The first 49ers Gameday Magazine cover story of 2012 discusses this year’s incoming rookie draft class and their quest to learn “The Forty Niner Way.” Seven players from all over the country have been chosen to be the next batch of great players, but before they get there, coaches and veterans have schooled the NFL newcomers on what it takes to truly become a 49er.
This year’s rookies posed for the cover after a recent training camp practice. They also stood close to Jim Harbaugh’s “Forty Niner Way” street sign, recently installed by San Francisco’s coach prior to the start of camp. Graphic designer Ben Mayberry touched up the image to give the cover its final look.
The Forty Niner Way
The 2012 San Francisco 49ers draft class learns the ropes, the right way, the 49er way.
By Taylor Price, 49ers.com
In just three words Jim Harbaugh captured everyone’s attention on the first day of San Francisco 49ers training camp. The NFL’s 2011 Coach of the Year did it simply by placing a street sign along the narrow walkway his players use every day to head from the locker room to the practice fields. The act, though simple in nature, was a pure stroke of genius. Those three words, “Forty Niner Way,” said so much without having to say too much. The sign was also joined by a small number on the bottom right corner of the green and white street sign: 2012. The number adjoined Harbaugh’s phrasing as if to declare a founding date for San Francisco’s latest football ideology. No surprise, the coach’s statement on doing things the right way to achieve a common goal was easily picked up by his incoming rookie class.
“It’s kind of like the yellow brick road to where we work inside and then out on the field as well,” says sixth-round pick Jason Slowey, a 6-foot-4, 305-pound offensive lineman drafted out of Western Oregon, now playing center with the 49ers. “If you want to go a little bit deeper than that, it’s doing things the right way, the 49er way. It has a lot of meaning and is a lot more than just a street sign. It’s a good reminder to everyone, every day.”
Yes, each and every day for a rookie in the National Football League tends be difficult, but getting through the grind of camp is a rite of passage. It’s a matter of pushing through the growing pains and mastering the techniques being preached on the practice fields. Fortunately for this year’s bunch of NFL newcomers, camaraderie hasn’t been hard to come by; the group instantly formed a tight bond ever since they reported for their first rookie minicamp in early May. “It’s real cool to go through all the rookie mistakes and errors together so we can learn from each other,” says first-round pick A.J. Jenkins, a 6-foot, 192-pound productive wide receiver who caught 167 passes for 2,432 yards and 19 touchdowns in four seasons at the University of Illinois. “We keep our spirits up by cracking jokes and laughing, so it’s a good feel. We still have a long way to go though.”
In just a short period of time this offseason, the rookies went out and toured the city of San Francisco, visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame and learned valuable lessons at the league’s Rookie Symposium. Second-round pick LaMichael James, a former Oregon Duck running back who demolished teams on the West Coast for years, is having no trouble making friends. A positive attitude certainly helps. “I’m here to make the team and do whatever I can to help the team win,” says the speedy, 5-foot-9, 195-pound Oregon running back who carried the ball 31 times for 257 rushing yards and scored three rushing touchdowns in Harbaugh’s final collegiate coaching defeat at Stanford.
Despite his dominance in college, James is humble approaching the professional ranks. It helps that his teammates share his selfless style. James also mentioned that his fellow rookies are the funniest group of guys he’s been around, specifically saying fourth-round pick Joe Looney can do the best impersonations. “Nah,” says the 6-foot-3, 309-pound Wake Forest guard upon learning of James’ opinion. “I don’t do good ones; I just try to get a laugh in there every now and again. Jason Slowey is the one doing good impersonations around here.”
Levity is needed throughout the tough times of training camp. Not only are the rookies looking to hold their own amongst their peers, they’re looking to earn playing time on a 49ers team brimming with talent, coming off a 13-3 regular season and an appearance in the NFC title game.
Even so, the rookies are determined to earn their way on to the final roster by doing it the right way, “The Forty Niner Way.” Trenton Robinson, a 5-foot-9, 193-pound safety drafted in the sixth-round out of Michigan State sees the mantra being a similar approach to his experience in college. “It’s a great way,” says Robinson, a four-year contributor on four Spartan bowl teams. “In everything you do, you’re going to go hard. Carrying over the hard-working collegiate mindset is a must.” Seventh-round pick Cam Johnson, an outside linebacker with defensive end experience at the University of Virginia, isn’t looking at his college experience anymore, he’s looking past it. “Everybody here is starting fresh,” says the 6-foot-3, 268-pound outside linebacker. “The past is the past and we gotta work to make a better next season.”
Darius Fleming at least had a little more familiarity with “the way” than his new teammates. In college at Notre Dame, this year’s fifth-round pick once shared an apartment with one of the 49ers undrafted rookies to make the 2012 roster, defensive tackle Ian Williams. Fleming, a 6-foot-2, 255-pound pass-rushing linebacker, who’s started training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform List, appreciates the wise words imparted by his collegiate roommate, turned professional teammate. Fleming also enjoys the comfort of being around his rookie teammates and making the tough transition into professional football together. “This is a different stage in our lives and we’re all trying to adapt to it the same way,” says Fleming. “We use each other to make the transition easier and I think we’ve done that. We try to enjoy the experience and try not to make it so hard on ourselves at times.”
Slowey, for example, has unique circumstances pushing him to make the team. A lifelong 49ers fan, who attended his first NFL game at Candlestick Park in 1997, also takes a sense of pride in blocking for James, a fellow collegiate standout in Oregon. With the 49ers, Slowey will get plenty of chances to block for James in the preseason. “It’s funny because I’ve always been a huge Oregon Ducks fan,” Slowey says. “Being here with LaMichael, that’s a cool thing for me, too. I’ve always been a fan of his and at the same time, my family has always been 49ers fans. It’s a blessing. You have to remind yourself every day that you’re in this position and you have to make the most of it.”
The 49ers rookies will look to make the most of it in their first preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings. First-team players are expected to get a limited playing time leaving plenty of opportunity to stand out for this year’s rookie class. James said he won’t let the first-game experience overwhelm him before he hits the field. Instead, he’ll let his natural competiveness take over. “It’ll probably feel the same to me as practice,” says James. “I always believe that you have to put in the preparation before you can actually play the game. When I go to practice I treat it like a game, so when you get into the game it becomes second nature to you. You have to go out and play hard. You have to treat it like a regular season game because there are guys on the other team looking to make their team also. I’m looking forward to it.”
The same can be said for all the rookies and maybe Looney the most. After missing the team’s offseason program with a foot injury, the young offensive lineman was recently cleared to rejoin his teammates at training camp. Getting back into the physicality of football was welcomed to Looney, who’s learning both guard spots on the line. “I think each one of us is going to try and play our tails off and try to help the team,” says Looney. “We’re going to be putting on the jersey and stepping in the stadium for the first time. It’s going to be pretty fun. We definitely want to carry on the tradition of winning. I think that’s every player’s goal in this locker room.”
Tags: A.J. Jenkins, Cam Johnson, Darius Fleming, Jason Slowey, Jim Harbaugh, Joe Looney, LaMichael James, Trenton Robinson
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