Dwight Clark caught “The Catch.” That may not mean something to you, but to San Francisco 49ers fans, it is the height of folk lore. In fact, it’s a beloved football moment known by football fans across the United States—even being named one of the 21 Greatest Sports Moments in History. When Dwight Clark died in the early evening of June 4, 2018, it flipped my night upside. But I wasn’t surprised. It was a Monday. And heroes die every day in the newsroom.
During a busy news day, we got word that San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark passed away from ALS. I produced the 11pm news at KGO in San Francisco. My executive producer, a reporter, and a writer called in sick—leaving me with half a nightside crew. Knowing they were out, I worked incredibly hard early in the day to get promos written, my show stacked, and my remaining reporters chasing solid leads.
Clark’s catch helped propel the 49ers into the Super Bowl and launched a football dynasty. I knew I had to lead the 11pm with his obituary, but my two reporters were out out on two other important leads that I couldn’t ignore. Our 6pm show had a serviceable, if not rousing obituary. It did not have sound from Clark and did not explore his life outside of football—which was significant. However, with the reduced staff, I didn’t have the extra manpower to spend much time on a new obituary. What should I do? Management answered that for me.
My news director told me I had to have a fresh obituary package for 11pm. I asked what she had in mind. She said I would figure it out.
I did what I and any decent news producer does. I didn’t panic. I didn’t stress. I didn’t grumble… okay, maybe I grumbled a little. But then I got to work.
At this point my day is deep into its second half. My head coach, offensive coordinator, a receiver, and a lead blocker were incapacitated. I had to channel my inner Joe Montana, make calls on the fly, and fight for a win.
First, I read through the playbook, digging through video archives going back to the early 1980’s for Dwight Clark sound, video, public appearances, and one-on-one interviews.
Second, I studied the competition’s game film, reading through online obituaries from ESPN, NY Times, SF Chronicle, and Sports Illustrated. I had grown up a Detroit Lions fan, so I knew little about Dwight Clark (or winning, for that matter), but I had to get every detail of his life just right, because sports fans are the most unforgiving nerds out there–and 49ers fans are head of the class.
Third, I checked the defensive matchup (I read the 6pm script) and called an audible at the line, deciding not to use any portion of it. Instead, I opted to write the entire 11pm obituary from scratch.
Fourth, I lined up my remaining offensive players in their correct formations and gave the archive requests to my production assistant. I gave my editor a copy of the script. And I sent my star receiver (former SportsCenter anchor Larry Beil ) into the recording booth to lay down the track.
I yelled HIKE and it all went into action. Here’s what my editor and I created in an hour and a half.
Surprisingly, we were the only station that led with Clark’s death at 11pm. And it worked—ratings were strong. I estimate more than 100,000 people watched the result of my successful two minute drive down the field.
The next night my executive producer told me, “You really pulled that out of your ass.” I told her I had to. It’s what you do in the big leagues.
Then I did what every news producer does. I forgot about the night before and turned my focus to the next newscast. What I didn’t know at that moment, is that three hours later, fashion designer Kate Spade would die. Another icon. Someone’s hero. Another scramble to cover the story. Another day in the newsroom.
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