At an autograph function years ago, Dwight Clark decided a lucky young child deserved more than a simple signature. So after a pause, Clark began swirling his pen in the language of the chalkboard, sketching out a row of blockers, a quarterback rolling to his right and a receiver sliding along the back of the end zone.
This was an old 49ers play called “Sprint Right Option.” You know it better as The Catch.
To this day, Clark still makes the play diagram a staple of his autograph shows.
“He did it for that child, and from that point on, it caught on. That’s how it started,” said longtime friend and business colleague Robert Hemphill.
Now, Clark will use that flourish of a pen for a special connection with fans again. For the first time since revealing his ALS diagnosis on March 19, the former 49ers receiver is scheduled to meet the public.
Clark is part of the lineup for the TriStar Collectors Show at the Cow Palace on April 30. He’ll have a familiar face with him: Joe Montana, who threw that famous pass in the NFC title game Jan. 10, 1982, will also be signing autographs at about the same time.
There is a fee, including a top-tier option ($239) that allows fans to pose in the same photo with Clark and Montana together.
While Clark, 60, has long been a regular of the autograph circuit, this date comes with an air of poignancy. It’s the first chance for fans to stand face-to-face with Clark and wish him good luck in his fight against a devastating muscle disease.
“Everyone loves Dwight, and it’s good to be around people who love you,” said former 49ers running back Roger Craig. “That gives you life.”
Still, it could make for some awkward exchanges: People get tongue-tied around Clark anyway, so finding the right words in the wake of disease adds an extra hurdle.
Hemphill, who has represented Clark at signings for 25 years as the founder of National Sports Distributors, urged people to stay upbeat in their encounters.
It helps that Clark has a knack for keeping things light. Jerry Walker, the former 49ers public relations director, has been watching the two-time Pro Bowl selection sign autographs since 1981. He marvels at Clark’s ability to draw people into the interaction, asking them where they’re from or asking questions about the item he’s about to sign.
“He’s always had that silly Southern giggle,” Walker said “He’s unbelievably hospitable, and that’s what people want. People don’t want to meet a superstar who is a superstar. They want to meet a superstar who leaves them with a story. ‘He shook my hand twice’ or ‘He smiled at me the whole time.’”
In his open letter to fans last month, Clark wrote that he began feeling weakness in his left hand in September of 2015. After months of tests and treatment, doctors told him he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“While I’m still trying to wrap my head around the challenge I will face with this disease over the coming years, the only thing I know is that I’m going to fight like hell and live every day to the fullest,” Clark wrote
Clark can no longer play golf and struggles to walk short distances. But for now his pen remains mightier than the disease. Hemphill said the two-time Pro Bowl selection is willing to sign as many autographs as his body allows. A somber note on the National Sports Distributors website warns: “His capabilities for autographing may become limited.”
Clark is driven by more than nostalgia. He’d been on a bit of a financial comeback trail after a divorce and some real estate investments that turned upside down. As he told the Mercury News in 2011: “It’s the way of the world. The economy and ex-wives will kick your ass.”
Clark rebounded by working getting back to work, serving briefly as a television analyst and making numerous corporate appearances.
And of course, there were autograph shows. Prices at the TriStar show vary. It’s $59 for a signature, with additional $29 for a short inscription. For $129, Clark will sign his name and then add his diagram of “The Catch” while you watch.
“I see people who stand there in almost a sense of awe,” Hemphill said. “They just have a true sense of appreciation for it.”
It can take Clark several minutes to sign an autograph that includes a diagram of The Catch. But the receiver has learned over the years not to rush. At a car dealership appearance a few years ago, Clark dashed off an autograph that was little more than a scribble. The woman threw it back at him and said, “I can’t read that!”
Since then, Clark has put a premium on making his autograph look “beautiful,” Hemphill said.
Most of the items Clarks signs these days are done at his own pace. Fans send items to Hemphill’s office in Cotati (www.NSDsports.com) and every few weeks he drives them to Clark’s home in the Santa Cruz area. Clark signs them on his own timetable and, when he’s done, Hemphill picks up the items and sends them back to fans.
The process typically takes a few weeks. Whether Clark’s health status will slow things down is anyone’s guess. The receiver has revealed only that he considers himself fortunate. “The disease seems to be progressing more slowly than in some patients,” Clark wrote.
In the meantime, Clark enjoys re-living The Catch, one pen stroke at a time.
“It’s like perfect artwork,” Hemphill said. “Every single time.”
— Other highlights at the three-day TriStar show include Pete Rose, Orlando Cepeda, Reggie Jackson, Will Clark, Fred Biletnikoff, Hulk Hogan, Mike Tyson and Ray Bourque. A full schedule is available at www.tristarproductions.com