Walls stung by Clark’s con­di­tion

Ex-Cowboys star an­gry league didn’t ‘pro­tect us bet­ter.’

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - By Tim Dahlberg

Ever­son Walls doesn’t want to talk about The Catch, and not just be­cause he wasn’t the one catch­ing the ball.

“It’s not fresh any­more,” Walls said. “I can’t make it any more than it was.”

He does want to talk about Dwight Clark, who leaped high over him that fate­ful day at Can­dle­stick Park in a play that will live in NFL lore. And he does want to talk about a foot­ball cul­ture that for far too long ig­nored the price he, Clark and other play­ers paid on the field.

It angers him ev­ery time he hears about “a sui­cide or ill­ness you know is re­lated to the game we love,” Walls said. “Some of the old-school own­ers and even coaches back in the day never even cared about play­ers, and then they feign sym­pa­thy af­ter the fact. To me that’s the most im­por­tant thing about what’s go­ing on with Dwight right now.”

What’s go­ing on with Clark, he re­vealed last week, is that he has ALS, the dev­as­tat­ing mus­cle dis­ease that is al­ways fa­tal. Clark wrote that he al­ready has weak­ness in his hands and mid­sec­tion, and can’t run or play golf any­more.

The only bright spot for Clark is that the dis­ease seems to be pro­gress­ing slower than with most oth­ers.

Walls and Clark be­came friends while ap­pear­ing to­gether in au­to­graph shows, signing their names to the fa­mous photo of The Catch on the cover of Sports Il­lus­trated. Walls plans to call the man he will be for­ever linked with to of­fer sup­port.

“A great re­ceiver and he gave every­thing he had to the game,” Walls said. “We’re ac­tu­ally pretty good friends.”

It was 1982 and Walls and the Dal­las Cowboys were locked in a ti­tanic bat­tle with the San Fran­cisco 49ers. The win­ner would go to the Super Bowl, and with time run­ning short in the fourth quar­ter it looked like the Cowboys would come out on top.

Then Joe Mon­tana led the 49ers on an 83-yard drive that got them to the 6-yard­line with 58 sec­onds left. It was third down and 3 when Mon­tana, un­der pres­sure, scram­bled to­ward the side­line and threw a pass that seemed way too high to the back cor­ner of the end zone.

With Walls chas­ing him, Clark leaped to some­how grab the ball. The ex­tra point would put the 49ers ahead and they held on to win a spot in their first Super Bowl.

A few days later a photo of the catch by Wal­ter Iooss Jr. graced the cover of Sports Il­lus­trated.

Clark was well off the ground, com­pletely ex­tended as he pulled in the win­ning pass. Walls was reach­ing up help­lessly be­hind him, his place in foot­ball his­tory se­cured whether he liked it or not.

“I was telling my wife the other day that, God for­bid, when­ever some­thing hap­pens to me, what are you go­ing to show for me?” Walls said by phone from his home in Texas. “What play? I’m kind of (mad) about it.”

Walls was fin­ish­ing a spec­tac­u­lar sea­son as a rookie cor­ner for the Cowboys when Clark soared above him to make the win­ning catch. He would go on to play 14 sea­sons in the NFL, mak­ing the Pro Bowl four times and earn­ing a Super Bowl ring in 1991 with the New York Giants.

Some think Walls, as well as Clark, should be in the Hall of Fame. Walls re­mains a big fan of his home­town team and at­tends ev­ery home game.

He’s 57 now, with a sec­ond ca­reer as a mo­ti­va­tional speaker work­ing with chil­dren. He still loves foot­ball, even as he sees the toll it has taken on those who played the game.

His knees crack ev­ery time he takes a step, and his neck pops out all the time. Walls says his back is al­ways sore but he’s “never been a med­i­ca­tion guy” and re­fuses to turn to pain pills for any re­lief they might give.

He’s an­gry play­ers of his time weren’t taken care of bet­ter by their teams, es­pe­cially when it came to hits to the head.

“No one men­tioned it at all. No one,” he said. “You got your bell rung and it was a source of pride. If you piss blood af­ter the game it’s a source of pride. Any scar was well earned and well thought of. But that’s not the point. The point is they didn’t try and pro­tect us bet­ter based on the in­for­ma­tion they had. They ig­nored it be­cause it was al­ways a choice of money over a per­son’s well-be­ing.”

So far at least, Walls is one of the luck­ier ones. His mind is fully in­tact and he’s rel­a­tively healthy.

But watch­ing the re­ac­tion on Clark from afar makes him won­der. Will his le­gacy one day also be tied to one play in a ca­reer of many?

“Ev­ery time I go on a show or do an in­ter­view, that’s all they want to ask me about,” he says. “When my time comes you’ve got to have more than that. If not, you’ve missed a re­mark­able ca­reer. A whole bunch of stuff hap­pened to me af­ter my rookie sea­son.”

AP FILE

For­mer Dal­las cor­ner­back Ever­son Walls is — like it or not — best known for his role in “The Catch,” Dwight Clark’s 1982 NFC ti­tle-win­ning grab for the 49ers.

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