Commentary

Dwight Clark's comeback route

After some tough times, 49ers great has risen again

Updated: December 5, 2013, 7:29 AM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Dwight ClarkJoe Toth/BPI/Icon SMISan Francisco 49ers' legend Dwight Clark speaks to fans in London before the Niners played the Jaguars at Wembley Stadium on October 27.

The highest point the now-doomed Candlestick Park ever reached was right at 11 feet, 5 inches, when San Francisco 49ers receiver Dwight Clark leaped to pick a stitched pigskin out of the clouds with his fingernails.

It was a crack in the space/time/football continuum. The 49ers began their dynasty with The Catch. The Dallas Cowboys ended theirs. In the stands was a 4-year-old with hubcap eyes: Tom Brady.

The lowest point ever reached by Clark himself, though, came almost 30 years later.

Bankrupt, in the middle of a divorce, and all his real estate developments upside down, he had to sell his five Super Bowl rings and yet was still up to his nostrils in debt.

"One day, I realized the total amount of money I had available to me was under $500," remembers Clark, now 56. "I really had no idea what I was going to do next."


Like Candlestick itself, the life of Dwight Clark has been bittersweet, full of shimmering memories and smelly ones.

Trust me, Candlestick, which will be imploded not long after its final game of this season, was a 70,000-seat toilet stall where Picassos hung: cramped corridors, prison-quality bathrooms, freezing winds, and a bog for a field. And yet Candlestick somehow produced some of the greatest sports memories of the 20th century: The Catch, Montana-to-Rice, Willie Mays roaming the outfield. "The locker room was all screwed up," Clark says. "The showers were awful -- no water pressure and tiny. The field was the worst. It was like a quagmire."

Which was perfect for Clark, the third-leading receiver in Niners history. "The field slowed everybody else down to my speed."

With a quarterback named Joe Montana on the other end, Clark, a 10th-round pick, had a knack for miracles. He pulled his greatest on Jan. 10, 1982, on third-and-3 with 58 seconds left, the 49ers losing by six.

It was called Sprint Right Option. "We actually practiced that play a lot. Coach [Bill] Walsh always told Joe, 'Just throw it way up there, so that if Dwight can't get it, nobody can. Just don't throw an interception.'"

And so, with the Cowboys' Too Tall Jones clawing at his cleats, Montana backpedaled in desperation with Walsh's words in his head. He could not even see the end zone, but he knew where Clark would be. He pump-faked Jones and sailed one that referee Jim Tunney would later say "should've ended up in the third row of seats."

"When I saw it, I remember thinking to myself, 'Holy s---! That's really high!" Clark says.

The defender, the Cowboys' Everson Walls, once told Clark, "Man, I thought that thing was going to fly way past us out of bounds."

But Clark, a former high jumper who could dunk in eighth grade, climbed some unseen escalator and snagged it with the tippy tips of his six middle fingers. Touchdown. Candlestick nearly shook into the bay. Your basic Greatest Catch Ever.

"Man, your boy Dwight really bailed your ass out on that one," somebody chided Montana when he came off.

"C'mon, it wasn't that high," Montana scoffed.

But in watching replays during postgame interviews, Montana said, "Wow. It was pretty high, wasn't it?"

After Clark spiked it -- "In those days, you didn't save the football" -- the first hug was from ball boy Jack McGuire, who got the ball but later slipped Clark another one, eventually selling the original for $50,000. Clark's was rendered worthless.

"Pretty bulls--- thing to do," Clark spits.

Five seasons after The Catch, Clark took a job in the 49ers' front office, where he won three more rings. Then he moved home to Charlotte, N.C., and began building luxury spec houses. "We were doing great," he remembers, "selling two or three a year. And then the economy crashed."

Dwight Clark
Rob Lindquist/Getty ImagesClark has an established reputation for rising to the occasion.

It was June 2008. He was stuck with three $2.5 million homes hanging around his neck. Worse, he and his wife began a divorce. The loans bled him mostly dry and divorce attorneys finished him off.

"It was a week before Christmas [2009] and I really, honestly, didn't know where I was going to turn next," he said.

And then a miracle landed on his doorstep -- a Fed-Ex package from Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the flamboyant ex-owner of the 49ers in their champagne-and-caviar days. Inside: $5,000 in cash.

"To this day, I don't know how he knew I was in trouble," Clark said. "But man, that couldn't have come at a better time."

Next thing he knew, he was getting a call from a former teammate, wide receiver Mike Shumann, urging him to move back to San Francisco, where he had friends, and fans. So he did.

Now remarried, Clark does appearances for five different companies, including the 49ers, and some TV work for the local Fox affiliate. "I'm lucky the 49ers are hot again," he says. "Because it makes old 49ers hot."

But there are still holes to fill. Like the ones in a box that sits on his dresser at home in Santa Cruz. It has "The Catch" engraved into the top, but the five ring slots inside are empty. The rings are in the safety deposit box of Bruce Cousins, the owner of Armida Winery in Healdsburg, Calif., a 49ers fan who witnessed The Catch that day at Candlestick. Cousins bought them off Clark for practically a pack of gum, as part of the bankruptcy.

"They were worth WAY more than that," Clark admits, "but, you know, it was tough times."

To his credit, Cousins gives Clark visitation rights. He even lets him borrow them for appearances. "In my opinion, these are Dwight's rings," Cousins says. "I'm just holding them for a while."

Candlestick will never rise again, but Clark is trying. "I'm getting close to being in a position to buy [the rings] back. I hope I can."

Can he? "Of course!" Cousins laughs.

In the meantime, Dwight Clark has riches of his own -- a height few men have ever reached, a team that cared about him more than he knew, and a quirky, awful, wonderful old stadium they can tear down everywhere but in his memory.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com