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How a gaggle of 49ers gasoline the very best protection within the NFL


DRE GREENLAW HAD a soccer and Fred Warner had a plan. This is the best way issues usually work among the many 49ers’ linebacker group: Warner, who describes himself as “the big brother, the pappy,” is the professor, Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair are the recipients of his knowledge. In this occasion, Warner floated his newest concept as they had been sitting on the bench with the remainder of the San Francisco protection within the ultimate minutes of a convincing Week 14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Dre, you gonna get your ball signed by Tom?” Warner requested.

Greenlaw, who had an excellent interception of a Tom Brady move earlier within the sport — and the ball to indicate for it — barely thought of it earlier than saying, “Naw, I don’t want to do that.”

Warner persevered. “Bro, you might as well. When’s the next time we’re going to play against this guy? You’ll never get another opportunity like this.”

Greenlaw thought of this concept and all of its destructive ramifications: trying like a fanboy; insulting Brady by presenting him with an emblem of that day’s failure; being rebuffed and having to face the inevitable meme-y backlash. And then, at Warner’s prompting, he considered the positives: getting a ball that you just intercepted signed by Tom Freakin’ Brady, on the sphere after an announcement win. Greenlaw’s head shook slower and slower, finally changing into a nod. “You know what?” he advised Warner. “You’re right.”

And so, on the Levi’s Stadium subject after the sport, as the 2 approached Brady, Warner might sense Greenlaw’s reluctance. Warner — the mentor, the All-Pro, the one with the juice to get Brady’s consideration — took the lead, and Greenlaw dragged just a few steps behind holding a soccer, out of the blue not sure once more. They acquired nearer, and Greenlaw acquired slower. “In Dre’s defense,” Warner says, “It’s kind of surreal to be up close to Tom since for so long we were all little and watching him on TV. Now being here in front of him, you see the wrinkles on his face and realize, This is a real, grown man out here playing football.

Before Warner might ask in regards to the ball Brady checked out Warner and stated, “Fred, you’re a heck of a player, and I love watching you play.”

Disarmed, Warner hesitated, the righteousness of his mission eroding proper there at midfield.

“Thanks, Tom,” he stammered. “But … uh … could you actually sign this football for my guy here?” Greenlaw approached and Brady signed. “He was totally cool about it,” Warner says.

The story right here will not be Brady however the guys approaching him and the backstage machinations that led them to that second. You may look out onto the sphere this Sunday, when the 49ers play the Dallas Cowboys for a spot within the NFC Championship Game, and see helmets and quantity and factors spreads and salaries. You would not be alone. It’s simple amid the spectacle to overlook they’re simply younger guys making their approach by an unscripted world.

Watch these guys intently. They’re the quickest and most energetic and maybe greatest linebacking unit within the NFL, and collectively they shape-shift, increasing and contracting and translocating to cowl the complete center of the sphere. It does not take lengthy, possibly 5 – 6 performs, to know there’s extra at work right here than simply preparation and expertise. “It’s almost like twin telepathy,” Warner says. “You know, before it happens, where the other guys will be on the field.”

Pick a sequence at random from the 49ers’ 18 video games and also you’re sure to see the dynamic at work. A goal-line stand in opposition to the Commanders in Week 16 is nearly as good a spot as any. On first-and-goal from the 5, Brian Robinson Jr. tried the suitable facet however acquired thrown down by Warner for a lack of a yard. On second-and-goal from the 6, Robinson needed to run vast however acquired pressured inside by Al-Shaair and stood up by Greenlaw simply because it appeared he may discover the top zone. On third-and-goal from the 1, Robinson tried the left facet once more and acquired popped by Greenlaw as Warner tried to tear the ball unfastened. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, Antonio Gibson managed to seek out all three of the linebackers — in addition to a lot of the defensive position — and Warner walked off the sphere slowly, flexing.

