that without his sack, “The Catch” would have likely been reduced to a footnote and maybe, just maybe, the 49ers ensuing dynasty would’ve never come to be.
“For him to single me out and recognize my role in that historic game – it was an honor,” Pillers said. “We are still family. There’s nothing like having an extended family that you can look back on your life and say, ‘Hey, I was a part of that.’”
The predominant takeaway from the afternoon was Clark’s disposition amid an impossible situation. According to multiple people at the lunch, Clark urged every guest not to ignore his disease. If anyone had questions, Clark wanted them asked. He went into detail about what his days were like and where he was at mentally. In layman’s terms, ALS is a disease that cripples the body without touching the mind. There is no cure at this time, which is why the group marveled at Clark’s relatively positive outlook despite facing an unwinnable battle.
And yet, it’s still a competition all the same. Hackett called Clark “one of the most intense competitors you’re ever going to come around.” Clark posted just 571 receiving yards and three touchdowns during his three seasons at Clemson. The 49ers then took a 10th-round flier on the 6-foot-4 wideout void of any elite athletic traits in the 1979 NFL Draft. Nine years in San Francisco, 6,750 receiving yards, 48 touchdowns, two Pro Bowls, one All-Pro honor and two Super Bowl rings later, Clark’s improbable NFL career with the 49ers earned him a spot in the franchise’s Hall of Fame.
“That speaks to his internal drive,” Hackett said. “He’s admired by the men who played with him. The respect for him and what he accomplished is really off the charts. The overarching sentiment about that lunch is the man himself.
“The affection, the love and the caring that exudes from Dwight came to the surface once again. Here he is, in a very tough situation in a wheel chair, and he’s telling stories. It was all in an up-beat way and a positive way.”
Clark approached his bout against ALS with the vigor and ferocity that mirrored his renowned persona on the football field. Pillers called his former teammate an inspiration. That wasn’t Clark’s goal, per se, but he did want to be seen as someone who took advantage of every moment. As bleak as an ALS diagnosis may be, it didn’t have to be the end of making memories and spending quality time with loved ones.
“I think that would be appropriate, especially if it helps some kids who are going through tough times,” Clark said. “These kids that I’m running into with ALS – it just breaks your heart that they are going through this at such a young age. I’ve at least got 61 years in. Every day is a bonus for me.
“I don’t look at myself as an inspiration, but I do look at myself as someone who isn’t going to quit fighting. I’ll fight until the bitter end to stay alive and spend time with my wife, my kids, my niece, my nephews and my grandkids.”
Both Hackett and Pillers vowed that their departure from Paradise Beach Grille wasn’t a goodbye, rather a see you soon. Others echoed that sentiment. In April, a group of 27 alumni convened to see Clark in Montana for a reunion planned by DeBartolo. Others also visited more privately.
For Clark, it was always about the people. The group photos hung up in his office served as tangible keepsakes. They reminded Clark of all the priceless relationships he fostered during his 61 years.
“Every single coach, equipment guy, trainer and player had something to do with winning those championships,” Clark said. “It was nice to get together with the guys that I could and reminisce and relive some of those great victories. Every Tuesday was very special to me.”
Those who mourn Clark's passing know that the honor was theirs. The 49ers legend leaves behind him a wake of grateful friends and a legacy that will be remembered forever.