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Gameday Story: The Specialists

Posted by Taylor Price on October 10, 2011 – 10:02 AM

Typically, kickers, punters and long snappers don’t get a ton of media attention. But when you’re David Akers, Andy Lee and Brian Jennings, a trio of specialists with eight Pro Bowl appearances combined, you certainly deserve recognition.

All three remain at the top of their respective games, and graced the latest 49ers Gameday Magazine in a cover story called “The Specialists.” Graphic designer Ben Mayberry designed the cover shoot, which was set up and photographed by team photographer Terrell Lloyd.

The photo shoot experience was fun for Jennings, who had never partaken in a photo shoot with the 49ers. He’s been on the team for 12 seasons, more than anyone on the current roster.

“We don’t necessarily get a lot of media attention,” Jennings said, “but it’s fun to be around high achievers, who perform at a high level. We’re grateful to the organization for putting the spotlight on us a little bit, to help make the 49ers fans what we do, and to get to know us better. It’s really great.”

So without further ado, here’s the cover story that examines the bond between Akers, Jennings and Lee.

The Specialists: Akers. Jennings. Lee.

By Taylor Price, 49ers.com

Faith. Family. Football. The three things that unify David Akers, Brian Jennings and Andy Lee, allow them to perform three specialized skills they provide for the San Francisco 49ers. Kick. Snap. Punt. In many ways, the veteran players have found commonalities through experiences shared in two months as teammates, and even more so through the kicking fraternity that exists within the National Football League. Before they ever donned the red and gold 49ers uniform at the same time, mutual respect existed between the three. The 49ers are the only team that has a Pro Bowler at each of the three specialist positions, and so it’s no surprise that Akers has been Pro Bowl teammates with the other two, having played on the NFC’s All-Star team with Jennings in 2005 and Lee in 2009. Admiration for other special teams performers is prevalent in the league, and is especially deep between the 49ers’ group.

Whether it’s spending time on the practice fields away from their teammates so they can hone individual and collective crafts, learning about each other’s football intelligence through meetings with respected special teams coach Brad Seely, or even relaxing on a team flight heading home from Philadelphia, the specialists have an unbreakable bond. In the back of the plane, there sat the three, discussing a hard-fought victory over the Eagles. It was especially meaningful for Akers, who made two field goals and connected on the game-winning PAT to beat his former team. “That was big,” said the 13-year veteran in the visiting locker room, some 30 yards away from the home locker room where he used to conduct post-game interviews. “To hit the last extra point, it’s like hitting a 50-yard field goal. It still counts as one, but it puts you up, and instead of a tie, you’re up by one.”

Even before the game, the 49ers knew it would mean a lot to Akers if they defeated the Eagles, considering he played in more regular season and postseason games than anyone in Philadelphia’s history and stands as the franchise’s leader in points (1,323), field goals (294), 50-plus yard field goals (15) and PATs (441). “I know whenever a guy plays his old team, they want to do something special,” Jennings shared. “I know he loves that place, loves the fans there and is grateful for the organization.” Akers, a great teammate, displayed his classy nature once more by purchasing Tony Luke’s cheese steaks for teammates and staff the day before the 49ers improved to 3-1 on the season. Sure, purchasing food will always win over teammates, but Akers doesn’t have to do that to earn admiration. It’s just the person he is. “He’s just somebody that treats everybody with respect; therefore he earns respect,” 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said during his team’s stay in Youngstown, Ohio prior to the Eagles win. “He’s just a good guy, got a good heart. People have good antennas and I think our guys perceive that.”

The players on the 49ers roster respect the values Akers lives his life by, especially Jennings and Lee, who find strong similarities in each other’s lifestyles. “We really practice a God, family, football lifestyle,” says Jennings. “The three of us really embody it.” Akers is a practicing minister, who knows and respects how hard it is to become a kicker, snapper or punter in the professional ranks. Even before he signed with the 49ers this offseason, Akers knew all about the operation Jennings and Lee provided former 49ers kicker Joe Nedney, who retired this offseason. Consider that mutual respect as another type of brotherhood, similar to what he shares with those who have his religious views. Because of the nature of each position, and the extreme skill it takes to perform in critical situations, Akers and all NFL specialists have respect for one another. That’s why you can see kickers, punters and snappers from opposing teams having conversations on the field in pregame warm-ups every Sunday, in every NFL city. It’s really a kicking fraternity. “That’s exactly what it is,” agrees Akers, the kicker selected to the NFL’s All-Decade team of the 2000s. “I think it takes awhile for most guys to make it in the NFL. You bounce around and then you finally lock on, so you kind of know these guys. A lot of guys train together in the offseason and there’s a respect. We can all be replaced quickly, so you have to play well and we keep each other up in that aspect.”

