The San Francisco 49ers are mourning the loss of one of their most beloved figures in franchise history. Dwight Clark passed away peacefully on Monday, June 4, at the age of 61 surrounded by friends and family, the team announced.
Clark, whose No. 87 jersey is retired by the 49ers, is known for one of the most iconic plays ever and one that motivated a future Giants champion. On January 10, 1982, the 49ers trailed the Dallas Cowboys by six points with 4:54 to play in the NFC Championship Game. Behind Joe Montana, the 49ers moved 83 yards to the Cowboys six-yard line. Then on third down, Montana rolled to his right, pumped, and threw to the back of the end zone, where Clark leaped high and hauled the ball in with his fingertips.
San Francisco went on to defeat the Cowboys, 28-27, propelling the 49ers to their first Super Bowl title and thus a dynasty was formed. The defensive back Clark made the play over was one Everson Walls, an undrafted rookie taking the league by storm with 11 interceptions in the regular season. He notched two more on Montana and recovered a fumble in the NFC Championship Game – Dallas intercepted the Niners quarterback three times in that game – but the lasting image is Walls, wearing a white No. 24 jersey, stretching out in the end zone with Clark above him catching the ball. That's just the way history goes. To the victor belong the spoils. Sports Illustrated captured the shot and used it on the cover of the magazine the following week. It served as a permanent reminder for Walls, who was haunted by it but finally got redemption nearly a decade later.
That is where the Giants come into the story.
They picked up the longtime division rival and four-time Pro Bowler in 1990, and Walls went on to record six of his 57 career interceptions that year as the Giants finished 13-3. Big Blue dismantled Chicago to advance to the NFC Championship Game, Walls' third career trip to the semifinal round. It turned out to be his first and only successful one. Walls and the Giants defeated, who else, the 49ers as they added another thrilling chapter to their historic rivalry. But the real redemption came next in Super Bowl XXV.
As Bills kicker Scott Norwood's potential game-winning field goal attempt went wide right, Sports Illustrated once again had a lens pointed at Walls. This time he had a different pose.
"I'm lined up away from the rush, defensive left side. I remember when he kicked the ball, it looked like it went over my head," Walls recalled a few years ago as the Giants celebrated the 25th anniversary of the 1990 championship team. "The minute it went over my head I'm anticipating that it's going to be wide. I just remember snapping my head around. The camera just happened to stay on me, and I'm just like, 'Thank you, God.' And I finally, finally got my championship when it was all said and done."
Giants fans remember that image more than the one from January 1982, but that's not the case for those outside of the Tri-State. And Walls was fine with that. In fact, it sparked a long friendship. A few years after the 1981 NFC Championship Game, Clark approached Walls at an awards banquet. Clark was being compensated by Kodak for using the image of "The Catch" and he wanted to let Walls in on it.
"I guess football does that — and sports does that — for a lot of people. You're bonded together because of a certain moment in time," Walls told The Mercury News last year leading up to "Dwight Clark Day" at Levi's Stadium. "And regardless of how you feel about that moment, it's what happens after that that really counts. And between me and Dwight, I think that what counts between us is the friendship."
The San Francisco 49ers Organization released the following statement on Monday:
"The San Francisco 49ers family has suffered a tremendous loss today with the passing of Dwight Clark. We extend our condolences and prayers to Dwight's wife, Kelly, his family, friends and fans, as we join together to mourn the death of one of the most beloved figures in 49ers history. For almost four decades, he served as a charismatic ambassador for our team and the Bay Area. Dwight's personality and his sense of humor endeared him to everyone he came into contact with, even during his most trying times. The strength, perseverance and grace with which he battled ALS will long serve as an inspiration to so many. Dwight will always carry a special place in our hearts and his legacy will live on as we continue to battle this terrible disease."