San Francisco 49ers legend Dwight Clark has announced he is suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
The neurodegenerative disease — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — disrupts the connection between the brain and the muscles and can eventually leave sufferers paralyzed but with brain function, or “locked-in.
Some experts have hypothesized that this may be due to exposure to repeated head trauma.
In an open letter on his website, Clark said that he had constant pain in his neck since his football days and in September 2015 developed weakness in his left hand. Months later he was diagnosed with ALS.
“While I’m still trying to wrap my head around the challenge I will face with this disease over the coming years, the only thing I know is that I’m going to fight like hell and live every day to the fullest,” Clark wrote.
“In addition to losing strength in my left hand — which makes opening a pack of sugar or buttoning my shirt impossible — I have now experienced weakness in my right hand, abs, lower back and right leg. I can’t run, play golf or walk any distances. Picking up anything over 30 pounds is a chore. The one piece of good news is that the disease seems to be progressing more slowly than in some patients,” he said.
Clark played as a wide receiver for the 49ers from 1979 to 1987. As a player he is best remembered for “The Catch,” in the 1982 NFC Playoffs which took the 49ers to victory against the Dallas Cowboys in the final minute of play.
Research suggests that professional football players are four times more likely to have ALS and three times more likely to die from neurodegenerative diseases like ALS or Alzheimer’s than the general population. It’s been hypothesized that this may be due to exposure to repeated hits to the head.
Last November, it was announced that another former pro football player diagnosed with ALS — Kevin Turner — had the most advanced stage of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) when he died, and that it had brought on his ALS. CTE is a neurodegenerative disease associated with repeated head trauma.
In his letter, Clark says: “I’ve been asked if playing football caused this. 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.”
In 2012, 80 concussion-related lawsuits on behalf of more than 2,000 NFL players were combined and filed as a single class-action lawsuit in federal court. The players accused the NFL not only of negligence but of failing to notify them of the link between concussions and brain injuries. Turner was a lead plaintiff on this complaint.
Three years later, a federal judge gave final approval to a settlement in the lawsuit. By this time, over 5,000 former NFL players had filed suit and were eligible for the settlement. This agreement provided up to $5 million per retired player for serious medical conditions associated with repeated head trauma.
The deal also called for baseline medical exams for retired NFL players and monetary awards for those who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, ALS and certain cases of CTE.
Finding a cure
Clark’s letter focuses on fighting the disease and the support provided to him by his family, friends and former 49ers teammates.
“Every single one of my 49ers teammates that has contacted me has said whatever I need, anytime I need it, they will help. That’s just the kind of guys they are. They were so giving as players and now they are the same as friends,” he said.
“I’m not having a press conference or doing any interviews. That time will come. Right now, I’ve got work to do. 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.”
The ALS association estimate that more than 6,000 people are diagnosed with the condition in the US each year, with 20,000 living with it at any one time. There is no cure.