CAPITOLA, Calif. — It’s a few minutes after 12 o’clock when Dwight Clark comes rolling into the back room of this ocean-side restaurant. He’s in a motorized wheelchair now, and down about 80 pounds from his one-time high of 242, but there’s no mistaking the charismatic 49ers receiver.
For the next two-and-a-half hours, Clark tells captivating stories, laughs often and swears with abandon.
This is his Tuesday ritual now, his weekly counter-punch against ALS. Clark will meet for lunch with a small group of 49ers friends at a hot spot near his home and they’ll trade barbs and, as he put it, “tell lies about how good we were.”
At one of the first gatherings, Clark’s table included Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, Harris Barton, Carmen Policy and Eddie DeBartolo. Ronnie Lott comes to the Tuesday lunches about every other week. But whoever the guests are, and whatever restaurant they choose, the menu never changes.
Dwight Clark is always The Catch of the day.
“Reminiscing is healthy,” he explained.
On this particular Tuesday, one day after his 61st birthday and one day before the 36th anniversary of his famous grab against the Cowboys, it was the sportswriters’ turn. Clark gathered with eight reporters, most of them scribes who documented his 49ers playing days from 1979-87. A large but glorious part of the afternoon was off the record, but when the laughter finally subsided, when the iced teas and fish tacos were finally polished off, Clark opened up about his life with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
As if to minimize the awkwardness, Clark even broached the topic himself: “Do you guys have any questions about the disease?” he finally said.
Clark was originally diagnosed with ALS in 2015 and is doing his best to fend off the symptoms. Increasingly, his battle has been in the public eye. The 49ers held Dwight Clark Day at Levi’s Stadium in October, when the man behind “The Catch” in the 1981 NFC Championship game addressed the crowd with a moving speech.
But not every day is full of cheers.
“It’s depressing,” Clark acknowledged Tuesday. “The future is so scary. I can’t imagine being totally paralyzed. I keep trying to reenact it — just lay there, and think, ‘I can’t get up.’ But I can’t do it for very long. It freaks me out.”
Clark said former 49ers owner DeBartolo, who researched the disease with fervor, helped alert him to a new medicine for ALS called Radicava. Because it became available in Japan before being distributed in the U.S., Clark flew to Japan to get a three-month head start.
He’s also encouraged by progress being made in Israel with stem-cell studies.
“Somebody may stumble onto something,” Clark said, before adding: “I don’t think it will be in time for me to use it.”
These weekly lunches began a few months ago as the brainchild of Kirk Reynolds, the former 49ers media relations director. They lift Clark’s spirits so much that he now calls them, “the highlight of my week.”
But someone asked him if he allows himself to get angry. Clark admitted there are down times.
“I’ll say to my wife, ‘I just can’t (freaking) believe I got this disease. Give me something I can fight,’ ” Clark said. “But you just can’t do it. People get sick. You get a chance to fight. I’m still fighting it, but I don’t have the gloves on.”
He tried watching the movie “Gleason,” the documentary about former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason, who set out to document the progress of his ALS with a video diary for his unborn son.
Clark made it halfway through before turning it off. It got too hard for him to watch.
But he’s found the actual Gleason to be an invaluable resource. Clark and Gleason connected with help from Scott Fujita, the former Cal linebacker and one of Gleason’s best friends. Clark caught up with them when the movie was making the rounds of premiers.
“The whole Gleason team was there. I asked a million questions. They were awesome. He’s awesome,” Clark said. “I still ask him questions.”
According to the invite to this Tuesday lunch, the only items on the itinerary were stories and laughs. On that front, Clark did not disappoint.
He recalled, for example, the garish fur coat he wore to the 49ers first Super Bowl parade. Clark explained, still embarrassed, that he and Montana were offered those coats in exchange for appearing in a print ad for a Union Square furrier.
On a whim, Clark chose the coat as his parade day attire.
“It was the only time I ever wore it! After I saw myself in it …’ he said, dropping his head into his hands in disbelief. “Those were some terrible pictures. … But people were coming up and tearing the fur out of it when (we) were on the trolley car!”
Clark also recalled his first training camp with the 49ers, when he was so sure that he’d be cut that he never bothered unpacking. As the weeks went by, the 10th-round draft pick from Clemson noticed that the guy who summoned players to get cut sat by the front door.
“He’d be at the front door at breakfast, right?” Clark said, chuckling at the memory. “So once he started cutting people, I started going in the back door.
“I was going to get taped and get on the field. If they were going to cut me, they were going to have to drag my ass out of there.”
There’s no need. As every Tuesday reminds us, Clark’s place in 49ers history will forever have a place at the table.