One of the great mysteries: Clark's ALS diagnosis recalls three 49ers from 1960s

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AP

One of the great mysteries: Clark's ALS diagnosis recalls three 49ers from 1960s

Editor's note: "One of the great mysteries -- The story of three 49ers diagnosed with ALS" will be published on Wednesday, May 10. Subscribe to The 49ers Insider Podcast and have it delivered right to your phone.

When Dwight Clark announced in March he has ALS, it was a devastating blow to those around him and to his many fans.

For individuals who were around the 49ers in the mid-1960s, the news brought back some painful memories. More than 20 years after they were 49ers teammates, Gary Lewis, Matt Hazeltine and Bob Waters passed away from the rare disease.

As part of ALS Awareness Month, the latest edition of "The 49ers Insider Podcast" remembers those men with, "One of the great mysteries -- The story of three 49ers diagnosed with ALS."

The incidence of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is two per 100,000 people in the United States and it is estimated more than 20,000 Americans may be living with ALS at any given time, according to the ALS Association. Yet, on this one 49ers team, three players developed ALS and died within a short period of time in the late-1980s.

-- Matt Hazeltine graduated from Tamalpais High in Mill Valley and was a star at the University of California. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame posthumously in 1989. Hazeltine played 14 seasons with the 49ers from 1955 to ’68 as a linebacker.

He died on Jan. 13, 1987, at the age of 53. That year, Bill Walsh introduced the Hazeltine Iron Man Award, which is given annually to the 49ers most courageous and inspirational defensive player.

-- Gary Lewis went to high school at San Francisco’s Polytechnic High, across the street from Kezar Stadium. He also played running back at City College of San Francisco before finishing his college career at Arizona State.

Lewis was a sixth-round draft pick of the 49ers in 1964. He played six seasons with his hometown team. Lewis was diagnosed with ALS in November of 1986 and died less than a month later. He was 44.

-- Bob Waters played four seasons with the 49ers from 1960 to ’63 as a quarterback and defensive back. He was on the 49ers during training camp in 1964 before going into coaching. Waters threw the first touchdown pass out of coach Red Hickey’s shotgun formation in leading an upset over the two-time defending NFL champion Baltimore Colts in 1960.

Waters served 20 seasons as head football coach at Western Carolina. He devoted the final years of his life trying to find answers to solve this mystery. Waters contacted as many of his former teammates as possible to see if they were experiencing similar problems.

Studies were done that examined the use of DMSO, painkillers and, even, the fertilizer used on the 49ers practice field in Redwood City.

“He led a single-minded, tough, courageous mission to get as much information as possible,” said Dr. Stan Appel, chair of the department of neurology at Houston Methodist, who worked closely with Waters.

“We never quite resolved why there had been three players amongst a small group that developed ALS.”

Waters died on May 29, 1989. He was 50.

Waters’ wife, Sheri, said she was saddened to learn of Clark’s diagnosis.

"I am very sorry to learn about Dwight Clark's ALS diagnosis,” Sheri Waters told NBC Sports Bay Area in a statement. “I know how difficult it will be for Dwight and his family, as they adjust to this news. Bob would be very sad to know that after all his efforts to seek information to help find a cure for this horrible disease, ALS continues to affect these good men.

“I know that Bob died believing that one day there would be no more ALS. I am still so proud of Bob for his courage and willingness to help others. I wish the very best for the Clark family."

While publicly disclosing his condition on March 19, Clark made the following statement:

“I’ve been asked if playing football caused this. 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.”

Said Dr. Appel, “What Dwight Clark is saying is right on target. Namely, let’s do everything we can to find the causes, to find the therapies that are meaningful for him and for all present and future cases of ALS.”

Former 49ers running back Ken Willard, 73, has not experienced any alarming physical conditions in his post-football life. He cautions against automatically assigning blame to the sport of football.

“Some people try to simplify this issue, but it’s a very complex issue,” Willard said. “I think there’s a lot of research that’s yet to be done. (But) as far as being concerned, I think you’re a fool if you’re not concerned.”

Dr. Appel pointed out there have been studies that claim the incidence of ALS with former football players is four times greater than the general population. But, he said, the data is “far from convincing from a scientific point of view.”

“We know that any sort of trauma can be aggravating in a number of conditions,” Dr. Appel said. “But whether trauma causes it, there is no evidence that trauma causes it, and therefore there is no evidence in football players that trauma will cause ALS.

“Now, there are data that suggests that perhaps once you’re going to get ALS that it can make it worse. And that data is still contested. But I’m a believer that trauma can aggravate ALS, even if it doesn’t start it.”

This edition of the “49ers Insider Podcast” is dedicated to the memories of Gary Lewis, Matt Hazeltine and Bob Waters.

Taking a closer look at Ryan's criticism of Shanahan

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Taking a closer look at Ryan's criticism of Shanahan

There is no shortage of blame to go around for the Atlanta Falcons’ collapse in Super Bowl 51.

The Falcons built a 28-3 lead in the middle of the third quarter and let it slip away, ultimately falling to the New England Patriots, 34-28, in overtime.

Matt Ryan voiced one previously undisclosed factor in the collapse this week in an interview with Pete Prisco of CBS Sports, pointing the finger at the new coach of the 49ers.

Kyle Shanahan has been the focus of a lot of the blame, but critique from the league MVP was a new one.

