When things kicked off on game day against the Minnesota Vikings, Azeez Al-Shaair was expected to, at the very least, split his time at WILL linebacker with the returning Dre Greenlaw, who was just activated from the IR. Al-Shaair has filled the position since the second half of Week 1 more than admirably.
He’s collected a handful of eye-popping plays that displayed his next-gear closing speed and propensity for thumping ball carriers. But, perhaps, no image sums this up better than his bent and busted facemask from battering the Rams on Monday Night Football.
In a nod to Al-Shaair’s impact, Shanahan wouldn’t commit to simply handing the job back over to Greenlaw immediately instead of working him in slowly. For the plays, including all three of the linebackers at the top of the depth chart, Azeez would slide back to the SAM. That’s where he flashed in limited playing time last year.
This plan lasted about 13 plays when Greenlaw re-aggravated his injury and sat the rest of the game. This cleared the path for Al-Shaair again, and after the dust cleared, he had racked up a team-high eight tackles, an interception, and a fumble recovery.
Plus, due to a late Fred Warner hamstring pull, he took on the responsibility of communicating plays on two possible game-tying drives that both ended in a turnover on downs. Finally, he made a clutch tackle on the final drive, keeping the Vikings’ player inbounds to allow the clock to tick away.
That may all sound like quite a whirlwind to handle in just one afternoon of football, but Azeez Al-Shaair has spent his entire life dealing with the unexpected and channeling it into the sport he loves.
After a 16-tackle performance against the Seahawks where Al-Shaair saved the game by forcing a fumble as Seattle was about to score a game-sealing touchdown, the legend of Azeez continues to grow.
Al-Shaair, like a lot of fans, first engaged with football as a young man under the guidance of family. As a diehard Ravens fan, his mom would gather Azeez and his seven siblings around the TV for three hours of spirited escapism every Sunday.
Watching and idolizing the indefatigable Ray Lewis was a much-needed respite for the tight-knit group, who struggled with near homelessness in the Tampa Bay area for much of his childhood. Their most significant financial issue stemmed from an erroneous and later dismissed case brought against his mother for allegedly defrauding the government for food stamps.
Things took a turn for the worse when one morning, Azeez awoke to the smell of smoke in his grandmother’s house, where they’d been staying. Only a sophomore in high school, he gathered his younger brothers and brought them outside to safety before the entire structure was engulfed in flames.
The family was forced to bounce between low-budget motels, often sharing a single room in the aftermath. This meant Azeez would often have to take a city bus two hours every morning just to get his brothers and himself to school. This left little time for extracurriculars until his junior year, when he finally joined his first organized football team.
Al-Shaair, weighing barely 180 pounds, immediately became an impact player at middle linebacker. He drew interest from colleges as a senior when he compiled a stat sheet that would make CVS receipts look short. 126 tackles, 6.5 sacks, two interceptions, three forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries. Then in a demonstration of his true athletic domination over the competition, he managed to block six field goals and a punt.
He committed to Florida Atlantic for an eager staff, who saw the diamond in the rough as a future star on their defense. But, suddenly, he stopped returning texts and had begun to go on other official visits. When the recruiters reached out to have a sit-down and firm up their prospect, they learned the truth behind the elusive behavior.
Al-Shaair’s phone often died because his home had unreliable electricity, and he accepted other schools’ invitations to gather free food for the family. When he finally got on campus, and into a steady living situation, the college student thought of his two brothers, whose circumstances hadn’t changed, and moved them both into his Boca Raton apartment. For the first time, they were all in a stable setting.
On the field and in life, Al-Shaair adopted the philosophy of his favorite player, Lewis, who preached hard work and a positive attitude. He dismissed negativity and practiced so intensely that teammates assumed he must be joking. He wasn’t. After games, when everyone else, including coaches, were heading home for the night, Azeez would already be back in the facilities going over footage.
Having started his first two years, he’d secured his role as a respected team leader when the coaching staff that brought him in was replaced by Lane Kiffin’s. This twist of fate would eventually land him with the 49ers, but not before his most productive season.
He led Conference USA in tackles with 147, good for third in the country, and set the all-time record at Florida Atlantic. He even entered the next year on the Butkus Award watch list. This was all with a torn ligament in his elbow that sidelined him a single game before returning with a brace that he still rocks a version of to this day.
