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Dwight Clark’s heartwarming connection to a lifelong 49er fan battling ALS

Sports finds a way to connect us all

Los Angles Raiders v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ronald C. Modra/ Getty Images

Every 49ers fan knows who Dwight Clark is. No matter when they started following the team, everyone is familiar with ‘The Catch’ and Clark’s contribution to the legendary moment that kickstarted a dynasty. I’m writing this to tell you about another side of Clark and an unbreakable bond he formed with a lifelong 49ers fan named Osiel Mendoza.

Like Clark, Mendoza was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), also commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. For those unfamiliar, ALS is a rapidly progressing neurological (nervous system) disease that belongs to a group of disorders known as motor neuron diseases.

ALS attacks nerve cells called motor neurons that control voluntary muscles (the muscles we are able to control). This leads to progressive weakness and disability. When these cells die, voluntary muscle control and movement are lost. People with ALS eventually lose their strength, ability to move their arms, legs, and body, and the ability to breathe on their own. In most cases, their minds remain sharp and alert.

After connecting with Mendoza at an event hosted by the ALS Cure Project earlier this year, he was kind enough to spend some time telling me about his story and his background, which are both very important to the story.

Mendoza was born and raised a 49ers fan. In his own words, “My grandfather was a huge 49ers fan, so rooting for the Niners is all I’ve ever known my entire life”. In elementary school, Jerry Rice was his idol and proudly wore his jersey, the first NFL jersey he ever had. Mendoza met Jerry Rice at Dwight Clark Day a few years back and mentioned that Rice called him “The real GOAT,” an exchange that Mendoza said made his entire year.

Some of his other favorite players were Frank Gore, Terrell Owens, Steve Young, and Vernon Davis. A couple of his favorite players on the current roster include George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Elijah Mitchell. Mendoza also mentioned he is excited to watch Trey Lance tear it up this year.

Mendoza was, like many people reading this, a loyal 49ers fan who enjoyed watching his beloved team take the field at Candlestick and Levi’s Stadium, respectively. Then in October of 2016, he had his world turned upside down when he was officially diagnosed with ALS at the age of 21.

Before I get to Mendoza’s connection with Clark, I wanted to have the chance to give a bit more insight into how this disease progresses. My main intention with this article is to raise as much awareness as possible about ALS, and giving Mendoza a chance to describe in detail how his symptoms progressed will help paint a better picture of just how tough of a battle that is currently being fought to cure this brutal disease.

Here is what Mendoza said:

“During Fall term of my senior year at the University of Oregon is when I first experienced odd things happening to my body. One of the first things I noticed was weakness. I went to the gym 3-4 days a week usually, and instead of the weight getting easier to lift as I was working to get stronger, the normal weight that I started with as a warm up was difficult for me to get up. I thought at first, maybe I just didn’t eat well or hydrate enough that day and my body didn’t have enough energy, but I was very wrong because it continued.

Then I started noticing my arm and leg muscles were twitching out of nowhere one day. I didn’t think much of it other than maybe I just didn’t get enough sleep last night. But again, I was very wrong because as a week passed, the muscle twitches never stopped. One more thing I noticed while at work at Dick’s Sporting Goods one day was a debilitating leg cramp.

After we closed for the day, a few coworkers and I went to the golf simulator to see who could drive the ball the furthest, and also who could throw a ball the fastest. We did this every now and then, so it wasn’t something I wasn’t used to. As soon as I put my all into my golf swing and my throw, my leg muscle cramped up so hard like nothing I had ever experienced before.

Then at home over the next few days, I started experiencing foot cramps that hurt really bad. All of these unusual symptoms to my body occurred over a span of two weeks. After I noticed that it wasn’t stopping or getting better, I went to the doctor for an evaluation. I was weighed and noticed I lost 15 pounds since I last weighed myself 2 weeks prior.

That was alarming. After the appointment, I was referred to see a neurologist a week later to undergo further testing to try and understand what was going on. 2 weeks later, on October 25, 2016, I was diagnosed with ALS and told by the neurologist that I had 2-5 years to live.”

Upon hearing about Clark’s ALS diagnosis, Mendoza messaged Clark on Twitter. Clark’s wife Kelly responded and gave Mendoza Clark’s phone number, and Mendoza texted Clark shortly after that. The two spoke on the phone a couple of times before Mendoza went to the Clark household to meet Dwight and Kelly, a moment that he mentioned he would cherish forever.