The Falcons quarterback faulted his former offensive coordinator for taking too much time to relay the play calls. Ryan said he did not have enough time to change any of the plays – presumably checking out of called pass plays to run the ball.

Here’s what Ryan told Prisco:

"Kyle's play calls -- he would take time to get stuff in. As I was getting it, you're looking at the clock and you're talking 16 seconds before it cuts out. You don't have a lot of time to say, 'There's 16 seconds, no, no, no, we're not going to do that. Hey, guys, we're going to line up and run this.' You're talking about breaking the huddle at seven seconds if you do something along the lines.

"With the way Kyle's system was set up, he took more time to call plays and we shift and motion a lot more than we did with (former coordinator) Dirk (Koetter). You couldn't get out of stuff like that. We talk about being the most aggressive team in football. And I'm all for it. But there's also winning time. You're not being aggressive not running it there."

The 49ers can point to mismanagement of the clock for their own Super Bowl heartbreak. The 49ers’ offense had the perfect play call at the perfect time against the Baltimore Ravens late in Super Bowl XLVII.

But with the play clock striking :00, coach Jim Harbaugh was forced to call a timeout from the sideline. A split-second later, the ball was snapped and it appeared the quarterback run would have easily ended up with Colin Kaepernick in the end zone.

Much like after the 49ers’ loss, the Falcons left plenty of room for second-guessing.

Two of Shanahan’s plays calls, which directly led to the collapse, will forever be scrutinized.

The first came with 8:31 remaining in regulation and the Falcons holding a 28-12 lead. On third and 1 from the Atlanta 36, Shanahan did not remain conservative with an expected run play. He swung for the fence.

Receiver Aldrick Robinson, whom the 49ers added this offseason as a free-agent pickup, was breaking free past the Patriots secondary for what could have been a touchdown. But just as Ryan was unloading, New England linebacker Dont’a Hightower hit him and forced the fumble. Running back Devonta Freeman whiffed on blitz pickup, which would have provided Ryan with enough time to target Robinson deep.

Ryan’s explanation does not appear applicable on this play, though. In watching the replay, the Falcons broke the huddle with more than 25 seconds remaining on the play clock and the snap occurred with :15 to spare.

The other questionable sequence came after the Falcons – leading by eight points -- got to the New England 22-yard line with less than five minutes to play. The Falcons lost 1 yard on a run play on first down.

On second down, Ryan was sacked for a 12-yard loss. Before that play, the Falcons broke the huddle with :19 on the play clock. The snap occurred with :04 remaining. The game clock was running, so the Falcons had reason to attempt to burn as much clock as possible.

In the fourth quarter, the Falcons never seemed rushed to get off a play. The closest they came to delay-of-game penalties were when they snapped the ball with :04 on the one play and :03 another time. The majority of their snaps occurred with :10 or more seconds to spare.

If the Falcons were guilty of anything when it came to the play clock, it was that the offense did not waste more time. After New England pulled to within 28-9 late in the third quarter, the Falcons ran only six offensive plays while the game clock was running.

On those six plays, the Falcons snapped the ball with :13, :09, :14, :20, :13 and :04 remaining on the play clock. If they’d snapped the ball with one second remaining each time, they could have shortened the game by 1 minute, 7 seconds. The Patriots scored the game-tying touchdown with :57 remaining in regulation.

Uh-oh: Is Kyle Shanahan going to be Harbaugh-tastic in his timing?

Uh-oh: Is Kyle Shanahan going to be Harbaugh-tastic in his timing?

Until now, Kyle Shanahan’s hiring by the San Fracisco 49ers looked great because of his two-and-a-half predecessors – the last days of Jim Harbaugh, the misplaced concept of Jim Tomsula and the couldn’t-make-chicken-marsala-out-of-old-Kleenex problems surrounding Chip Kelly.

But now, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has told us all that Shanahan has a gift we in the Bay Area know all too well. Specifically, that Shanahan took too long to call plays to the Super Bowl the Falcons vomited up to the New England Patriots.

Now who does that remind you of, over and over again?

Yes, some things are evergreen, and too many options in this overly technological age seems to be one of them. Data in is helpful, but command going out is what bells the cow. Ryan said Shanahan was, well, almost Harbaugh-tastic in his timing.

“Kyle’s play calls -- he would take time to get stuff in,” Ryan told Bleacher Report. “As I was getting it, you're looking at the clock and you’re talking 16 seconds before it cuts out. You don't have a lot of time to say, ‘There's 16 seconds, no, no, no, we're not going to do that. Hey, guys, we're going to line up and run this.’ You're talking about breaking the huddle at seven seconds if you do something along the lines.

“With the way Kyle's system was set up, he took more time to call plays and we shift and motion a lot more than we did with (former coordinator) Dirk (Koetter). You couldn't get out of stuff like that. We talk about being the most aggressive team in football. And I'm all for it. But there's also winning time. You’re not being aggressive not running it there.”

And the reason this matters is because the Atlanta Shanahan had multiple good options on every play. In San Francsco, at least in the short term, he’ll be dealing with minimal options. That could speed up his choices, as in “What the hell, we don’t have Julio Jones.” But it could also mean more delays, as in, “Okay, him . . . no, maybe not . . . no, he just screwed up that play last series . . . oh, damn it, time out!”

In short, it’s growing pains season here, children. On the field, on the sidelines, and maybe even in Kyle Shanahan’s head.