Talent also plays a big part in it. Who’s got it better in the specialist department than the 49ers? Nobody. To steal a saying Harbaugh has utilized in postgame addresses to his team– the 49ers have certainly leaned on their three Pro Bowl specialists this season. Akers has connected on eight field goals, including one in each contest, while Lee is averaging 52.2 yards per punt through four games. Jennings doesn’t have statistics to quantify his importance, but it’s safe to say every snap of his career has been on target.

The 49ers long snapper’s talents, however, don’t go unnoticed by those around him. “He just fires the ball back so fast,” says Akers. “It gives Andy a lot of time to put the ball down, which gives me more time to look at the ball.” Lee, who has been teammates with Jennings for all eight of his seasons with the 49ers, is spoiled to some degree. “He guns it back there,” says the two-time Pro Bowler, considered to be one of the league’s most respected punters. “You know the snap is going to be within where I don’t have to move my feet. I can catch the ball and I can get going.”

Jennings, a former collegiate walk-on tight end, became a snapper when he injured his knee and began trying it on the side. Now 12 years after being drafted by the 49ers in the seventh-round of the 2000 NFL Draft, Jennings is the longest tenured player on the team’s current roster. He’s also a member of the team’s proud 10-Year Club and has played in 180 consecutive games, third-most in franchise history. What makes the 49ers snapper so unique, besides his endearing personality, is his passion for the game of football, his craft in particular. If long snapping was an art form, Jennings would be its Picasso or Van Gogh. He’s even started a football camp and instructional website just for long snappers. Hearing Jennings describe his job truly illustrates the passion he plays with. “With field goals, it’s about giving the kicker the longest look at the ball as you can,” says Jennings. “When he puts the ball on the tee when he’s practicing field goals, he gets to see the ball sitting there for his entire approach. I want him to have a similar experience on gameday with the snap and the hold.”

The consistency Jennings strives for is obvious to Lee. But it’s not just on the field where the two have grown. Lee has matured over the years while obliterating the team’s record books thanks to a little help from his friend. Lee currently stands as the 49ers all-time leader in punts (667), yards (30,247), gross avg. (45.5), punts inside the 20 (185) and net avg. (38.6). Off the field, both have gotten married in recent years and have newborns to boot, no pun intended. “He has an 11-month old son and I have a 16-month old son,” says Lee, who enjoys hearing Jennings’ football, and non-football opinions. “Over the years, we’ve developed like-minds.  I try to find interest in different things and he’s a little different. So, I’m interested in what he talks about a lot of the times.”

Jennings talks frequently to the media, too. He does a weekly radio interview on the KNBR Morning Show, where he’s become a staple of Bay Area morning radio entertainment. Jennings demonstrates his out-going, opinionated personality in each on-air appearance, but it’s what Lee and 49ers teammates have been hearing for years. “We’ve grown to be really good friends,” says Lee. “Honestly, if you would have told me in my first or second year here that I’d be friends with this guy, I’d be like, ‘No, we’re nothing alike.’ And even though we’re nothing alike, we’ve found something that we are alike in and it complements each other well. It’s become a really good friendship.”

Friendships are one thing, but getting the job done at a high level is something totally different. All three specialists know that it comes with the territory, and is why they remain focused on getting their respective jobs done. “What brings our whole team together is the common bond of playing winning football at the highest level,” says Jennings. “When you get guys where it means everything to them to perform at the highest possible level, I think those guys can bond, can mesh really quickly. That’s first. All the personalities and outside interests, that’s second.”

For them, athletics is all about high performance, even on a golf course. Admittedly, Jennings and Lee, who have gone on many golf outings in the past, have not been able to golf as much these days. Newborn babies make it tough. But prior to the births of their sons, Jennings and Lee played often. They happened to squeeze in a round in Ohio last week, on the player’s day off. The game of golf, which requires specialized talents, suits the competitive drive of both men. Lee says Jennings plays the wind really well when it comes to long snapping and it’s no different on the golf course. Both can shoot low scores, it’s hard to say which is better though. “I think it’s even,” says Lee, who estimates both have low, single-digit handicaps.

As much as golf is an outlet for the players, the focus on football is never lost. But more so, the focus on faith and family is strongest. “When my son was born it was a huge shift in my life,” admits Jennings. When it comes to the three Fs, the trio can share conversation just as easily as they can discuss schemes, opponents or kicking techniques. “David is ahead of us in all three areas,” adds Jennings. “He’s had more success in football, won more games, been married longer, has four kids, and does services on occasion. He’s a mentor to Andy and me in all three ways. In terms of faith, football and family, Andy and I are growing.”

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Posted in Announcements | 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “Gameday Story: The Specialists”

  1. By Johne B on Oct 10, 2011 | Reply

    “The Dynamic Trio”, what “Potent Kicking Team”! Rock on, Kick on!!

  2. By niners4life on Oct 10, 2011 | Reply

    Man gotta love em. Miss joe nedney but akers is a nice addition and its awesome how well he adapted

  3. By Devious on Oct 11, 2011 | Reply

    Nedny? Akers is a beast! i love the niners!!!!!!!!!!!!

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