Like many of us, Ron Heller watched on TV as San Francisco 49ers receiver Dwight Clark made “The Catch” to beat the Dallas Cowboys, and wondered how the play might change NFL history.
Like very, very few of us, however, Heller actually got to play on the same team as Clark, just five seasons later.
“Dwight gave me a nickname as soon as I walked into the locker room the first day,” recalled Heller, the former Clark Fork High star who was a tight end with the 49ers from 1986-88. “He said I looked like Gerry Cooney (the heavyweight boxer), and the first day of practice I got into a fight, so he stared calling me ‘Cooney.’”
Heller, who was teammates with Clark his first two seasons in San Francisco, remembers fondly his time around the lanky, 6-foot-4 Clemson product, who died Monday in Whitefish, Mont., at age 61 from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).
FIRST, “THE Catch.”
Heller was a senior at Clark Fork at the time, at home watching the NFC title game from the couch in January 1982.
“I’ve always hated the Cowboys, so seeing them possibly going back to the Super Bowl was like, ‘Ah, man,’” Heller recalled.
Then, on third and 3 from the Dallas 6, 58 seconds left and San Francisco trailing 27-21, There was Joe Montana, rolling right, looking, looking, throwing ...
“Then Dwight made that catch and it kind of made both their careers,” Heller said. “It made Joe’s career, it made Dwight’s career. ... The 49ers had a terrible time when Bill Walsh first got there (as coach in 1979), and Eddie DeBartolo took over the team (as owner) and they were still losing. That was a huge breakthrough for them.
“It was good to see a changing of the guard,” Heller said. “I’ve always been an underdog guy. You look at me coming from Clark Fork (population roughly 400 when he played there), and Oregon State (which was in the midst of three decades of losing football when he played there).”
Ron said both his brothers, Don and Randy, were Rams fans. So was close friend Todd Johnson, and many others.
“Both my brothers loved the Rams and Lakers, so I hated everything L.A.,” said Ron Heller, who was born in northern California, and moved to Clark Fork in the seventh grade. “So anybody that wasn’t L.A., I was a fan of.
“So I actually grew up a Raider fan, when they were in Oakland. And then when they moved to L.A., I became a 49er fan, because I disassociated myself with L.A., and still do.”
“The Catch” gave the young 49ers confidence, said Heller, who manages portfolios for high net worth investors. Two weeks after that play, San Francisco went on to win its first Super Bowl, and the 49ers also won Super Bowls after the 1984, ’88, ’89 and ’94 seasons.
AFTER PLAYING four seasons at Oregon State, Heller signed with Dallas as a free agent in 1986.
He was cut after three weeks with the Cowboys, and signed with San Francisco, where he spent the ’86 season on injured reserve.
In 1987, he caught three touchdown passes, including a game-winner from Montana to beat the then-St. Louis Cardinals.
He was a member of the Super Bowl-winning team the following year. He signed with the Atlanta Falcons in 1989, then finished up his NFL career by playing a couple of seasons with the Seattle Seahawks.
Ron’s son, Mitch, played on a state championship football team last fall at Bishop Diego High in Santa Barbara, Calif. Mitch Heller, a long snapper and defensive end, is headed to the University of Idaho this fall as a preferred walk-on.
“Dwight really helped me out in camp,” Heller recalled of his early days with the 49ers. “Joe really taught me how to read defenses, because I played linebacker in college. I only played tight end five games my senior year.
“I was really raw, (but) I could run and catch. They both said, ‘Look, it doesn’t matter how fast you are, if you can read a defense, you can get open.’
“Joe says, ‘Look, I know where I’m going with the ball as soon as I read the defense. So I don’t go through progressions. My progressions are, I know what the play call is, and I know who’s going to be open based on the coverage. So, read the coverage and you know whether you’re going to get the ball or not on a given play. Unless it’s man-to-man, then obviously all things are off.
“Joe knows where he’s going, and to what hole, and Dwight says, ‘You better get to that hole as fast as you can.’ You have to know where the hole was. They really, really helped me learn the concept of running routes and what to do, man vs. zone. They really helped me and again, I was a free agent, came in after camp started, they thought I had ability and they helped me out.”
After the final cuts, when Heller and some other new guys had made the team, Walsh came down to congratulate them, and Montana and Clark and some of the other veterans decided it was time to go celebrate with their new teammates.
“And Bill says, ‘Listen, you need to avoid some of these older guys; they’re going to get you in big trouble,’” Heller said.
