DRE GREENLOW WAS football, and Fred Warner had a plan. This is how things are often in the 49ers linebacker group: Warner, who calls himself “big brother, dad,” is the professor, Greenlaw and Aziz Al-Shair are the recipients of his wisdom. In this case, Warner came up with his latest idea as they sat on the bench with the rest of San Francisco’s defense in the final minutes of a convincing Week 14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Dre, are you going to sign your ball with Tom?” Warner asked.

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Greenlaw, who brilliantly intercepted a pass from Tom Brady early in the game – and showed the ball – barely thought about it before saying, “No, I don’t want to do that.”

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Warner insisted. “Bro, you can too. When are we going to play this guy next? You will never have that opportunity again.”

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Greenlaw considered this idea and all its negative consequences: to look like a fanatic; insult Brady by giving him a symbol of that day’s bad luck; get rebuffed and face the inevitable backlash against memes. And then, prompted by Warner, he thought of the positives: getting the ball you intercepted, signed by Tom Freakin Brady, on the field after winning the claim. Greenlaw’s head bobbed slower and slower, gradually turning into a nod. “You know?” he told Warner. “You’re right.”

So, at Levy Stadium after the game, when they approached Brady, Warner sensed Greenlaw’s reluctance. Warner—the mentor, the All-Pro, the one with the strength to get Brady’s attention—took the lead, and Greenlaw dragged himself a few paces behind, soccer ball in hand, suddenly unsure again. They moved closer, and Greenlaw slowed down. “In Dre’s defense,” Warner says, “it’s kind of surreal to be around Tom, because we’ve all been kids for so long and watched him on TV. Now, standing in front of him, you see the wrinkles on his face and understand This is a real adult man playing football.

Before Warner could ask about the ball, Brady looked at Warner and said, “Fred, you’re a damn good player and I love watching you play.”

Disarmed, Warner hesitated, the justice of his mission being destroyed right there in midfield.

“Thanks, Tom,” he muttered. “But… er… could you sign this soccer ball for my boyfriend?” Greenlaw stepped up and Brady signed. “He was absolutely calm,” says Warner.

The story here is not about Brady, but about the guys approaching him and the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that got them to this point. You can look out on the field this Sunday when the 49ers play the Dallas Cowboys for a spot in the NFC Championship Game and you’ll see helmets, points totals, points difference and salaries. You wouldn’t be alone. In the midst of this spectacle, it’s easy to forget that they’re just young lads making their way through an unwritten world.

Take a close look at these guys. They are the fastest, most energetic, and arguably the best linebackers in the NFL, and together they change shape, expanding, contracting, and moving to cover the entire midfield. It doesn’t take long, maybe five or six plays, to realize that it’s not all about preparation and talent. “It’s almost like twin telepathy,” says Warner. “You know before that happens where the other guys will be on the field.”

Pick a random streak of 18 49ers games and you’re sure to see momentum in action. Standing on the goal line against the Commanders in Week 16 is the place to be. On the first goal of 5, Brian Robinson Jr. tried from the right side, but Warner knocked him down for a yard loss. On the second goal from the 6th, Robinson wanted to run wide, but Al-Shair forced him inside and Greenlaw got up when it looked like he could find the end zone. After scoring a third goal from the first, Robinson tried again from the left side, but was knocked down by Greenlaw as Warner attempted to snatch the ball. On the fourth goal, Antonio Gibson managed to find all three midfielders, as well as most of the defensive line, and Warner slowly walked off the field, ducking.

There’s a lot going on there. Despite Warner being only a year older than the other two, 26-year-old Warner is the undisputed leader. “The guy everyone follows,” Greenlaw says. In his presence, Warner acts like a senator, the kind of guy that makes you want to sit up straight and change your life. “This is a dude who always did everything right,” says Greenlaw. The other two attack the game as if each game atones for past failures and determines the course of their future lives. They were roommates as newcomers in 2019 and quickly realized that both grew up amid unfathomable misfortunes that they know don’t go away with professional success. And they are being trained by a man who needed them as much as they needed him.