Mendoza then went a bit further into detail about his relationship with Clark and the conversations they had with one another:

“Our situations were obviously completely different, I was diagnosed with ALS at 21 years old and Dwight was diagnosed at 60 years old. But when it comes to ALS, our symptoms and struggles were so similar with everything that was happening to our bodies so the conversation flowed naturally. I was one of the first people with ALS that Dwight ever talked to, so there was a lot we had in common in terms of our ALS journeys to just vent about.

I remember talking about a new ALS drug, Radicava, that had just recently been FDA Approved, and we were both getting ready to try it in hopes of it slowing down our progression. We talked a lot about how the disease was affecting our livelihoods as we began to get weaker in our hands, arms and legs. Dwight signed a ton of autographs throughout his career and was something he was still trying to do for as long as he could, but it was getting more difficult for him to do by the day. I remember him mentioning that he was talking to Steve Gleason about how to still sign autographs digitally.”

Absolutely incredible to think that while Clark was dealing with such a brutal disease, one of his primary concerns was how he could still bring joy to fans by signing autographs for them. A true display of selflessness that reflects the kind of person Clark was, which Mendoza expanded a bit on as well.

“Throughout our conversations, I noticed one thing in particular that has always stuck with me. No matter what difficult thing that Dwight talked about going through, he always ended with something positive. That he was trying to always find a solution and was going to fight like hell through it. When we met in person, I picked his brain about the current 49ers roster at the time, his time of being a GM for the Browns and a lot of football talk.”

The bond between Mendoza and Clark naturally led to them discussing how to build a path towards a future without ALS and how they could plot a course towards finding a cure for this devastating illness.

“We also discussed the need of raising awareness and funds for ALS because there was such a big opportunity to do so in a big way, especially through the NFL. My hope was to launch a fundraiser with him so we could fight back against what we were going through, as well as for the thousands of other families battling ALS. I knew that Dwight wanted to use his platform to make a difference in the fight against ALS. I just wish we had more time to do so.”

Clark, unfortunately, succumbed to his illness, passing away on June 4th, 2018.

After Clark’s passing, his wife Kelly reached out to Mendoza and offered to donate Dwight’s nearly brand new wheelchair van Mendoza and his family.

“I was taken back by such a kind gesture and told myself that I would carry Dwight’s legacy by traveling around in that van and experiencing life despite the difficulties of ALS. I call the van, ”The Catch” and I also am waiting for a custom license plate to arrive with DC 87 on it.”

Mendoza also touched on how special the annual Dwight Clark Day is to him, an event the 49ers put on every August.

“I’ve made it a tradition to attend Dwight Clark Day at Levi’s Stadium on 8/7 every year. It’s a special day honoring Dwight’s legacy and raising awareness for ALS that I look forward to every year. Can’t wait for this year’s Dwight Clark Day.”

Mendoza has been battling ALS for over five years now, and beyond the donation of the wheelchair van, he also made it clear just how much of an impact his relationship with Clark has had on his valiant effort to fight this terrible disease.

“His words about fighting through the difficult times inspire me to this day. I fight for him.”

One of the greatest challenges in regards to ALS is the general lack of awareness about the disease itself and how drastic the effects are as the illness progresses. Mendoza went in-depth to paint a picture that hopefully will

“ALS can rob anyone of the most basic abilities that we often take for granted. Talking, moving, and breathing.

Eating completely normal led to eating slower, which led to chewing longer, which led to trouble swallowing, which led to choking hazards, which led to an inability to swallow, which led to a feeding tube.

Walking completely normal led to dragging my legs and getting fatigued as my muscles began to deteriorate, which led to paying attention to every step I took, which led to tripping and falling, which led to serious injuries, which led to a cane, walking sticks, a walker, which led to a wheelchair, which led to complete paralysis of my body.

Talking completely normal led to talking slower, which led to difficultly pronouncing words, which led to slurred speech, which led to difficulty having conversations, which led to total loss of verbal communication, which led to communicating through a computer.

Breathing completely normal led to becoming short of breath doing basic daily activities, which led to trouble breathing when laying down flat in bed, which led to having to catch my breath when talking, which led to using a BIPAP to support my breathing, which led to the decision of death or tracheostomy at the age of 24, which led to becoming dependent on a ventilator to breathe.”

Mendoza also wanted to make one thing very clear after saying this. He is not searching for or in need of pity. His number one priority is and remains to create a future without ALS, something that is only possible by raising awareness and getting as many people as possible involved in the pursuit of a cure for this terrible illness.

