My favorite part about covering this playoff run has been the all but impossible to quantify the sense of magic surrounding this 49ers team. At every turn, they have been doubted, yet when they have been faced with seemingly insurmountable levels of adversity, they not only responded, they triumphed by doing the spectacular when the chips were down, and the pressure was at its highest.
What’s fascinating to me is that this run has been propelled by a roster that is filled with players who are no strangers to persevering in the face of the inconceivable. While it’s easy to get caught up in the talent on this team (there is a LOT of it), their greatest strength truly might be the sheer amount of heart that this team possesses.
From top to bottom, there are a number of guys who have overcome unimaginable levels of adversity, persisting through situations that make winning road games in the playoffs seem minuscule in comparison.
Think about star left tackle Trent Williams. In 2019, Williams was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer known as Dermatofibrosarcoma Protuberans, or DFSP, a soft tissue sarcoma that develops in the deep layers of the skin.
“We literally caught it within weeks of metastasizing through to my brain to my skull,” said Williams, who added it was “a scary thing to go through” before going in-depth to describe being told by doctors to put his affairs in order in case he didn’t make it.
“Think how you describe to your 9-year-old, your 5-year-old, that daddy might not be here,” Williams said. “It’s tough.”
“I felt broken, I felt dead,” Williams said. “At that time, I felt like it was over. I instantly thought about how my kids would feel not having a father, not being there to walk them down the aisle.”
In April of 2019, Williams underwent successful surgery to remove the cancerous growth.
“At that time, I wasn’t thinking about football,” Williams said. “I thought football was over with.”
Imagine going through this ordeal, waking up one day and being told there’s a likely chance that you won’t be around to see your children grow up.
After experiencing this, do you think Trent Williams gives a damn about being told his team isn’t favored in a playoff matchup? Or how hard it is to beat the Green Bay Packers in January at Lambeau? Do you think Williams cares in the slightest about being told the odds of beating a very good Rams team for the third time in the same season?
Absolutely not. This man stared his own mortality in the face, and when many would have lost all hope, battled his way back to not only survive for his family but also to get back to the sport he loved.
“One of the first questions I asked was will I be able to play again,” he said. “When they told me I could, I was in a lot of pain, but I went to sleep comfortably knowing I had a chance to come back.”
Now Williams finds himself in the midst of a season that saw him voted to his 8th pro bowl, also receiving a first-team All-Pro nod for the first time in his illustrious career. Williams went from uncertainty surrounding his time left on this earth to now making a case as being the BEST player in football, regardless of position. As he sits one win away from his first-ever appearance in a super bowl, I dare ANYONE to look Trent Williams in the eyes and tell him that he and his teammates can’t do it.
Or how about Dontae Johnson? After originally being selected by the 49ers in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, Johnson has bounced around to five different teams in his NFL career. After being cut 10 times, Johnson could have given up. But he didn’t, and his determination led him back to the 49ers (quite a few times), where he eventually settled into an integral role as a jack of all trades in the secondary on a team that is only one win away from being conference champions.
Johnson stepped into a must-win game in week 18 to play nickel corner in place of an injured K’Waun Williams. During the course of that game, the 49ers also lost starting safety Jaquiski Tartt to injury as well, who Johnson was asked to take over for in the middle of the most high-pressure game of the season to that point. It cannot be overlooked how impressive it was that Johnson seamlessly transitioned between two starting roles in the 49ers secondary, in a game, they HAD to have, against one of the best passing offenses in the league.
Just two weeks later, Johnson was then was tasked with covering arguably the best wide receiver in football (Davante Adams) in zero degree weather in a January playoff game at Lambeau. All this coming just weeks after the sudden tragic passing of his mother.
For Johnson to step up this way in any circumstance would be a heroic effort. Still, the way he did so in the wake of such a devastating personal loss requires a level of inner strength that I am struggling to find the words to describe in a way that would do it justice adequately. In spite of all the ups and downs he has faced in his career, I feel like we can all unequivocally agree the 49ers aren’t still playing football this weekend if not for his incredible contributions.
Daniel Brunskill was playing in the now-defunct American Allegiance of Football just two seasons ago, going from an undrafted free agent playing in a second rate league to now being on his second year of being a staple on an offensive line that clears the way for one the most explosive rushing attacks in the entire NFL. Brunskill also has a logic-defying track record of success against a generational defensive lineman, who will be taking the field for the Rams during Sunday’s NFC Championship.
Do you think anyone would have listened to you if you told them way back in 2017 when the Atlanta Falcons waived Brunskill that he would soon be one of the only players in the entire NFL who could stake the claim to the title of “Aaron Donald stopper”? OF COURSE not, but that’s part of the magic surrounding this team. So many of these guys have done the near impossible to reach the roles they currently have on this 49ers squad.
Jordan Willis was all but given up on by the Jets, who shipped him to San Francisco in exchange for a future 7th round pick. A former third-round pick who was on the verge of not having a role on a last-place team turned it around and is now a key cog in the 49ers ferocious pass rush that has been the heart and soul of this squad. Discarded for a day 3 pick a little over a year ago, Willis now has a place firmly etched into 49ers postseason lore that will last an eternity after his blocked punt late in the fourth quarter in Green Bay.
In exchange for a future sixth-round pick, Charles Omenihu was in a similar situation, being moved to the 49ers just shy of the trade deadline. Omenihu was mostly viewed as a decent depth add, but few expected him to have any kind of major impact. Low and behold, Omenihu ended up DOMINATING a road playoff game, returning home to his home state of Texas with a bang, in a game that saw him lead the 49ers in pressures and sacks while regularly giving an All-Pro left tackle more than he could handle.
Azeez Al-Shaair entered the league as an undrafted free agent, who the league deemed wasn’t worth one of the 250 odd picks in the 2019 NFL draft. He then spent the first two years of his career mainly handling special teams' duty before bursting on the scene this year. You could argue (and I have) that Al-Shaair was the most consistent player on the 49ers defense this year, and his ascension from an undrafted afterthought on special teams to a game-breaking starting linebacker has been nothing short of spectacular.
This also applies to some of the guys who won’t take the field on Sunday. Raheem Mostert bounced around the league on six different teams handling mainly special teams' duty before settling in a prominent role in the 49ers backfield. Mostert then famously went on to have one of the most dominant playoff performances in NFL history in the 2019 NFC Championship game.
The point is, this 49ers team is FULL of football players, and more importantly, human beings, who have done the unthinkable to achieve the necessary success required to reach where they are in their respective careers and lives. The amount of willpower and sheer grit within that organization is truly special, and while there is no way to point to any specific metric to measure heart tangibly, it’s beyond apparent this 49ers team has it in spades and then some.
So to those who dare, go ahead and doubt this squad. List off the reasons why you think they’re lucky to be here or why you believe they have no shot to finish this season by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in Los Angeles. Because I can promise you, for every reason you believe they CAN’T do it, this resilient bunch of battle-tested warriors will show you ten reasons why they CAN and WILL continue to do the improbable on their quest to secure a sixth Super Bowl title for a proud and prestigious 49ers franchise.