SANTA CLARA, Calif. — One day after franchise legend Dwight Clark died following a lengthy battle with ALS, the San Francisco 49ers honored and remembered him.
Before the Niners stepped on the field Tuesday for their eighth organized team activity of the offseason, coach Kyle Shanahan asked vice president Keena Turner to talk to the team about Clark. Turner, who played linebacker for the Niners in the 1980s, knew Clark best among those in the building.
“We had Keena talk to the team a little bit about him today to tell them what type of guy he was and just to hear how he was in the locker room,” Shanahan said. “It wasn’t a coincidence that that team was so tight. To hear the type of teammate he was, the type of friend he was to people like Keena and the rest of that team, that’s what we’re trying to build here. That’s why they had a great culture then, started out with great people, starting with Dwight, and that’s what we’re trying to emulate. I’ve got a lot of respect for that guy, and he’s going to be greatly missed.”
During the discussion, Turner told the current Niners about how former coach Bill Walsh discovered Clark on a scouting trip to Clemson; Walsh had originally gone to see Tigers quarterback Steve Fuller. But the biggest message Turner aimed to get across was how someone like Clark can help change an entire team’s culture.
“I think they really enjoyed Keena talking about his teammate and why he was so important to their turnaround and their becoming champions,” general manager John Lynch said. “I thought he nailed it, talking about the right approach and how Dwight can be an example for all of them and for this team as we move forward.”
Beyond Turner’s visit with the team, the 49ers also took steps to make sure that Clark was at the forefront of everyone’s mind Tuesday. Shanahan showed some film of Clark so players could see what he was able to do on the field. The video board outside Levi’s Stadium had a graphic with Clark’s name, number and the years he lived. Every member of the coaching staff wore a T-shirt with Clark’s name and his number, 87. Shanahan wore a Clark No. 87 T-shirt jersey.
Lynch confirmed that the 49ers have already begun exploring ways to honor Clark this season. While it’s unclear how the team will honor him — a jersey patch, a helmet decal, etc. — the 49ers will have some prominent acknowledgment of Clark this season.
“We’re talking about a lot of things,” Lynch said. “I know [49ers president] Al Guido is talking with the league about what we can do, and I know there’s always approval [needed] there, but I promise you we’ll come up with a nice way to honor him. I think not only nice but fitting. He deserves it. He’s earned it. I’ve talked about how beloved he is with this fan base and he earned that, so I think we’ll do the right thing and be happy to do so.”
For Shanahan, Clark’s loss hit particularly close to home. As a middle schooler, Shanahan spent his down time around the 49ers when his father Mike was the offensive coordinator. During those years, Clark was working as a front-office executive for the team.
Shanahan said he spent a lot of time around Clark as a child and Clark would often make him run errands for him or race against him when he was driving his golf cart at training camp.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but now that I’m older and I look back on that stuff, that stuff had a huge impact on how I am now, and I feel very fortunate to be able to grow up around people like that, especially him,” Shanahan said.
During his own playing career, Shanahan wore No. 87, though he says that was more because he was a fan of former Broncos receiver Ed McCaffrey. But Shanahan said he he makes sure his children know that anytime they see No. 87 around the Bay Area, it’s not because of him.
“I tell them it’s Dwight,” Shanahan said. “That was the man. Don’t get that mistaken.”
Shanahan was able to reconnect with Clark when he returned to San Francisco as head coach last year. Before the 2017 NFL draft, Clark sat with Shanahan and Lynch and talked football for about an hour.
Lynch said those moments were meaningful for him. He had only met Clark a few times before becoming the team’s general manager but quickly realized Clark’s imprint on the Bay Area.
“I think the one thing that’s been impressed upon me since I’ve been here, I think just the love that this community and this fan base had for Dwight,” Lynch said. “You think of Ronnie [Lott] and you think of Jerry [Rice], and what I learned when I came here is that Dwight is right there.”
In some ways, Lynch and Clark shared kindred paths. Both carved out long and successful playing careers before becoming high-ranking personnel executives.
Clark first came to visit Lynch during his second week on the job in San Francisco at the request of owner Jed York. While Clark was already dealing with his ALS diagnosis, Lynch said Clark wanted to be there to offer any guidance he could as someone who had made a similar leap into the front office. Clark hammered home to Lynch the importance of trusting his instincts and remembering to enjoy the job on a daily basis.
“Really, he was more there for me and just talking about some of the pointers and whatnot,” Lynch said. “I’ll always value that.”
Since Shanahan and Lynch took over the 49ers, they’ve emphasized to their players the value of embracing and understanding the franchise’s rich history. It’s why Rice was on the field running routes during a training camp practice last season and why murals and banners of the team’s greatest players and plays now adorn both public and private parts of Levi’s Stadium.
Taking time to remember Clark, the player who jumpstarted it all with “The Catch,” helped bring those things back into focus.
“I think Keena said it best today: It’s not about how you die, it’s about how you lived,” Shanahan said. “And I think anyone who knows him and has been around him, he lived a great life and left a huge imprint. Whether you go at 61 or 90 or 30, whenever it is, he did it right, and I think we are all thankful for that.”