'A Football Life' chronicles life of late 49ers legend Dwight Clark

'A Football Life' chronicles life of late 49ers legend Dwight Clark

At the beginning of the A Football Life film on Dwight Clark, producer Peter Frank hesitates in trying to ask him "a tough question."

Clark, suffering from ALS, cuts him off.

"Listen, there is no awkward question," said Clark in what would be his last interview. "Me and my buddies decided, just say it. I know what's happening. I know what's going on. We decided there is no awkward question. Go for it."

The exchange sets the tone for the rest of the film. Dwight Clark: A Football Life debuts Friday at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network.

"That scene shows thematically what Dwight Clark is all about," said Keith Cossrow, vice-president, senior coordinating producer for NFL Films. "When he says that, you can see what kind of guy he is, what he's made of. You can see why he is so special and why he is someone people revered."

NFL Network has examined more than 100 football lives in this series, but it is hard to think of one more powerful, emotional -- and yes, uplifting at times -- than its entry on Clark. The film captures the essence of the popular San Francisco 49ers great as a man who lived an eventful life to its fullest and died with great courage and dignity at the age of 61 last June.

The original intent of this film actually wasn't for the A Football Life series. With Clark's health deteriorating, his close friend and former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. invited many of old his 49ers teammates to a reunion at his ranch at Montana last spring. DeBartolo asked Frank, who has done several NFL Films documentaries on the 49ers, to do a film on Clark to be shown at the event. Frank sat down with Clark for a 90-minute interview.

When Cossrow and his colleagues at NFL Films saw Frank's work, they decided "it needed to be shared with the rest of the world." This version includes some updates and additional interviews, including with his wife, Kelly Clark.

Let's make this clear: this A Football Life isn't about the death of Dwight Clark. "We didn't want to do a film about a guy fighting a losing battle with ALS," Cossrow said. "This film is about Dwight Clark's football life. We want to capture the entirety of a player's life on and off the field."

Indeed, Clark's is the unlikely story of how 49ers coach Bill Walsh discovered the little-used receiver while at Clemson and turned him into a key component of the great 49ers dynasty in the 1980s.

Naturally, everything revolves back to "The Catch" in the 1981 NFC Championship game. Clark's leaping, game-winning grab in San Francisco's win over Dallas is one of the great moments in NFL history.

The film shows how much it meant to Clark. There is a terrific montage of him telling the story of the catch at various times through the years, always with great zeal.

"He understood what it meant to a lot of people," Cossrow. "When you create a moment of such significance to the point that people remember where they were, I do think there is a responsibility to recognize what it means and to embrace what comes with it. Dwight had the ability to put a smile on people's face [by telling the story]. I also think it saved him in some of his lowest moments."

By far, the most emotional scene is when his friends discuss the phone calls from Clark informing them he had ALS. Carmen Policy, Roger Craig, and Keena Turner break down in recalling that moment.

"We debated whether that scene should be put into the film," Cossrow said. "We didn't want to do something that was maudlin. Yet we wanted to get a sense of how much Dwight meant to all of those guys. Understanding the depth of those emotions gives us a greater understanding of that team and Dwight. It became clear to us it was appropriate to be in there."

There are other moving scenes in which Clark talks about coming to terms with ALS. He discusses how the progress of the disease was starting to rob him of the use of his hands, noting how they were the same hands that made him so great as a receiver.

Yet through it all, Clark stressed he was thankful for having "a great life."

"[It would] be hard to say I've had a bad life even though I got a bad break now," Clark said in the film.

Cossrow believes that side of Clark comes through in the film. While the recent memory of how he died is painful, viewers will take away the lasting image of Clark as a vibrant, compelling player and personality on one of the NFL's greatest teams.

"This film is about what made him special, legendary," Cossrow said. "We view it as our opportunity to celebrate his life."


Source: NFL | Ed Sherman | November 1, 2018