The unbreakable bond that helped these 49ers fuel the best defense in the NFL

ByTim Keown ESPN logo
Friday, January 20, 2023

DRE GREENLAW HAD a football and Fred Warner had a plan. This is the way things often work among the 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 wisdom. In this instance, Warner floated his latest idea as they were sitting on the bench with the rest of the San Francisco defense in the final minutes of a convincing Week 14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Dre, you gonna get your ball signed by Tom?" Warner asked.

Greenlaw, who had a brilliant interception of a Tom Brady pass earlier in the game -- and the ball to show for it -- barely thought about it before saying, "Naw, I don't want to do that."

Warner persisted. "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 considered this idea and all of its negative ramifications: looking like a fanboy; insulting Brady by presenting him with a symbol of that day's failure; being rebuffed and having to face the inevitable meme-y backlash. And then, at Warner's prompting, he thought of the positives: getting a ball that you intercepted signed by Tom Freakin' Brady, on the field after a statement win. Greenlaw's head shook slower and slower, eventually becoming a nod. "You know what?" he told Warner. "You're right."

And so, on the Levi's Stadium field after the game, as the two approached Brady, Warner could sense Greenlaw's reluctance. Warner -- the mentor, the All-Pro, the one with the juice to get Brady's attention -- took the lead, and Greenlaw dragged a few steps behind holding a football, suddenly unsure all over again. They got closer, and Greenlaw got 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 could ask about the ball Brady looked at Warner and said, "Fred, you're a heck of a player, and I love watching you play."

Disarmed, Warner hesitated, the righteousness of his mission eroding right 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 here is not Brady but the guys approaching him and the backstage machinations that led them to that moment. You might look out onto the field this Sunday, when the 49ers play the Dallas Cowboys for a spot in the NFC Championship Game, and see helmets and number and points spreads and salaries. You wouldn't be alone. It's easy amid the spectacle to forget they're just young guys making their way through an unscripted world.

Watch these guys closely. They're the fastest and most energetic and perhaps best linebacking unit in the NFL, and together they shape-shift, expanding and contracting and translocating to cover the entire middle of the field. It doesn't take long, maybe five or six plays, to understand there's more at work here than just preparation and talent. "It's almost like twin telepathy," Warner says. "You know, before it happens, where the other guys will be on the field."

Pick a series at random from the 49ers' 18 games and you're bound to see the dynamic at work. A goal-line stand against the Commanders in Week 16 is as good a place as any. On first-and-goal from the 5,Brian Robinson Jr.tried the right side but got thrown down by Warner for a loss of a yard. On second-and-goal from the 6, Robinson wanted to run wide but got forced inside by Al-Shaair and stood up by Greenlaw just as it appeared he might find the end zone. On third-and-goal from the 1, Robinson tried the left side again and got popped by Greenlaw as Warner tried to rip the ball loose. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, Antonio Gibson managed to find all three of the linebackers -- as well as most of the defensive line -- and Warner walked off the field slowly, flexing.

There's a lot going on out there. Despite being just one year older than the other two, Warner, 26, is the unquestioned leader, "The guy everybody follows," Greenlaw says. Warner is senatorial in his presence, the kind of guy who makes you want to sit up straight and change your life. "He's the dude who's always done everything right," Greenlaw says. The other two attack the game as if each play will atone for past failures and determine the course of their future lives. They were roommates as rookies in 2019, and they quickly learned they both grew up amid unfathomable misfortune they know does not vanish with professional success. And they're coached by a man who has needed them as much as they need him.

Look out at that field again and you might see the combustion that fuels the speed and ferocity. You might see some of the reasons for the borderline desperation these three men exhibit every time the ball is snapped. And if you could peek inside and see what makes them go? You might see something closer to real 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 way they play.

Greenlaw lived in group and foster-care homes beginning when he was 8 years old. When he was 14 and a freshman at Fayetteville High School, his foster home closed, and he was waiting to be sent to a boys ranch 50 miles away from his high school, his football team and all the small shreds of normalcy he had come to treasure. His life changed, though, when Brian Early, then a coach at Fayetteville, and his wife Nanci, took Greenlaw into their home and raised him along with their two younger daughters. Greenlaw, understandably, was shy and unsure at first, but eventually he thrived at Fayetteville and earned a scholarship to Arkansas. The Earlys legally adopted Greenlaw when he was 21.

Al-Shaair spent the first several years of his life traveling between Florida and Saudi Arabia, where his father taught English. He lived exclusively in Saudi Arabia from the time he was 4 until he was 6. About that time, his parents divorced, and Azeez moved back to Florida with his mom and two younger brothers. "I remember some good times in Saudi Arabia," he says, "and some bad ones, too." The family moved often in and around Tampa. He was a sophomore in high school when the home they were living in burned down, and he spent the rest of his high school years either homeless or living in a series of motels. He began every morning of his senior year commuting two hours by city bus from a motel to Hillsborough High. A devout Muslim who has fasted during Ramadan for as long as he can remember, Al-Shaair leaned on that experience on the days when the family didn't have food.

