Ex-49ers great Clark, famous for 'The Catch,' dies at 61

Dwight Clark, the San Francisco 49ers great made famous by "The Catch" of a pass from Joe Montana that beat the Dallas Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, died Monday at age 61 after an extended battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Clark's wife, Kelly, announced the news via a message on her husband's Twitter account.

"I'm heartbroken to tell you that today I lost my best friend and husband," Clark's wife tweeted. "He passed peacefully surrounded by many of the people he loved most. I am thankful for all of Dwight's friends, teammates and 49ers fans who have sent their love during his battle with ALS. Kelly Clark."

Clark, who won two Super Bowls as a 49ers player and three as an executive, wrote on Twitter in March about having ALS and wondered about a link to playing football and his disease.

"I've been asked if playing football caused this," Clark wrote. "I don't know for sure. But I certainly suspect it did. And I encourage the NFLPA and the NFL to continue working together in their efforts to make the game of football safer, especially as it relates to head trauma."

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Dwight Clark through his career
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Dwight Clark through his career
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 9: Dwight Clark #87 of the San Francisco 49ers runs with the ball after a catch against the Dallas Cowboys during an NFL football game at Candlestick Park September 9, 1979 in San Francisco, California. Clark played for the 49ers from 1979-87. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI - DECEMBER 6: Linebackers Jim LeClair #55 and Bo Harris #53 of the Cincinnati Bengals tackle wide receiver Dwight Clark #87 of the San Francisco 49ers at Riverfront Stadium on December 6, 1981 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
(Original Caption) Pontiac, Mich.: Coach Bill Walsh of San Francisco Forty-Niners (C) with quarterback Joe Montana (L) and wide receiver Dwight Clark at the superbowl.
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 12: Dwight Clark #87 after catching a pass against the Los Angeles Raiders on September 12, 1982 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/ Getty Images)
Dwight Clark Catching the Football (Photo by � Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
CHICAGO - NOVEMBER 27: Dwight Clark #87 of the San Francisco 49ers warms his hands during the NFL game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on November 27,1983 in Chicago,Illinois. The Bears won 13-3 (Photo by: Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO - SEPTEMBER 16: Dwight Clark #87 of the San Francisco 49ers looks on from the bench during a game against the New Orleans Saints at Candlestick Park on September 16,1984 in San Francisco, California. The 49ers won 30-20. (Photo by: Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)
STANFORD, CA - JANUARY 1985: Dwight Clark #87 of the San Francisco 49ers catches a pass against the Miami Dolphins during Super Bowl XIX on January 20, 1985 in Miami, Florida. The 49ers defeated the Dolphins 38-16. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/ Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO - DECEMBER 11: Former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark is honored in front of the home crowd at Candlestick Park during a game against the New Orleans Saints on December 11, 1988 in San Francisco, California. The 49ers won 30-17. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
Twenty-five years ago, Dwight Clark made one of the greatest catches in NFL history. It changed his career, started the San Francisco 49ers dynasty and, for a period of time, ended the Dallas Cowboys' reign as the NFC's top team. Clark a native of Charlotte, N.C., won five Super Bowl rings with the 49ers as a player and front office executive. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS via Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 04: Former 49er greats (L-R) Joe Montana and Dwight Clark look on before the game between the St Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on December 4, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 4: Former San Francisco 49ers Joe Montana and Dwight Clark talk on the field prior to the game against the St. Louis Rams at Candlestick Park on December 4, 2011 in San Francisco, California. The 49ers defeated the Rams 26-0. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 27: Former San Francisco Forty Niners Dwight Clark and Joe Montana attend the 555 California Christmas Tree Lighting on November 27, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by C Flanigan/WireImage)
PEBBLE BEACH, CA - FEBRUARY 04: Former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver, Dwight Clark signs autographs for fans during the 4th Annual Chevron Charity Shoot-Out ahead of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach Golf Links on February 4, 2014 in Pebble Beach, California. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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A statement released by the 49ers said, in part, "(We) join together to mourn the death of one 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."

Clark's last public appearance was last October at "Dwight Clark Day" when he addressed 49ers fans at halftime of the team's game against the Cowboys at Levi's Stadium. The opponent was an appropriate choice, since Clark's legendary reception decades earlier at Candlestick Park allowed San Francisco to shock Dallas 28-27 in the NFC title game. Clark's leaping catch of Montana's high heave in the final minute put the Niners in their first Super Bowl, which they won over the Cincinnati Bengals.

The NFL's official Twitter account wrote, "One of the most memorable plays in @NFLHistory. The Catch. Rest In Peace, Dwight Clark."

The two-time All-Pro wideout recorded a career-high 85 catches and 1,105 yards in San Francisco's first Super Bowl season, following with an NFL-high 60 receptions in the strike-shortened 1982 season. In the five-year span from 1980-84, Clark led the NFC with 349 receptions. Thanks to his years as one of Montana's most reliable targets, Clark ranks among the team's all-time leaders in catches (506, fourth), receiving yards (6,750, third) and touchdown catches (48, tied for sixth).

Jerry Rice, the man who would go on to set every significant receiving record for the 49ers and a teammate of Clark's, also tweeted his condolences.

