INDIANAPOLIS — It was like clockwork.
Every Tuesday for a period of time last year, Tom Rathman, Fred Formosa and Kirk Reynolds would head to Dwight Clark’s house in Capitola, Calif., load Clark into their vehicle and go grab lunch at a favorite restaurant nearby.
Oftentimes they would be joined by others — former San Francisco 49ers teammates, coaches, executives, team employees or other dear friends — who simply wanted to get a chance to see Clark’s trademark smile.
The downfalls of being diagnosed with a fatal disease like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS, are obvious. The body, over time, progressively shuts down; eventually, breathing can become nearly impossible without permanent ventilatory support, and those with the disease are, on average, given three to five years to live.
But in what was the final two years of his life, Clark was able to take comfort in the fact that he would more often than not be surrounded by those who loved him the most.
Clark, the legendary 49ers wide receiver, died Monday at the age of 61:
For Rathman, he’ll forever be grateful — not only his weekly outings with Clark last year, but for more than three decades worth of friendship with a man he looked up to years before they were teammates.
In 1986, Rathman, a standout fullback at Nebraska, was selected by the 49ers in the third round of the NFL Draft. But he didn’t need an introduction to No. 87 when he got to San Francisco.
Clark, by then, had already achieved legend status for making one of the most famous plays in NFL history: “The Catch,” a six-yard touchdown reception against the Dallas Cowboys in the waning seconds of the 1981-82 NFC Championship Game; a pass from Joe Montana that Clark was just able to get into his grasp with a last-second leaping effort in the back of the Candlestick Park end zone.
The play propelled the 49ers to Super Bowl XVI, where they would defeat the Cincinnati Bengals, 26-21, sparking one of the greatest dynasties in league history.
“Going in there as a young player, I idolized him,” Rathman, now the Indianapolis Colts running backs coach, told Colts.com on Monday. “And so many people do idolize him because of that play.”
But Rathman quickly learned why Clark, beyond everything that came with “The Catch,” was so revered within the 49ers organization.
“I remember him as a great teammate,” said Rathman, who played with Clark his final two years in the league in 1986 and 1987. “He was one of the original 49ers that set the standards out in San Francisco. He was on the first Super Bowl team, and that kinda really established the 49ers at that time.
“Just as a teammate, he kind of was the standard, you know?” Rathman continued. “He set the standard for the organization.”
With his playing days behind him, Clark entered a role as a team executive with the 49ers, where his relationship with Rathman — by then a standout player in his own right — continued to grow.
And although the two weren’t able to see each other as much as they would’ve liked when Rathman’s playing days were over and his coaching career began — and when Clark eventually became general manger of the Cleveland Browns from 1999 to 2002 — their bond never broke.
And in March 2017, when Clark announced that he had been diagnosed with ALS, Rathman — still living in the San Francisco area after wrapping up his final year as the 49ers running backs coach following the 2016 season — made every effort he could to see his good friend.
“I was very fortunate this past year not being in the NFL sitting out,” Rathman said. “There’s a group of guys that would get together — you know, different guys every week — and we would go down to Capitola and have lunch with him on Tuesday. And I went down every week — every week that I could — and enjoyed the time that we spent together as a group, and he really enjoyed it, and you could see it in his face.”
Rathman said the last time he got the chance to visit with Clark was in January. Since that time until his death on Monday, Clark had moved from California to Montana, where he was just down the road from one of his closest confidants, former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.
And after hearing of a slight accident in Clark’s home in recent days, Rathman said he sent DeBartolo a message to pass along to his dear friend.
It wasn’t anything different than what Rathman would tell Clark in person. But he’s glad he got the chance to say it one last time.
“I was able to reach out to Eddie and text him and have him relay a message (to Clark) that I missed him dearly with all my heart, and sorry that I wasn’t able to get back there because of being employed, and that I missed him and that I loved him,” Rathman said.
“It’s just a tough situation; I mean, it’s sad to understand that a great human being like Dwight is gone,” he continued. “He’ll be missed dearly.”