There’s loads happening on the market. Despite being only one 12 months older than the opposite two, Warner, 26, is the unquestioned chief, “The guy everybody follows,” Greenlaw says. Warner is senatorial in his presence, the type of man who makes you need to perk up and alter your life. “He’s the dude who’s always done everything right,” Greenlaw says. The different two assault the sport as if every play will atone for previous failures and decide the course of their future lives. They had been roommates as rookies in 2019, and so they shortly realized they each grew up amid unfathomable misfortune they know doesn’t vanish with skilled success. And they’re coached by a person who has wanted them as a lot as they want him.

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Look out at that subject once more and also you may see the combustion that fuels the pace and ferocity. You may see a number of the causes for the borderline desperation these three males exhibit each time the ball is snapped. And should you might peek inside and see what makes them go? You may see one thing nearer to actual life.

“We’re not just teammates and we’re not just brothers,” Greenlaw says. “We’re each other’s family.”

THERE’S A REASON they play the best way they play.

Greenlaw lived in group and foster-care properties starting when he was 8 years previous. When he was 14 and a freshman at Fayetteville High School, his foster dwelling closed, and he was ready to be despatched to a boys ranch 50 miles away from his highschool, his soccer group and all of the small shreds of normalcy he had come to treasure. His life modified, although, when Brian Early, then a coach at Fayetteville, and his spouse Nanci, took Greenlaw into their dwelling and raised him together with their two youthful daughters. Greenlaw, understandably, was shy and not sure at first, however finally he thrived at Fayetteville and earned a scholarship to Arkansas. The Earlys legally adopted Greenlaw when he was 21.

Al-Shaair spent the primary a number of years of his life touring between Florida and Saudi Arabia, the place his father taught English. He lived solely in Saudi Arabia from the time he was 4 till he was 6. About that point, his dad and mom divorced, and Azeez moved again to Florida along with his mother and two youthful brothers. “I remember some good times in Saudi Arabia,” he says, “and some bad ones, too.” The household moved usually in and round Tampa. He was a sophomore in highschool when the house they had been dwelling in burned down, and he spent the remainder of his highschool years both homeless or dwelling in a sequence of motels. He started each morning of his senior 12 months commuting two hours by metropolis bus from a motel to Hillsborough High. A religious Muslim who has fasted throughout Ramadan for so long as he can bear in mind, Al-Shaair leaned on that have on the times when the household did not have meals.

When he went on his first recruiting journey, to Florida Atlantic, he introduced his household and found a brand new world of free stuff. “I didn’t know how it worked,” he says. He dedicated to FAU and left campus with a full abdomen and a bookbag full of Gatorade. He advised himself, “I think I’m going to take some more visits.”

Every time he did, he would hear from a anxious FAU coach Charlie Partridge, who would ask, “Azeez, why are you taking more visits?”

“We’re good, coach,” Al-Shaair advised him. “I’m going to come, I just want to take these visits to get some food for my family.” He shrugs now and says, “That was my life. I had to do what I had to do.”

In faculty at FAU, Al-Shaair would sit on the ground throughout conferences and movie classes as a result of he did not wish to lose the connection that flooring gave him to his previous.

“Watch other teams,” he says. “They’re playing like they’ll always have a next week.”

Even Warner, who calls his background, “nothing like these guys,” did not journey the gilded path. His mother raised him and his two youthful siblings close to San Diego, the place a connection within the ward of his LDS church alerted a BYU recruiter a few tall, skinny child who was beginning to get the eye of some lower-level Division I packages.

“We all have different skill sets, different backgrounds, but we all love the hunt,” Warner says. “We love the stuff that most teams and most people don’t want to do, like the grind-y stuff of running to the football on every single play, of imposing your will, the violence of the game, we all take pride in that. That’s why it looks different when you watch us compared to other groups. The three of us feed off one another, the energy. It’s not something that has to be talked about or faked. We love the game and we love each other, and that’s what you see as the product.”