Take another look at this field and you can see the fire fueling the speed and ferocity. You can see some of the desperation these three show every time the ball snaps. What if you could look inside and see what makes them move? Perhaps you will see something closer to real life.

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

THERE IS A REASON they play the way they play.

Greenlaw lived in groups and orphanages when he was 8 years old. When he was 14 years old and a freshman at Fayetteville High School, his foster home closed and he waited to be sent to a boys’ ranch 50 miles from his high school, his football team, and all the little bits of normal life that he came. treasure. However, his life changed when Brian Early, then a coach at Fayetteville, and his wife Nancy took Greenlaw into their home and raised him along with their two youngest daughters. Understandably, Greenlaw was shy and insecure at first, but he eventually succeeded in Fayetteville and received a scholarship to study in Arkansas. The early adopters legally adopted Greenlaw when he was 21 years old.

Al-Shair spent the first few years of his life traveling between Florida and Saudi Arabia, where his father taught English. From the age of 4 to 6, he lived exclusively in Saudi Arabia. Around the same time, his parents divorced and Aziz moved back to Florida with his mom and two younger brothers. “I remember the good times in Saudi Arabia,” he says, “but also the bad times.” The family moved frequently to and around Tampa. He was a sophomore in high school when the house they lived in burned down, and spent the rest of his high school years either homeless or living in several motels. He started every morning of his senior year with a two-hour city bus ride from the motel to Hillsborough High School. A devout Muslim who has been fasting during Ramadan for as long as he can remember, Al-Shair drew on this experience on days when there was no food in the family.

When he went on his first recruiting trip to the Florida Atlantic, he brought his family and discovered a new world of free stuff. “I didn’t know how it worked,” he says. He entered FAU and left campus with a full stomach and a bag filled with Gatorade. He said to himself, “I think I’m going to make a few more visits.”

Every time he did, he heard from a worried FAU coach Charlie Partridge asking, “Aziz, why do you visit me more often?”

“We’re fine, coach,” Al-Shair told him. “I’m going to come, I just want to make these visits to eat for my family.” Now he shrugs and says, “That was my life. I had to do what I had to do.”

In college at FAU, Al-Shair sat on the floor during meetings and filming because he didn’t want to lose the connection that gender gave him to his past.

“Look at other teams,” he says. “They play like they always have next week.”

Even Warner, who calls his past “not like these guys,” didn’t go down the golden path. His mom raised him and his two younger siblings near San Diego, where a connection at his LDS church ward alerted a BYU recruiter to a tall, thin kid who was beginning to attract the attention of some lower-level Division I programs.

“We all have different skills, different experiences, but we all love hunting,” says Warner. “We love things that most teams and most people don’t want to do, like the routine of running to football after every game, imposing our will, the brutality of the game, which we are all proud of. That’s why it looks different when you look at us compared to other bands. The three of us feed on each other, energy. It’s not something to talk about or pretend to be. We love the game and we love each other and that’s what you see as a product.”

Warner was drafted in the third round in 2018, and the following year the 49ers drafted Greenlaw in the fifth round and convinced Al Shair to sign them as an undrafted free agent. At training camp, Greenlaw and Al Shair met on the same day they found out they would be roommates, and that’s how conversations between the 21-year-old couple away from home led to a series of revelations.

“He started telling me about his life,” says Al-Shair, “and it was one of the first times I met someone to whom I could say: “Damn it, your life is almost as hard or harder than my”. I can’t imagine myself going through some of the things he went through and vice versa.”

They may try to contain it, but the past floats away. People — “people I haven’t heard from since fifth grade,” Greenlaw says — are trying to get back into their lives. Now there is money, and a way of life that they did not know about until they began to live it, but everything that was before remains only in one thought.

“We’ve been through so much that no one else can understand,” says Greenlaw. “You can’t just go and talk to people about what you’ve been through and expect them to understand. But I can talk to Aziz. Who better to talk to than a guy who’s been through this or is going through this.” He’s the type to say, “Oh, I understand why you think like…