Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Remembering Dwight Clark: A Beautiful Man, Soul and Athlete

It's not difficult to discuss the beauty of the San Francisco Bay Area. This is a region that is rich in incredible landscape and seascape, flora and fauna. But I have always associated the unique beauty of this place with AT&T Park, with Steph Curry's 3-pointers and with a man who contributed one of the most beautiful plays the world has ever seen. Forever captured by Walter Ioos, "The Catch" captures legendary Niner wide receiver pulling down the pigskin from the sky, only to land with both feet down in the end zone in the 1981 NFC Championship game. That athlete—Dwight Clark—a beautiful man, soul, and athlete died Monday, June 4, 2018 of ALS. He was but 61 years of age.
I use this photo regularly in presentations I give, for I believe it teaches an important lesson on beauty. The end zone of Candlestick Park isn't exactly Yosemite Valley or even in sports terms, AT&T' Park's "triples alley." No, Clark once remarked, "it was a dump. But, it was our dump s0 we could talk badly about it. But we didn't want anybody else to talk badly about it." No one will argue with his assessment, but what gives with such territorial rights? How might an athlete take pride in a place like Candlestick? I didn't need to go to Queens, NY to get an answer, but that's where I found one.

The 2013 MLB All-Star game was held at Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets (since 2009). Between that distinction, the attention that was being given to then Mets ace, Matt Harvey and my desire to see as many ballparks in MLB, I convinced my friend to go to a game with me. We got talking to a married couple sitting in front of us and I queried "What do you think of your new ballpark?" Without missing a beat, the husband said "Agh....it's ok...but I miss Shea. Shea was a dump, but it was our dump."
He didn't cite his source as Dwight Clark; he didn't need to, as both men revealed a common truth. More often than not beauty and greatness rise out of something unexpected, even a dump. The memories that we treasure emanate from unsuspecting people in unexpected places. A dump may lack aesthetic beauty and its panache is limited. Bells and whistles? none. Maybe we enter such places with lower expectations. Perhaps when the conditions are far less than perfect we allow our humanity—which is also far less than perfect—to step up and step in. Instead of putting the value on the facilities, the equipment, and the sound system, we are left to find the value in one another. Take a look at what happens! "The Catch" is but one shining example. I believe the song "Grace" by the rock band U2 gives an answer: 
Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things
Grace finds beauty
In everything
Grace finds goodness in everything
Perhaps it's easier to let Grace have it's way in a place like a dump. In my talk on Sports and Spirituality, I challenge coaches to consider: where is your dump? I want them to picture that place where they practice and play games that involve the nitty-gritty. Your dump is a spot that's not attractive...it's potentially meddlesome and annoying. Each sports team has a dump—or at least I hope they do. Why? it might also be a place where something magnificent occurs.

Could "The Catch" have occurred on the marvelous new, fresh field of Levi's Stadium. I suppose it could, but I also believe the beauty of this image is the sheer contrast of grace and excellence in a setting that is anything but...and with all due respect to Dwight Clark, his style, athleticism and spirit separate this exact photo from something good to something great.
St. Ignatius of Loyola invites us to find God in all things. And he means all things. But I'd like to ask him about beauty. Ought we find beauty in all things? Can we? I find it in the catch and in a simple tribute to the athlete behind it. 

A few hours after I heard Clark died, I headed out with my mom to run some errands. We both noticed a young man walking toward us was wearing a Niners jersey. On the back, it said  87 CLARK. Based on his age, he didn't see the play when it happened. He wasn't even alive when Dwight Clark was still active. But are a Niner fan, he has inherited stories of past greatness...and of beauty. My mom looked at one another and was sad, but touched by the tribute to a beautiful life that left us too soon. 

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