Deebo Samuel, Trent Williams provide 49ers with leadership

ByNick Wagoner ESPN logo
Wednesday, January 24, 2024

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It was July 30, 2022, three months after Deebo Samuel had requested a trade in the middle of lengthy and occasionally contentious contract negotiations, and the San Francisco 49ers receiver was sitting on a couch in left tackle Trent Williams' home.

Samuel was waiting on a phone call, hoping to end the "most stressful" time of his life with a life-changing new deal. Finally, it came -- official news from agent Tory Dandy that Samuel'sthree-year extension with $58.1 million in guaranteed money was done.

"We was just chilling," Samuel told ESPN, smiling at the memory while sitting near Williams on another couch in the 49ers' public relations office. "And then we just went crazy."

Samuel jumped off the couch, yelled and bolted out the door, running up and down the street of Williams' Morgan Hill neighborhood in celebration. Williams, who served as consigliere to Samuel and Niners coach Kyle Shanahan throughout the negotiations, filmed it all.

"I just went on ahead and started recording," Williams said. "I needed to capture that memory."

In 49ers lore, it's a moment that could be remembered for much more, as the team kept one of its best players and ensured that Samuel, 28, and Williams, 35, could continue setting a physical, confident tone in the franchise's pursuit of a sixth Lombardi Trophy. It was a significant benchmark in a fast friendship that has developed since Williams was traded to the Niners in 2020.

For Samuel, the do-it-all "wide back," it meant more opportunities to pick Williams' brain and perfect his craft. For Williams, the stalwart blindside protector, it meant more lessons in the art of trash talk as a byproduct of Samuel's supreme self-confidence.

Together, the former roommates have built a bond that has become the heartbeat of the 49ers' identity. It's no coincidence they are the first two players opponents see when the Niners step on the field in their WWE-style "Bumpboxx" entrances every week, a pregame tradition the team hopes Samuel will be able to take part in before Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Detroit Lions (6:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Samuel is dealing with a left shoulder injury suffered in Saturday's divisional round against the Green Bay Packersand is 50/50 to play Sunday because of the injury, which is not a repeat ofthe hairline fracture he suffered earlier in the season. The offense struggled without him in a come-from-behind victorySaturday.

"You can just see it every time our team walks out," tight end George Kittle said. "It's swagger. It's like when they bring that out there, it just kind of elevates everyone else around them and it just gives this team a confidence. ... They just have this aura about them that just incites being a great football player."

GROWING UP IN South Carolina, Samuel loved playing football but was never much for watching it. He still rarely consumes games for fun and remains largely averse to in-depth film study, though he does that more than he used to.

Which is why it's no surprise that when Samuel joined former Niners running back Jerick McKinnon for a workout at O Athletik gym in Houston in summer 2020, he had no idea his new left tackle was not only working out in the same place but also part owner.

Samuel and McKinnon were discussing how the 49ers would replace retiring left tackle Joe Staley when McKinnon stopped Samuel, pointed to the 6-foot-5, 318-pound Williams on the other side of the gym and gave Samuel a quick scouting report.

"I didn't really know who Trent was," Samuel said. "I'm like, 'S---, looks like we're going to need his ass.' I walked up to him and we were just chopping it up. ... From there, the relationship kept building and building and building."

Despite the fact Samuel was about to be a freshman at Chapman (South Carolina) High School when Washington selected Williams with the fourth pick in the 2010 NFL draft, the duo wasted no time finding common ground. They immediately bonded over grueling offseason workouts so difficult both immediately curse at their mere mention.

Five or six days a week, Williams and Samuel participated in 2-hour workouts, many under the blazing Texas sun. The worst of those were spent on the track, where they'd alternate running 400-, 500- and 600-meter sprints followed by 200-meter hurdles. Those would be mixed among hill runs and sand pit, pool and field work.

The closer to training camp they got, the more they'd turn up the intensity on the vomit-inducing sessions. That shared experience formed the foundation of Samuel and Williams' friendship.

"It was just a litany of hard-ass workouts," Williams said. "The more time we spent doing those things and being active, it just created conversation and memories that only people going through it with you can have."

Despite the difference in their age and position, Shanahan wasn't surprised that Samuel and Williams became fast friends.

"They're both such good players and such unique players," Shanahan said. "There are no tackles like Trent, and there are no receivers like Deebo. ... If you would have asked me if they would've been tight, I would've definitely thought so."

AS IT TURNED out, the COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for Samuel and Williams to go from teammates to roommates. When Santa Clara County shut down 49ers home games late in the 2020 season, the Niners relocated to Arizona to finish the year.

Samuel and Williams rented a house and lived together for the final month of the season. Living in the Phoenix area, they spent most of their time at the house relaxing and talking about a wide variety of topics, ranging from their shared love of basketball and music to balancing football and family life.

"We had to find something to do after practice and playing the games," Samuel said. "So, it was mostly just talking s---. Just normal stuff."