Walsh was joking, of course.
SPEAKING OF jokesters ...
“Dwight and Joe, they were just pranksters,” Heller recalled. “You couldn’t leave anything unlocked, you couldn’t leave anything laying around.”
At training camp, players often rented bicycles to ride from the dorms to the practice facility.
“In training camp, if you left your bike unlocked, they (Clark and Montana) would steal it,” Heller said. “It was a quarter mile from where we practiced to the dorms, and the eating facility. They’d never rent a bike — they would just take people’s bikes. One day we’d come out of meetings and everybody’s bikes were chained up together. They’d put a big cable through them and locked them together, and left. So everybody had to walk back to the dorm. Or they’d sneak out and let the air out of everybody’s tires.”
Just what a tired football player wanted to see at 10 p.m., after two practices, when it was still pushing 100 degrees out.
So the players would be forced to trudge down the hill to the dorms.
“Then, you’ve got to walk back up there in the morning, because your bikes are still locked up,” Heller said.
MORE ABOUT “The Catch.”
“It’s funny, when you get together with those two guys, Dwight would call it ‘The Catch’ and Joe would call it ‘The Throw,’” Heller said. “Joe would never admit it was ‘The Catch.’
“He said, ‘I was throwing it where only a 6-4 guy that could only jump a few inches (could catch it). I couldn’t throw it higher than that, because he couldn’t jump. I had to put it in the right place.’
Even last fall, when Heller and his old 49ers teammates were in Santa Clara for Dwight Clark Day, when the team had an event for Clark, who was in a wheelchair by then, “even then they were going back and forth — ‘The Catch’ vs. ‘The Throw,’” Heller said. “Joe said, “It would have never been a catch if I was just throwing it away ... it was the throw that made your career, Dwight.’”
Needle firmly planted, of course.
CLARK RETIRED in 1987, after nine seasons with the 49ers, and became a team executive. He later was general manager of the Cleveland Browns for four seasons. Clark was a two-time Super Bowl champion, the NFL receptions leader in 1982, and his No. 87 is retired by the 49ers.
“He was just a good mentor, he was just a good role model,” said Heller, who saw Clark every now and then at assorted 49ers alumni functions. “I announced my engagement at his restaurant in San Carlos, and he bought us wine and champagne ... just a great guy, so generous.
“A lot of guys, you come in and you’re competing for their job, or you’re coming in as an undrafted free agent like I was, for guys that would teach you and want you to help the team, no matter what position you were in — whether you were a first-round pick or me, undrafted, they were there to help. It was always about the team.”
Especially when it came to the big game.
“When we got to the Super Bowl (after the 1988 season), we got there on a Sunday, and coach Walsh said, ‘Sunday through Wednesday, we won’t have any curfew, but be responsible,’” Heller recalled.
“Monday morning we had meetings, Ronnie Lott and Joe Montana got up in front of the group, Dwight was in the front office at that point, and they said, ‘We are making a self-imposed curfew of midnight every night, because everybody needs to be rested. It’s about the game; it’s not about having a party.”
Holy crap, Heller thought. We’re in South Beach; there’s a lot to do.
“And they’re like ‘No, we want a Super Bowl ring. If you want to party, take your Super Bowl check once you win, and come back here for a week. But it’s not this week.”
The 49ers went on to win that Super Bowl, 20-16 over the Cincinnati Bengals, on a last-minute touchdown pass from Montana to John Taylor.
CLARK LIVED in Whitefish, Mont., for roughly the last half-year of his life. Heller had hoped to visit him this summer in Bozeman, at a ranch owned by DeBartolo where Clark also stayed for a time. While Clark was there, DeBartolo bought him a horse.
“I’d been calling him, texting with him about five weeks ago,” Heller said. “I said ‘Hey, I’m going to be in Clark Fork, I’m going to come see you after the Fourth of July.’ He said ‘Sweet, I can’t wait for you to meet my horse.’”
“So ... ”
At that point, Heller got a little emotional.
“It’s tough,” he said. “You see all these guys that are dying young, and getting diseases. (Defensive lineman) Larry Roberts, another one of my buddies, had both his legs amputated from diabetes. We came in the same year, he’s from Alabama, second-round pick. He passed away this past year. 54 years old.”
Heller said one of his college teammates battled ALS.
“It’s tough to see these guys suffering,” Heller said. “And there’s so many guys standing in line, trying to get help with concussion syndrome and the NFL’s just screwin’ them over.”
Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.