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

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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.

49ers family pledges support for Dwight Clark in battle with ALS

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49ers family pledges support for Dwight Clark in battle with ALS

Dwight Clark’s public announcement of his diagnosis of ALS came as no surprise to many of his former 49ers teammates and friends.

Clark’s battle with the degenerative disease has been suspected as far back as when former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August.

On Sunday, Clark released an open letter to confirm he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“Dwight has been an integral part of my family’s life for almost four decades,” DeBartolo wrote in a statement. “We are absolutely devastated. We vow to do everything in our power to support Dwight and (wife) Kelly and help them fight this horrible disease.”

Clark has shown support for ALS charities for several months, as former New Orleans Saints defensive back Steve Gleason wages his battle. Gleason’s eyes are the only body parts he is capable of moving on his own.

In November, the NFL announced it teamed up with Steve Gleason to fight ALS. A marketing campaign was created, "Game-Changing Moment," which featured a series of commercials. Clark’s “The Catch” was featured. The message: "The NFL has had 1,000's of game-changers. ALS needs 1."

Two months earlier, Clark was among the former and current NFL players who donated memorabilia for a Gleason-supported auction to raise funds for Answer ALS, a nonprofit organization for research toward a cure.

Clark has lost strength in both hands -- making opening a pack of sugar or buttoning his shirt impossible, he said. He can no longer run, play golf or walk for an extended period.

“There is nothing tougher than watching a great friend go through a serious health challenge,” former 49ers teammate Brent Jones said in a statement. “Dwight is handling this adversity with uncommon strength and the heart of a courageous champion, and our family’s thoughts and prayers are constantly with Dwight and Kelly.

“I know that they are fully aware that we will continue to walk alongside them, and do anything and everything possible to help them through this tough time.”

Many of Clark’s teammates expressed support and a commitment to do anything possible to assist him in the difficult times ahead.

“Dwight is like a brother to me,” Roger Craig said. “This news crushed me. I’ve vowed to him to be here for whatever he needs from me. Whenever or wherever. He deserves all our heartfelt support.”

“To live with another of my best friends struggling with a disease like ALS is devastating,” Ronnie Lott said.

Eric Scoggins, a member of USC’s 1978 national championship team and friend of Lott, died from ALS in January 2009.

“I’m asking all of us to not only send their prayers but I’m asking you to do whatever you can to fight this disease,” Lott said. “Dwight will be a champion, which he has been able to show since I met him, since the first time he’s hugged me and to this day moving forward.”

Said former 49ers linebacker Keena Turner, “We are here for Dwight. We are teammates for life and we will not allow him to go through this challenge alone. I am proud of the courageous way he is approaching this challenge. I will be here for him and with him.”

Clark, who turned 60 in January, played nine season for the 49ers from 1979 to ’87. The 49ers retired his jersey No. 87 in 1988.

“D.C. has done so much for me as a player and friend,” Jerry Rice said in a statement. “My rookie year he showed me how to run that out route! We know him for the catch but he’s a great individual who cares about people. Please pray for him Faithful through this adversity!!! I love the guy!!!!”

Said Joe Montana, “Jennifer and I are saddened by the diagnosis of Dwight. This is a difficult time for Dwight, Kelly and all of us who love him. He is family, and in our continual thoughts and prayers. We hope the public will be cognizant of Dwight’s desire for privacy.”

Clark is responsible for the most iconic play in 49ers history – his leaping 6-yard touchdown catch of a Joe Montana pass in the NFC Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys in January 1982. “The Catch” sent the 49ers to their first Super Bowl title.

“Dwight Clark is one of those guys that lights up the room – always smiling and making you feel great,” Harris Barton said. “When I heard the news, I like others in the 49er family, was devastated. D.C. changed the course of the 49ers with ‘The Catch.’ Don’t be surprised if he changes the course of this disease as well.”

49ers legend Dwight Clark announces ALS diagnosis

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49ers legend Dwight Clark announces ALS diagnosis

Dwight Clark, who authored the most iconic play in San Francisco 49ers history, announced on Sunday he has been diagnosed with ALS.

Clark turned 60 in January. He played nine NFL seasons, all with the 49ers, from 1979 to ’87.

According to the ALS Association, approximately 6,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with the disorder each year and an estimated 20,000 may be living with ALS in the U.S. at any given time.

He issued the following statement:

In September of 2015, I started feeling weakness in my left hand. I was mildly paying attention to it because since my playing days, I’ve constantly had pain in my neck. I was thinking it was related to some kind of nerve damage because it would just come and go.

After months of tests and treatment, I got some bad news. I was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

I have ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Those words are still very hard for me to say.

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.

There is no test that will positively diagnose you with ALS. You have to eliminate the possibility of all other diseases and disorders and then wait to see what additional symptoms you develop. I visited six neurologists and three ALS specialists. I also was treated for a B12 deficiency, which sometimes can mirror the symptoms of this debilitating disease.

In addition to losing strength in my left hand – which makes opening a pack of sugar or buttoning my shirt impossible – I have now experienced weakness in my right hand, abs, lower back and right leg. I can’t run, play golf or walk any distances. Picking up anything over 30 pounds is a chore. The one piece of good news is that the disease seems to be progressing more slowly than in some patients.

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.

What I do know is I have a huge battle in front of me and I’m grateful for the strength and unconditional love from my wife Kelly. She has been my rock. She keeps thinking positive and convinces me each day that we can beat this, as does my daughter Casey and my son Mac. My brother Jeff, his wife Debra and their family also have been unwavering with their love and support. I get the same pep talk from the Boss, Eddie D. His support has been incredible. So rest assured, I know I’m not alone in this fight.

Every single one of my 49ers teammates that has contacted me has said whatever I need, anytime I need it, they will help. That’s just the kind of guys they are. They were so giving as players and now they are the same as friends.

I can’t thank my teammates and friends enough for their support. Mr. D always treated us like family and that family is still together. I also want to thank all the great 49ers fans. Your support over the last 35 years has allowed me to remain connected to you. Rarely does a day go by when I’m not asked about ‘the Catch,’ when we were able to get past the Cowboys and go on to win our first Super Bowl.

I’m not having a press conference or doing any interviews. That time will come. Right now, I’ve got work to do. I’ve got to devote all my energy preparing for this battle and I would hope you can respect my family’s privacy as I begin this challenge. My ultimate hope is that eventually I can assist in finding a cure for ALS, which disrupts the lives of so many and their loved ones.

Sincerely,
DWIGHT CLARK

Clark attended an autograph show in Chicago this weekend. He also traveled to watch his alma mater, Clemson, defeat Alabama in the national championship game in January.

Clark and quarterback Joe Montana teamed up for "The Catch" to propel the 49ers to their first Super Bowl. Clark made a leaping 6-yard touchdown reception for the winning points in a 28-27 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game at Candlestick Park on January 10, 1982. Two weeks later, Clark recovered the onside kick to seal the 49ers' 26-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI.

The 49ers retired his No. 87 in 1988, He finished his career with 506 catches for 6,750 yards and 48 touchdowns. He ranks fourth all-time in 49ers history in receptions and third in receiving yards. He was named to the first-team All-Pro teams in 1982 and '83.

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San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York issued the following statement below: