Book review: “Letters to 87” a fitting tribute to the legacy of 49ers legend Dwight Clark

Jun 24, 2019 at 7:00 AM1


"No one has been defined by a singular moment more than Dwight Clark."

Those are Eddie DeBartolo Jr.'s words, and that's how "Letters to 87: Fans Remember the Legacy of Dwight Clark" opens in a forward by the former San Francisco 49ers owner. "Letters to 87" is an interesting take on a 49ers-related book. It's not just a celebration of Dwight Clark, the former NFL wide receiver whose catch in the back of the end zone during the NFC Championship game following the 1981 season launched a dynasty, but a stroll down memory lane for anyone who remembers that game against the Dallas Cowboys.

For fans who are too young to remember the feeling of watching Clark leap into the air and wrap his fingertips around the Joe Montana-thrown football, the book offers a way to experience the moment through the eyes — or words — of fans who witnessed the franchise-altering moment.

"Letters to 87" features real letters from the die-hard Niner Faithful as they explain what that single play at Candlestick Park meant for them. For some, it ended years of misery and seemingly inept football. For others, it was a moment so fantastic that they were pulled into it and instantly became fans of the once-struggling franchise.

The 49ers and their fans went on to enjoy nearly two decades of dominance and five Super Bowl championships during that span.

Clark, who means so much to the fanbase, is no longer with us. He passed away on June 4, 2018, after a courageous battle with ALS. It was just weeks after NBC Sports Bay Area writer and 49ers insider, Matt Maiocco, gathered letters from fans, and delivered them to Clark's home in Whitefish, Montana. There, he and Clark's former teammates, Ronnie Lott and Keena Turner, his former strength and conditioning coach, Jerry Attaway, former Cleveland Browns executive Lal Heneghan, photographer Brad Mangin, and KNBR host and former sportswriter, Brian Murphy, read those letters to Clark.

Some are emotional. Some are humorous. Some are inspiring. The letters filled Clark with joy as he laid in his bedroom, listening to every word. His one hope was that one day, those letters could be gathered together and shared with the fanbase that brought him so much joy.

That's how "Letters to 87" was born.

Maiocco took it upon himself — along with some help from those in the publishing industry — to make the book happen.


"DC was such a great storyteller, but he also loved to hear what other people had to say about The Catch," wrote Clark's wife, Kelly, in the book. "It was never about him. He was interested in others, and he fully appreciated how that moment impacted lives. He was proud of that accomplishment. After all, he never thought he would make it in the National Football League. So to have that play and that career was a form of validation through the connection he had with his many fans."

Also included in the book are words from Montana and Lott embedded within the 118 fan letters — like Melissa Halmos'. At nine years old, she joined the Niner Faithful on the day of "The Catch." She found herself cheering for the players in red and gold as a way to spite her older brother — a Cowboys fan — who was cheering the 49ers' opponent in that championship game. Halmos has been a fan since.

The book features several black and white photos by Michael Zagaris and Brad Mangin, several of which have never been seen before. They perfectly capture Clark throughout his NFL career. The more recent images of him gathered with close friends show the impact he had on those who knew him.

"As the years moved on, Dwight totally understood how important [The Catch] was to all 49ers fans, players, and everyone associated with the team," wrote Montana. "It was great for him. It was something that enabled him to connect with fans on a personal level. He could look back on that play with great pride. It was a wonderful memory to be a part of something so important, not only in 49er history but NFL history."

"Letters to 87" is the perfect book for the die-hard Niner Faithful, whether it sits on a shelf within your collection or a coffee table as a conversation piece. The letters themselves would have been enough to make the book worth the price, but the inclusion of heartfelt essays by DeBartolo, Montana, Lott, Murphy, and Clark's wife is a bonus.

I was lucky enough to be among those who received a copy of "Letters to 87" in advance of the August 7 release date (yes, 8/7). I quickly read the included essays and have slowly been getting through the fan-written letters. It is an enjoyable experience for someone who grew up a fan of the team but was not old enough to remember watching "The Catch" live. Its impact, however, was made clear by my father's recollection of it.

"Letters to 87" embodies the nearly four decades of memories that started with a then-underrated receiver cementing his place in NFL history and becoming a Bay Area icon. It is a fitting tribute to the legacy of Dwight Clark.

Thank you to Matt Maiocco, a long-time friend of this site, for making this book happen. It is a privilege to have it in my collection.

You can pre-order "Letters to 87" on Amazon. It is currently listed with a $25.00 purchase price.

One hundred percent of the proceeds resulting from the book's sales will go to support Clark's charity of choice, the Golden Heart Fund.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


1 Comment

  • Bill Bird
    Did my letter make it in, David?
    Jun 25, 2019 at 10:52 AM
    0
    Response: It did indeed. It is on page 71.

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