Rice's tweet read, "Love you bro Dwight Clark!! RIP"

While Clark is not a Pro Football Hall of Famer, he was in the 49ers' inaugural Hall of Fame class in 2009 and the team retired his No. 87 in 1988, a year after he retired after nine seasons, all in San Francisco.

Cris Collinsworth, a contemporary of Clark in the NFL and now a broadcaster with NBC, tweeted, "Dwight Clark may have been the most humble star the NFL has ever produced. Yes he was fun and funny, but Dwight had an innate goodness to him that will never be forgotten by those who had the good fortune to know him. May God bless Dwight and his family."

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8 things to know about ALS
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8 things to know about ALS

Before you pour ...

The Ice Bucket Challenge has recently boomed on social media for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) awareness; as of mid-August, more than $94 million has been donated, and more than 2.4 million challenge videos have been posted on Facebook. Critics claim that people should donate the cost of bagged ice instead of dumping it, or that it’s a waste of water—or that it doesn’t do much to humanize the devastating condition, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Here are 8 eye-opening facts you should know about ALS, whether you’ve already gotten drenched or are debating to take the plunge.

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The earliest ALS symptoms are easy to overlook

Cramped, stiff muscles are one of the first subtle signs of ALS. Other early symptoms include muscle weakness in one arm or leg, twitching, slurred or nasal speech, and difficulty swallowing, depending on where the motor neuron damage first manifests in the body, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. There is no one test for an ALS diagnosis (it is based mainly on patients’ symptoms), but tests can be done to rule out other conditions. These may include electromyography (EMG), which records electrical activity in the muscles, and a nerve conduction study (NCS), which tests the nerves' ability to send a signal. Abnormalities in these test results may suggest damage to peripheral nerves or muscle disease rather than ALS.

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ALS doesn't discriminate among age groups

Although ALS most commonly occurs in people between the ages of 50 and 70 (the average age of diagnosis is 55), the disease can strike people in their 20s and 30s. Pat Quinn, the ALS patient who is credited with starting the ice bucket craze after seeing a golfer dunk himself online for a relative with the disease, is 31. ALS is 20 percent more common in men than in women, and 93 percent of patients are Caucasian, according to the ALS Association.

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Someone in America is diagnosed with ALS every 90 seconds

Each year, about 5,600 U.S. people are diagnosed with ALS, or one person about every 90 minutes. Someone also dies from ALS every 90 minutes. The disease can cost patients more than $200,000 per year.

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ALS patients' minds remain sharp

Although ALS is physically debilitating, the disease doesn’t affect senses like sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, nor does it affect a person’s mental acuity or intelligence. When patients can no longer speak or move, they can use technological advances like eye tracking, which monitors a patient’s eyeball movement and allows them to spell words that are spoken by a computer, or to play a virtual piano without needing to move any other muscles.

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There is no cure for ALS

The FDA approved the first treatment to help prolong the life of those with ALS in 1995, but there is still no cure. The treatment, Riluzole, slows the progression of ALS by blocking the release of glutamate, a compound believed to injure nerve cells. Yet medication “at best only postpones death for a few months, and does not preclude the need for supportive care and practical help,” reported a U.K. study on ALS patients. A 2013 study in the journal Annals of Neurology found a link between eating bright-colored fruits and vegetables, which are packed with antioxidants called carotenoids, and a lower risk or slower onset of ALS. Many clinical trials are currently underway to identify risk factors and more treatments that slow disease progression or target specific symptoms, but much more work—and funding—is needed. 

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Brain injuries may be a risk factor

A National Football League-funded study compared the brains of 12 deceased professional athletes (who all had experienced repeated concussions while playing) with those of 12 patients who had died from ALS, and found that abnormalities in the brains and spinal cords of the two groups mirrored each other. Researchers say that the protein aberrations found in both patients affected by brain injuries and those with neurodegenerative disease like ALS may be linked to athletic trauma. “The play of contact sports, such as boxing, football and hockey, might be associated,” the authors, led by Dr. Ann C. McKee, told the Los Angeles Times. “Whether repetitive head trauma alone provokes these neurodegenerative cascades, or only in association with certain genetic constellations remains to be determined.” Other studies have found an 11-fold increased risk of ALS among Italian soccer players who had multiple head injuries and a greater ALS risk among people who have served in the military, CNN reported.

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ALS is fatal

ALS causes the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord to degenerate. As a result, patients’ nervous systems progressively lose function until they experience life-threatening infection, heart attack or heart failure, blood clots, or breathing problems. Most patients die within three to five years of diagnosis. About 20 percent of ALS patients live five years or more, and up to 10 percent live for more than 10 years, according to data collected by the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins. Visit alsa.org to learn more about symptoms, research, and donating.

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Born in Kinston, N.C., in 1957, Clark went to Clemson originally as a strong safety and only caught 33 passes in his college career. The 49ers still drafted him, albeit in the 10th round in 1979 when the NFL draft lasted 12 rounds.

During his first NFL training camp, Clark roomed with future Hall of Famer Montana, and an iconic quarterback-receiver connection was born.

Once retired from football, Clark spent nine seasons in the 49ers' front office, including as the team's general manager in 1998. Clark then joined the Cleveland Browns as the team's general manager and director of football operations from 1999-2002.

Clark is survived by his wife and three children, daughter Casey and sons Riley and Mac, all from a previous marriage.

--Field Level Media

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