Warner was a third-round decide in 2018, and the subsequent 12 months the 49ers drafted Greenlaw within the fifth spherical and satisfied Al-Shaair to signal with them as an undrafted free agent. At coaching camp, Greenlaw and Al-Shaair met on the identical day they discovered they’d be roommates, which is how conversations between a few 21-year-olds removed from dwelling led to a sequence of revelations.

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“He started to tell me about his life,” Al-Shaair says, “and it was one of the first times I met someone where I could say, ‘Dang, your life is damned near as hard or harder than mine.’ I can’t imagine going through some of the things he went through, and vice versa.”

They can attempt to maintain it beneath, however the previous floats. People — “people I haven’t heard from since fifth grade,” Greenlaw says — attempt to shoulder their approach again into their lives. There’s cash now, and a way of life they did not know existed till they had been dwelling it, however all the things that got here earlier than isn’t greater than a thought away.

“We’ve been through so much that nobody else can understand,” Greenlaw says. “You can’t just go and talk to people about stuff you’ve been through and expect them to get it. But I can talk to Azeez. Who else better to talk to than a guy who’s been through it or is going through it? He’s someone who can say, ‘Oh, I see why you’re thinking like that.'”

They play with a barely managed fury, all three of them. Each professes to feeling empty each time a ball provider hits the turf with out the advantage of his aggression. Teammates use the phrases “headhunter” to explain Greenlaw and Al-Shaair in a approach that is sensible contextually however admittedly does not work outdoors the locker room. But take a more in-depth look. Every play and each hit carries the echoes of nights in horrid group properties, of two-hour morning and night bus rides, of uncertainty and confusion and abandonment.

“After everything Dre’s been through in his life, all the anger and passion and stuff that he’s dealt with all comes out on the field,” Al-Shaair says. “We’ve had that conversation on different occasions. That life we had before football? It doesn’t just go away. Football’s always been the outlet for him, and for me. That’s where we find peace in the chaos.”

I learn this again to 49ers linebacker coach Johnny Holland over the telephone and it is adopted by a number of seconds of silence earlier than he says, quietly, “Wow. We need to make that a quote and put it up in the room.”

No, this is not a fairy story. It’s not a narrative in regards to the communal energy of sports activities, though you can make it that, and it isn’t a narrative about guys who discovered a method to rise out of 1 life and into one other, though you can make it that, too. It’s a narrative about survival, and the way it builds on itself, shifting from one place to a different, from circumstance to circumstance, like a linebacker filling a niche, and the way ultimately probably the most you’ll be able to ask for is somebody who understands.

“When I was in high school, I was like, ‘Nobody got it as bad as me, man, and screw everybody else,'” Al-Shaair says. “But as you get older, you realize nobody’s life is always easy. Even now, on top of the mountain as people think we are, you still go through trials and tribulations. My grandfather always taught me, ‘Regard all men, but not too much, and always keep the common touch.’ I think about that because it’s a way of respecting all people and realizing you aren’t the only one who’s got it hard.”

The 49ers have the very best protection within the NFL, first in opposition to the move and second in opposition to the run, and so they function with the angle and language of a special-forces group. When Robert Saleh was the defensive coordinator, the slogan was “All gas, no brakes.” Under present DC DeMeco Ryans, it is SWARM, which stands for Special Work Ethic and Relentless Mindset. (Yes, I do know: SWERM, however that would not make any sense). Regardless of the catch phrase, it is a easy idea: getting 11 helmets to the ball on each play, which makes everybody’s job simpler.

“If you miss a tackle,” says cornerback Charvarius Ward, “you know two or three of those linebackers are coming hard. When they get on the field they like, ‘F–k everything.’ They just black out, and all they know is run and hit.”

AL-SHAAIR WAS rehabbing a knee injury when he arrived in Santa Clara in the summer of 2019. Holland, his position coach, knew the situation: young guy in a place where he’s never been and knows no one. A star linebacker for seven seasons with the Packers before spending a second lifetime as a coach, Holland understood how loneliness and self-doubt could infect even the most confident young men, so he and his wife started inviting Al-Shaair to their house to hang out. Holland would throw something on the grill and begin the conversation.

