SI Vault
Rick Telander
September 01, 1982
San Diego's Kellen Winslow (left) and San Francisco's Dwight Clark, the NFL's top two receivers in 1980 and '81, proved they are a breed apart during last season's playoffs
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September 01, 1982

The Doggone Best

San Diego's Kellen Winslow (left) and San Francisco's Dwight Clark, the NFL's top two receivers in 1980 and '81, proved they are a breed apart during last season's playoffs

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The skills Winslow brings to the game seem to overwhelm the football lexicon and therefore are described most often in the terminology of another sport, basketball. As Zampese puts it, "What he's most like is a power forward in the NBA."

As a freshman at Clemson in 1975, Clark, a high school quarterback, suddenly became a strong safety. He hated the position and decided to transfer to another school. In the spring of 76, however, the Clemson coaches allowed Clark to play receiver. If they hadn't, Clark would have gone off to Appalachian State—on a basketball scholarship.

At a charity hoops game between the 49ers and the Stanford football team in May, Clark showed that he hasn't lost his skills on court. He threw in bombs from the corners and pulled in bombs from Montana and turned them into breakaway buckets. One thing Clark didn't do was crash the boards when the Stanford defensive line entered the game.

"I take enough pounding during the season," Clark said later. He then recalled last year's Green Bay game when he caught a pass and took one shot after another before going down. "The announcers said on TV, 'See how it takes four or five men to tackle Dwight Clark!' " he says. "But that was because I didn't know what was happening. When I got to our bench, the doctor said, 'You're O.K. because you know where you are.' I said, 'Right.' But I had no idea where I was. I saw all these people around, but what did that mean? Finally I saw the scoreboard and realized I must be at a football game."

It's because of Clark's toughness and his basketball player's agility that he is used the way he is in the 49er offense. "We call on him in clutch situations," says Wyche. "He makes those critical third-down catches, the ones against tight man or double coverage, when everybody in the park knows it's going to Dwight Clark. And because of that he probably takes more hits than any receiver we've got, and from bigger players, too, because so many of his patterns are run underneath."

Tenths, even 100ths of a second count these days in NFL passing schemes. Zone defenses and the quick reactions of the men playing them have made such things as gentle throws and fiat-footed receptions obsolete. Basketball moves, evolved in a more frantic game, are now the receivers' stock in trade—picks, body screens, reading on the fly, rebounding in a crowd. And everybody goes and gets the ball. Arm catching is out. Among the best receivers, so is hand catching. Fingertip catching, as practiced by men like Clark, is where it's at. "He's got good, soft hands, really big hands," says Montana. "And the way he comes back and reaches for the ball means he can catch almost anything."

Montana is still in awe of The Catch. "I was on the ground and I thought at first everybody was cheering just for the touchdown," he says. "Later, I saw the replay and realized they were cheering for Dwight's catch. God, did he get up there. Did you know he can dunk a basketball two-handed from a standing start?"


Kellen Winslow was raised in East St. Louis, Ill., a dreary town once filled with industry that was rated dead last in economic and social conditions among American cities in a 1978 Brookings Institution study. The third of Homer (a transit supervisor) and Odell Winslow's seven children, Kellen was able to stay afloat as a youth by keeping to himself and his family. "I wasn't into the things I saw going on around me," he says. "I was shy and insecure, and I felt best with my little clique or at home."

Against Kansas City last year Winslow tried to show his appreciation for his parents' stern, protective upbringing. He found out where his mom and dad were seated in the Chiefs' Arrowhead Stadium, and after catching a touchdown pass, he wound up and threw the ball halfway up the stands, missing his parents by only two rows.

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