The pair also discovered a few of each other's quirks. Much to Samuel's confusion, he would get home from games to find Williams in the clothes the 320-pound lineman wore home, covered with a blanket and getting a full night's sleep on the living room couch.

That month not only cemented their friendship and established Williams as the only player Samuel would confide in about his contract situation, but it also provided them an opportunity to learn from each other.

Even as the 49ers slipped to an injury-ravaged 6-10 record in 2020, Samuel would walk into the kitchen and be greeted with the same sight nearly every night -- Williams watching tape of upcoming opponents or himself, either from games or in practice, and painstakingly evaluating each rep.

For Samuel, it was a front-row seat to how an established star is able to consistently produce at an elite level, an issue that has popped up a couple times in the receiver's career, including in a 2022 season that Samuel has called "awful" because he was out of shape and sluggish.

Although Williams and Samuel play different positions, Samuel came to recognize he and Williams were rare talents and that by observing and following Williams, he could maximize his own skills.

"As you look around the league, you see the whole league trying to copy everything that he does," Samuel said. "But they can't do it. He's a one-of-one player."

It's a description that also applies to Samuel, who this year joined Hall of Famer Charley Taylor as the only players in NFL history to have at least 4,000 receiving and 1,000 rushing yards in their first five seasons. Like Williams, Samuel also takes pride in making sure his opponents feel him days after they've played.

Although Williams is the more experienced veteran, he, too, has learned plenty from Samuel. Odd as it might seem for an 11-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro, Williams spent most of his career refraining from trash talk for fear he couldn't back it up.

But that's not how Samuel operates. Samuel runs with a fury and passion that Williams said is unmatched. Samuel's father encouraged him at a young age to approach every game as though he's the best player on the field, and if that turned into some choice words for his opponent as a motivational tool, so be it.

That approach often manifests into Samuel being a willing trash talker before, during and after games. For some, that might be a problem. For Samuel, it's a fire stoker and often results in some of his best performances.

After losing to the Philadelphia Eagles in last year's NFC Championship Game, Samuel repeatedly insisted the game would have been different had quarterback Brock Purdy not suffered a season-ending elbow injury in the first quarter. He doubled down by calling Eagles cornerback James Bradberry "trash" on the "I Am Athlete" podcast.

Before the Niners' 42-19 December destruction of the Eagles in Philadelphia, Samuel stood behind everything he said. He promptly dropped 138 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns.

"That's why I don't take nothing back that I say," Samuel said. "I stand on everything I say. If you stop me, you got the best of me, but it's going to be hard. It's going to be a long day."

While Samuel has always been as fearless with his words as his play, it's a trait Williams has wanted but never embraced. In watching Samuel repeatedly back up all of his words with his actions, Williams has grown increasingly unafraid to say what's on his mind, no matter how many feathers get ruffled.

That's why Williams joined Samuel wearing all black for that Philadelphia game and later declaring they had dressed "for a funeral."

"I talk s--- when I'm mad, but I wish I can wake up out of the bed and say you can't f--- with me and then go out there and show that you can't f--- with me and there's nothing you can do about it," Williams said. "And when you're dealing with professional athletes, to me that's like the trump card.

"It's like you got the confidence to tell somebody that gets paid millions of dollars that he can't do something and then go and show him that he can't do it. Now I've started to relax a little bit and let go a little bit. ... I really learned that from him."

THE 49ERS HAVEN'T had many obstacles in reaching their fourth NFC title game in the past five years. There was, however, that three-game losing streak that followed a 5-0 start. Given their value, it's unsurprising that the losing streak came when Samuel and Williams were out because of shoulder and ankle injuries, respectively.

After the Week 9 bye, Samuel and Williams returned and the Niners rattled off six straight wins by an average margin of 19 points.

This season, when Williams and Samuel were on the field together, the Niners averaged 7.2 yards per play and posted 148.38 offensive expected points added (EPA). When neither Williams nor Samuel was on the field, the Niners averaged 5.3 yards per play and had a minus-19.85 offensive EPA.

"They've had so much success and helped build this place to what it is now," Purdy said. "Those are two of the guys that I always want to be playing with, and it helps out with my confidence every play."

Purdy's sentiment is shared by many in the 49ers locker room. As the Niners chase another Super Bowl trip, they'll find confidence and inspiration simply by looking and finding Williams and Samuel in their customary spot at the front of the Bumpboxx line. It's a modern version of having the baddest dudes on the team getting off the bus first.

And when the games start, Shanahan won't hesitate to call for Samuel, when available, to get a touch or to run the ball behind Williams when his team needs a spark. It's not just about gaining yards, it's also about reminding the entire team what 49ers football is supposed to be about.

"They have similar styles and just the way they have fun before games, that's them," Shanahan said. "That's genuinely who they are and that's why they're always going to be front and center. When you got the type of the talent and charisma of those two guys, it kind of sticks out.

"I think they feed off each other. And I know our team feeds off them."

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