State Your Case: There was so much more to 49ers' Dwight Clark than The Catch

Photo by Walter Iooss
Clark Judge

Dwight Clark is one of the 200-or-so names up for selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 2020 Centennial Class … and it should be.

Because you can’t tell the story of the NFL without telling the story of Dwight Clark.

That doesn’t mean I believe he’ll be inducted. On the contrary, I’m pretty certain he won’t. But he should be recognized, and having his name appear on that list is recognition for one of the finest wide receivers … and people … I’ve known in nearly four decades of covering the NFL.

Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be that way. In fact, when Clark was chosen by the San Francisco 49ers in the 10th round of the 1979 draft, he told then-coach Bill Walsh that he’d made a mistake. After all, in his four years at Clemson University he’d caught just 33 passes for three touchdowns.

So certain was he that he wouldn't stick he never unpacked his suitcase at training camp – believing he would be cut any day. But he wasn’t. He not only made the team, he made one of the most memorable receptions in NFL history – a play that is so unforgettable that it is identified by only two words.

The Catch.

That’s all you need to mention to football fans – especially in the Bay Area – and they know whom you’re talking about. Joe Montana threw it, Dwight Clark caught it and with that one touchdown reception the two changed the face of the NFL -- launching one of the greatest dynasties in its history.

When the NFL this summer commissioned a select group of voters to choose the 100 greatest plays in NFL history, The Catch finished second only to the Immaculate Reception. In the early 1990s it was the most requested clip from the archives of NFL Films, which charged up to $5,000 for its use. And a year ago Monday, the 49ers celebrated the moment by unveiling a statue of Clark leaping with his arms outstretched upward, reaching for … what else?

The Catch.

“No one has been defined by a singular moment more than Dwight Clark,” former owner Eddie DeBartolo wrote in the foreword to “Letters to 87,” a compendium of letters to Clark from fans after he was diagnosed in 2017 with ALS.

But Dwight Clark was more than The Catch. He was the 49ers’ star receiver before Jerry Rice, leading the league in NFL in receptions in 1982 and named NFL Player of the Year by Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman, who called Clark “the best possession receiver of the eighties.”

That same year he averaged 101.4 receiving yards per game, second only to San Diego's Wes Chandler, and in 1984 his 16.9 yards-per-catch was a personal best. One year later, he topped all NFC pass catchers with 10 receiving TDs.

For six years, Clark was as good as it gets, named to two Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team as a member of a club that won its first two Stuper Bowls.

The 49ers won four NFL championships in the 1980s as the Team of the Decade, and I always thought it unusual that a club that was that successful, winning no fewer than 10 games in every strike-free season from 1981-1998, had only one member of its 1981 and 1984 offenses named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And that was Joe Montana.

Yeah, I know, Jerry Rice is in there, too, but he arrived in 1985 … or after Montana, Clark, Ronnie Lott, et. al., made San Francisco the center of the pro football universe. As with every Hall-of-Fame quarterback, Montana had to have a go-to receiver … and he did. And it was Dwight Clark before it was Jerry Rice.

Clark’s career statistics aren’t overwhelming, especially in today’s age of inflated passing numbers. But it was his contribution to a dynasty that was so significant. He made the catches others did not … or could not. He was in the middle of every play. He was the first read for Montana when he needed to make a big play. And while Freddie Solomon, not Dwight Clark, was the intended target of The Catch, it was Clark whom Montana waited on after Solomon had slipped and fallen in the end zone.

In 1982 the 49ers voted him recipient of the coveted Len Eshmont Award, given annually to the team’s Most Inspirational Player. The move was unprecedented, with Clark the first wide receiver to win the award since its inception in 1957.

There was a reason.

“Wide receivers don’t block,” former linebacker Matt Hazeltine told Zimmerman in his “The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football.” “They have something written into their contract that says, ‘I don’t block.’ But Dwight is the finest blocking wide receiver in the game today.”

Clark was dependable. He was relentless. And he was consistent, averaging 66 catches a season from 1980 through 1986. That’s seven years, and while it’s not a large sample size, it’s enough to gain him consideration by the Hall. Others – most notably Terrell Davis in 2017 – have been elected to Canton on careers that spanned far less time.

He was also the author of one of the most indelible memories in NFL history.

Dwight Clark belongs on the Hall’s preliminary list for the Centennial Class, and while the odds of him making it to Canton are light-years long, I’d never say never. Remember, this was the guy who wasn’t supposed to reach the NFL … who wasn’t supposed to excel … and who wasn’t supposed to make The Catch.

But did.

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