Rare Disease Report

49ers Great Dwight Clark Speculates Football's Role in ALS Diagnosis

APRIL 20, 2017
Mathew Shanley
Former 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark, most notably known for his miraculous catch in the 1982 NFC Championship Game, is now left hoping for a different kind of miracle.

Last month, the retired star disclosed his diagnosis of amyotrophic laterals sclerosis (ALS) in a statement posted on the website of Ed DeBartolo Jr., former owner of San Francisco football franchise. Clark made clear his suspicions of the role that his career path played in his recent struggles.

"I've been asked if playing football caused this," Clark wrote. "I don't know for sure. But I certainly suspect it did. And I encourage the NFLPA and the NFL to continue working together in their efforts to make the game of football safer, especially as it relates to head trauma."

Clark is hardly the first notable athlete to have been identified with ALS. After all, its more common designation – Lou Gehrig’s Disease – calls back to one of the New York Yankees’ many Hall of Fame players. Since then, though, several former NFL players have been identified as victims of the rare disease, including former Tennessee Titans linebacker Tim Shaw, former New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason and former New England Patriots running back Kevin Turner.

Research suggests that professional football players are four times more likely to develop ALS and three times more likely to die from neurodegenerative diseases like ALS or Alzheimer's than those in the general population, making it hard to argue with Clark’s intuition.

Despite his uncertainty regarding whether this disease was completely caused by his time on the gridiron, Clark continues to push forward with a positive attitude and the support of his family.

“Right now, I’ve got work to do,” Clark said. “I’ve got to devote all my energy preparing for this battle and I would hope you can respect my family’s privacy as I begin this challenge. My ultimate hope is that eventually I can assist in finding a cure for ALS, which disrupts the lives of so many and their loved ones.”

Clark spent 9 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and was a two-time Super Bowl champion in his tenure there. He is one of only 12 former members to have his jersey number (87) retired by the team, and he is the club’s third-leading receiver of all time, behind only Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens.

For more information about ALS, visit the ALS Association website.

About ALS

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or "Lou Gehrig's Disease," is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body.

Muscle weakness or stiffness are early symptoms of ALS. The Weakness progressing, leading to wasting and paralysis of the muscles of the limbs and trunk as well as those that control vital functions such as speech, swallowing and eventually, breathing.

Life expectancy of an ALS patient following diagnosis is 2 to 5 years however, some can live longer. Per the ALS Association, 5% of ALS patients live 20 years after diagnosis. The two main types of ALS are: 1) Sporadic (90 to 95% of cases) and 2) Familial (5 to 10% of cases). Approximately 5,600 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with ALS each year and 30,000 have the disease at any given time.

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