He also put on tape the plays that’d make up his absolutely electric highlight reel, which I highly recommend if you want the motivation to run through a wall any time soon.
Azeez’s fanatical dedication to the sport had gotten him a piece of the national spotlight, and many assumed would earn him a selection in the 2019 draft, perhaps as high as the 3rd or 4th round. However, another challenge presented itself. In October, days after being ejected for targeting in a game against Old Dominion, Al-Shaair suffered a non-contact injury during practice.
He went down attempting to cover a running back the flat and tore both his ACL and MCL. The loss devastated the team that missed, as Kiffin put it, “their alpha dog.” Those six pesky letters were enough to erase him off most draft boards altogether. You won’t find many teams willing to burn a selection on a player that, by the normal timeline, wouldn’t be available until halfway through his rookie season.
What these teams didn’t know is that Azeez Al-Shaair isn’t normal. As a devout Muslim, he would regularly fast from sun up to sundown for the month of Ramadan without missing practice or losing a step. So, when he saw the rehab schedule, it was just another prediction to prove wrong.
He still received an invite to the Combine, which ran from February 26th through March 4th. He couldn’t participate besides getting his measurements taken and putting up 16 reps on the bench press, which confirmed what most knew. He didn’t have the size or strength of your prototypical NFL linebacker. More than anything, his performance during interviews got the attention of some teams.
Those teams had scouts present for the Florida Atlantic University pro-day, barely three weeks later on the 26th of March. Devin Singletary, now of the Bills, also had his possible suitors there, so attendance was higher than usual for a middle of the pack mid-major.
No one really expected to see much of Al-Shaair, but his knee felt good enough to run some drills to the shock of the spectators. They nearly begged him not to, saying that he’d put more than enough on tape. He didn’t listen.
A workout five months post-op puts you in rarefied air as an athlete. It’s basically just Adrian Peterson, and that’s it. Attribute it to a man’s ambition, a man’s drive, a man’s will. Oh, and a freakish, Wolverine-like ability to heal. It was impressive, but not enough to prevent going undrafted. 254 selections came and went without Al-Shaair’s name being called, and it’s a distinction that will bother him for the rest of his life.
It wouldn't have happened that way if it were up to one man in the 49ers’ building. Chris Kiffin, the brother of Lane and FAU’s defensive coordinator, had been hired as a pass-rush specialist in San Francisco that offseason. As the draft neared, he would consistently bang the drum for Al-Shaair in meetings, especially knowing that linebacker was an area of focus for the team.
After Dre Greenlaw’s pick in the 5th, Kiffin knew that the player who had set up camp in his office for two seasons wasn’t in the cards that day. So, he gutted out the next two rounds, hoping no one else would take a flier on him. When no one did, Kiffin could let out a sigh of relief and got to bring in his man.
Still, the odds of Al-Shaair making the 53 man roster less than a year after his knee injury were slim, especially when you consider that group. The Niners had just shelled out 54 million for four years of Kwon Alexander, Fred Warner had begun his ascent to All-Pro Fred, and Dre Greenlaw was months away from stonewalling Seattle at the 1.
Not to mention, Malcolm Smith, former Super Bowl MVP, was still kicking around, and Mark Nzeocha owned a spot on special teams. When it comes to not mentioning, breakdowns of the position from around that time, literally, do not mention him at all.
Yet, Al-Shaair made his presence known little by little, and his advocates grew outside of Kiffin. When cutdown day came, he was still standing, while Smith and a couple of other unlucky vets had to pack their bags.
Week 1, he suited up for the first game of the 2019 season back in his hometown of Tampa Bay, where he, his mother, wife, and two brothers still live. It was his first time back on the field since his ejection midway through what should’ve been his best season to date.
Since then, he’s seen more of the field, and he’s been able to allocate a portion of his NFL paychecks to provide for his family, including getting his mother’s case cleared. Every step of the way, it’s been for them. He’s overcome so much adversity to get this point right here, and it’s not lost on him.
At the end of his rookie season, as the 49ers approached the Super Bowl, Al-Shaair was interviewed about his path to the NFL. There’s a simple quote that speaks volumes as to how he managed to reach where he is today when he’ll be the starting middle linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers in place of Fred Warner.
“My mentality was to believe that no matter the circumstances, I was going to persevere… But you couldn’t write it this way.”