“I’m not searching for pity by explaining this. I don’t think anyone in the ALS community is searching for that. We just want to be heard. And want to create a future without ALS. I will continue to fight towards making that dream a reality. Whatever it takes.”

Before concluding this article, I wanted to make sure I did two things. The first was to emphasize just what a special person Mendoza is. He is someone who I look up to, as there are no words that can do justice to how much respect I have for him as a man and a human being.

It goes beyond the strength and perseverance he shows on a daily basis. It’s more than just the radiating positivity he exudes every time I speak with him. He truly is someone who inspires me with the courage and tenacity he demonstrates while doing everything in his power to continue to raise awareness about this disease.

I feel honored and privileged to have the chance to tell you all about his story and his connection with a 49ers legend.

The other thing I wanted to do was provide an avenue for people to join the fight against ALS. I spoke with Mendoza about some organizations where people could donate their time and or resources that would help the fight to put an end to this debilitating illness.

I wanted to start by highlighting the work done by ALS CURE Project, which hosted the event that Mendoza and I were able to connect at. None of this would have been possible without their dedication and hard work. ALS CURE Project was founded in 2019 by Mike Piscotty and Stephen Piscotty in honor of Gretchen Piscotty to find a cure for ALS.

This is from the ALS CURE Project website:

There are two key challenges in developing an ALS cure: the ALS disease mechanism and ALS biomarkers are unknown. This is compounded by the reality that the revenue opportunity for pharmaceutical companies is limited as only 18,000 people in United States have the disease at a given time compared to the 2 million people battling cancer.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of a diagnostic test for ALS, a patient typically has to endure multiple uncomfortable nerve tests in addition to several tests for MS, AIDS, Parkinson’s Disease, Lime Disease, and heavy metals poisoning. As ALS progresses, it attacks the motor neurons throughout the body, immobilizing the patient, ultimately resulting in an inability to breathe.

By identifying the ALS disease mechanism, our research will help develop a cure for ALS. The successful identification of the ALS disease mechanism is the first step in identifying progression, diagnostic, and prognostic ALS biomarkers. The diagnostic biomarker will help develop a diagnostic test that will promptly and accurately diagnose patients with ALS so they can begin treatment immediately.

The project’s vision is summed up as “A day when a person contracting ALS is quickly diagnosed, treated with the ALS cure to stop progression.”

I can say from firsthand experience, the work done by this organization is first class, and the amount of heart that founder Mike Piscotty possesses is beyond my ability to properly sum up with words.

The ALS CURE Project has an event in the Bay Area this month on June 20th, and the details for that event and any other information about the Project can be found on the link to the website, which can be found directly below this.

ALS CURE Project: - ALS CURE Project was founded in 2019 by Mike Piscotty and Stephen Piscotty in honor of Gretchen Piscotty with the sole purpose of finding a cure for ALS. Its mission is to conduct foundational research to identify the ALS disease mechanism and ALS biomarkers to enable pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to develop the ALS cure.

I also wanted to include a few other organizations that Mendoza endorsed :

-ALS TDI: - The ALS Therapy Development Institute (ALS TDI) is the world’s foremost drug discovery lab focused solely on ALS. As a nonprofit biotech, they operate without regard to profit or politics. Led by drug development experts and people with ALS, their mission is to discover and develop effective treatments for ALS.

-I AM ALS: - Founded by ALS patient Brian Wallach and his wife, Sandra Abrevaya, I AM ALS is revolutionizing how we cure ALS by empowering and mobilizing patients, engaging with policy-makers and offering vital resources for people impacted by ALS.

-Team Gleason: - Team Gleason was founded by former New Orleans Saints player, Steve Gleason, and his wife Michel shortly after Steve was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. Its mission is to improve life for people living with ALS by delivering innovative technology and equipment, as well as providing and empowering an improved life experience. They have provided over $20 million in adventure, technology, equipment, and care services to over 20,000 people living with ALS and countless others through advocacy, support, and ultimately bringing an end to the disease.

-Eric’s Vision: - Eric’s Vision is a nonprofit organization that aims to raise support for individuals battling ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), fund ALS cure-driven research, and inspire further research by providing college scholarships to deserving high school students. Eric’s Vision holds an annual 5K Walk/Run fundraising event in collaboration with Ronnie Lott to honor the life and legacy of Eric Scoggins and support families affected by ALS.

Augie’s Quest - - Augie’s Quest to Cure ALS raises the funds and awareness urgently needed to advance cutting-edge research, fast-track effective treatments, and ultimately, find a cure for ALS.