DeBartolo seeks information surrounding 49ers' old Redwood City practice field

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Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo knows all about the history of the organization.

And he recognizes how the stories of Matt Hazeltine, Gary Lewis and Bob Waters relate to the battle Dwight Clark is currently waging against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Hazeltine, Lewis and Waters were 49ers teammates in the 1960s. Twenty years after they played together, they were each diagnosed with ALS within a short period of time. Lewis died in December 1986. Hazeltine passed away in January 1987. Waters died in May 1989.

DeBartolo told NBC Sports Bay Area last week he plans to commission a study to see if there is a higher incidence of ALS within in a one- or two-mile radius of the 49ers’ old team headquarters, where all four men practiced during their careers with the 49ers.

“I have a strange feeling that there have been more cases of ALS outside of that Redwood City facility than we know about,” DeBartolo said. “I’m not even talking about players. I’m talking about civilians who lived in that area.”

The 49ers practiced at 711 Nevada Street in Redwood City from the early 1950s until the team moved into its Santa Clara headquarters in 1988. Clark’s nine-year NFL playing career ended in 1987.

In observance of ALS Awareness Month, NBC Sports Bay Area on Tuesday re-released the podcast, “One of the Great Mysteries: The Story of Three 49ers Diagnosed with ALS.” The podcast first aired last year.

Waters devoted the final years of his life trying to find answers. He contacted as many of his former teammates as possible in hopes of detecting a pattern. The fertilizer used on the practice field was one of many potential causes of the disease that was widely speculated.

“He led a single-minded, tough, courageous mission to get as much information as possible,” said Dr. Stan Appel, chair of the department of neurology at Houston Methodist. He worked closely with Waters following his ALS diagnosis.

“We never quite resolved why there had been three players amongst a small group that developed ALS."

But DeBartolo’s curiosity has nothing to do with the condition of the practice fields at Redwood City. After all, ALS is a disease without a known cause or cure.

”You can test the field, but what are you going to find? Nobody knows what causes ALS,” DeBartolo said.

Dr. Appel said there is no evidence head trauma causes ALS. But he said he believes repeated hits to the head can "aggravate ALS, even if it doesn't start it."

Clark, who sustained three severe concussions in his NFL career, recently told NBC Sports Bay Area he believes playing football caused ALS.

“I’m not a scientist or a doctor, but I don’t know how it could not have some affect with all these guys who have it,” Clark said.

Sheri Waters expressed disappointment on behalf of her late husband, Bob, that there has not been more progress made in ALS research in the nearly 30 years since his death. She provided the following poignant words for the podcast:

”Bob would be very sad to know that after all his efforts to seek information to help find a cure for this horrible disease, ALS continues to affect these good men. I know that Bob died believing that one day there would be no more ALS. I am still so proud of Bob for his courage and willingness to help others. I wish the very best for the Clark family."

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