When he went on his first recruiting trip, to Florida Atlantic, he brought his family and discovered a new world of free stuff. "I didn't know how it worked," he says. He committed to FAU and left campus with a full stomach and a bookbag filled with Gatorade. He told himself, "I think I'm going to take some more visits."

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

"We're good, coach," Al-Shaair told 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 college at FAU, Al-Shaair would sit on the floor during meetings and film sessions because he didn't want to lose the connection that floor gave him to his past.

"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," didn't travel the gilded path. His mom raised him and his two younger siblings near San Diego, where a connection in the ward of his LDS church alerted a BYU recruiter about a tall, thin kid who was starting to get the attention of some lower-level Division I programs.

"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 pick in 2018, and the next year the 49ers drafted Greenlaw in the fifth round and convinced Al-Shaair to sign with them as an undrafted free agent. At training camp, Greenlaw and Al-Shaair met on the same day they found out they'd be roommates, which is how conversations between a couple of 21-year-olds far from home led to a series of revelations.

"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 try to hold it under, but the past floats. People -- "people I haven't heard from since fifth grade," Greenlaw says -- try to shoulder their way back into their lives. There's money now, and a lifestyle they didn't know existed until they were living it, but everything that came before is never more 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 controlled fury, all three of them. Each professes to feeling empty every time a ball carrier hits the turf without the benefit of his aggression. Teammates use the terms "headhunter" to describe Greenlaw and Al-Shaair in a way that makes sense contextually but admittedly doesn't work outside the locker room. But take a closer look. Every play and every hit carries the echoes of nights in horrid group homes, of two-hour morning and evening 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 read this back to 49ers linebacker coach Johnny Holland over the phone and it's followed by several seconds of silence before he says, quietly, "Wow. We need to make that a quote and put it up in the room."

No, this isn't a fairy tale. It's not a story about the communal power of sports, although you could make it that, and it's not a story about guys who found a way to rise out of one life and into another, although you could make it that, too. It's a story about survival, and how it builds on itself, moving from one place to another, from circumstance to circumstance, like a linebacker filling a gap, and how in the end the most you can ask for is someone 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 best defense in the NFL, first against the pass and second against the run, and they operate with the attitude and language of a special-forces group. When Robert Saleh was the defensive coordinator, the slogan was "All gas, no brakes." Under current DC DeMeco Ryans, it's SWARM, which stands for Special Work Ethic and Relentless Mindset. (Yes, I know: SWERM, but that wouldn't make any sense). Regardless of the catch phrase, it's a simple concept: getting 11 helmets to the ball on every play, which makes everyone's job easier.

"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.

"He's like having another grandfather," Al-Shaair says. "DeMeco (Ryans) is like the dad, but you know how you always going to your grandfather's house because you can 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 tough. We can sit here and talk about it all day really -- how much he means to all of us, what he's gone through, all the adversity. He's more than just a coach, to put it as simply as possible. He's constantly trying to give us life lessons and make us into better men."

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 bad on purpose -- and they remember it. I believe in psychology. If you talk a person up, they start believing that's who they are. When you give a lot of positive input to the human brain, it starts believing it."

Holland calls Warner "Tesla" because "you can plug him in and he goes all day, and he can get from zero to 60 really fast." He calls Greenlaw and Al-Shaair "wolf dogs" because "a wolf dog is going to hunt all the time, because a wolf dog 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 talk," Holland says. "You've got to be able to know what kind of environment they've been in, and how you can use that to make them a better player."

For instance: Holland's first impression of Al-Shaair? "I sometimes would call him a dirty player," he says. "He was relentless, always trying to take someone's head off. But why? I realized it was because of his background. Dre was the exact same way. They've got that chip, but they've learned to corral that anger and become really good football players."

Holland is in a clinical trial and undergoes treatment every other week. He continues to coach because, he says, "These guys keep me going. They give me days to look forward to. I'm going through the process of healing, and this is part of my treatment right here: coaching these guys. Every day my feet hit the floor in the morning is a great day, and I understand that a great day for me is a little different than a great 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 at the level they're playing, you've got to put yourself in a different zone," Holland says. "Dre plays with so much adrenaline and excitement he can get too deep in the zone."

Look closer. It's all out there on that field: the foster homes and homelessness and days in Saudi Arabia, good and bad; the fury and the relentlessness and the determination to make every tackle on every play; the experimental treatments and the years of uncertainty and yes, even the love. They move faster than anyone else and hit harder than anyone else. Every collision, every left-right-left combination to the facemask, is a message for whomever doubted or ignored or walked away and didn't come back. Every step they take pushes everything that came before a little farther away. It's all there, everywhere and nowhere.

Peace in the chaos.

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