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“He’s like having one other grandfather,” Al-Shaair says. “DeMeco (Ryans) is just like the dad, however you understand how you all the time going to your grandfather’s home as a result of you will get away with stuff? That’s Johnny.”

In September, barely a month into the rookie seasons of Al-Shaair and Greenlaw, Holland was diagnosed with Stage III multiple myeloma. There is no cure, and Stage III is considered the end stage, but it can go in and out of remission. The life expectancy is five to 10 years, but Holland, 57, feels good more than three years past his diagnosis, a fact he attributes to modern medicine and a resolve to live in the moment. He had to leave the team last season for a stretch that included the playoffs, and Warner says, “That was robust. We can sit right here and discuss all of it day actually — how a lot he means to all of us, what he is gone by, all of the adversity. He’s greater than only a coach, to place it as merely as potential. He’s consistently making an attempt to offer us life classes and make us into higher males.”

The players laugh at Holland’s slogans and mispronunciations — “Dophamine” for Dopamine is a particular favorite. “They like that one,” Holland says with a laugh. “I say stuff dangerous on objective — and so they bear in mind it. I consider in psychology. If you speak an individual up, they begin believing that is who they’re. When you give a number of optimistic enter to the human mind, it begins believing it.”

Holland calls Warner “Tesla” because “you’ll be able to plug him in and he goes all day, and he can get from zero to 60 actually quick.” He calls Greenlaw and Al-Shaair “wolf canines” because “a wolf canine goes to hunt on a regular basis, as a result of a wolf canine is a survivor.”

Part of the process in the linebackers’ room is to share stories, about their backgrounds, their paths to this point, their goals. “Sometimes I put them on stage and make them speak,” Holland says. “You’ve acquired to have the ability to know what sort of setting they have been in, and the way you should use that to make them a greater participant.”

For instance: Holland’s first impression of Al-Shaair? “I typically would name him a grimy participant,” he says. “He was relentless, all the time making an attempt to take somebody’s head off. But why? I spotted it was due to his background. Dre was the very same approach. They’ve acquired that chip, however they’ve realized to corral that anger and develop into actually good soccer gamers.”

Holland is in a clinical trial and undergoes treatment every other week. He continues to coach because, he says, “These guys hold me going. They give me days to sit up for. I’m going by the method of therapeutic, and that is a part of my therapy proper right here: teaching these guys. Every day my toes hit the ground within the morning is a superb day, and I perceive that a terrific day for me is somewhat completely different than a terrific day for them.”

The old sage, the grandpa in this family, still has to keep on them. Greenlaw is the most excitable, and often the most susceptible to the kind of behavior that elicits personal-foul penalties, so part of Holland’s job is to provide a personalized scouting report on the upcoming quarterback. Is he a slider or does he stay up? If he’s a slider, Holland reminds Greenlaw all week that he needs to pull back when he sees the soles of the quarterback’s shoes. Holland also provides practical advice, telling Greenlaw that his signature move — repeatedly punching himself in the facemask to pump himself up — is the reason he routinely complains of wrist pain. “To play on the stage they’re taking part in, you have to put your self in a distinct zone,” Holland says. “Dre performs with a lot adrenaline and pleasure he can get too deep within the zone.”

Look nearer. It’s all on the market on that subject: the foster properties and homelessness and days in Saudi Arabia, good and dangerous; the fury and the relentlessness and the dedication to make each sort out on each play; the experimental therapies and the years of uncertainty and sure, even the love. They transfer sooner than anybody else and hit more durable than anybody else. Every collision, each left-right-left mixture to the facemask, is a message for whomever doubted or ignored or walked away and did not come again. Every step they take pushes all the things that got here earlier than somewhat farther away. It’s all there, in all places and nowhere.

Peace within the chaos.


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