As important as he was on the field for the San Francisco 49ers, now-retired left tackle Joe Staley was equally important off of it.
As much as he still loves the game of football, the decision to retire was not an easy one for Staley, but it was one he had to make.
“…[I]t was very mixed emotions throughout this whole entire thing because obviously I did not want to quit playing football,” Staley said. “I still have a huge love for it…I think it’ll probably be hard going forward, but it was the right decision for me and it was the right decision for my family…I think right now since it’s the offseason it’s easier because no one’s playing football, but once it gets closer to the season and it’s like, ‘Alright well I should be going to training camp right now. I should be getting ready for the football season.’ I think that’s when it will hit me a little harder.”
During his 13-year career, on good teams and bad, Staley has been a force on the 49ers. From his downfield block in the 2012 NFC Divisional Game against the New Orleans Saints that allowed Alex Smith to run it into the end zone to the Staley Spike in Seattle, there have been countless memories.
“…[T]hat block, obviously, I think that’s one of the coolest plays I’ve ever seen, and in such a crucial situation in that playoff game against a great Saints team,” said 49ers’ right tackle and close Staley friend, Mike McGlinchey. “He pulls around faster than half of tight ends or fullbacks to get up into that space, and lays out for his team and still winds up being like the second or third guy to celebrate with Alex Smith in the end zone. And I think it was at [Candlestick Park] too, so I remember the crowd going wild after that for sure.”
For Staley, although those moments are career-defining and memorable, they aren’t all he wants people to focus one.
“Things that are important to me is stuff that I can tell my kids and hang my hat on, like life lessons. Like how you approached the day-in, day-out stuff. I don’t want to be remembered for being a guy with a couple plays here and there. I just want to be remembered as a guy that gave his all every single day. People in the locker room can say that this guy was just as consistent on a day like June 14th as he was in a playoff game. The guy treated every single moment the exact same and I think that is something that I always tried to strive for was just to be a consistent performer and try to take my job as serious as I could every single day…”
As McGlinchey was finding his way from tight end to offensive lineman, Staley was a person McGlinchey studied and admired. So, when the right tackle got a Draft night text from Staley, that was pretty cool.
“It was crazy for me, because…he was somebody that I had looked up to and admired for a long time, and it was like this guy is the best, this is the guy that I want to become,” McGlinchey said. “And the first time I had ever had contact with him, I remember on draft night he was one of the first texts that I got and responded to…And it was this paragraph, ‘Congratulations, great job in your career thus far, but it’s time to get to work. Welcome to the Niners.’ And at the end of it was Joe Staley. And I had like a little panic attack, I showed my brother, I showed my mom and dad, all that stuff, and how cool that moment was for me.
“Then the next day, you felt his personality for the first time when I walked into the cafeteria and he made everybody stand up and give me a standing ovation to mess with me. And it was smooth sailing ever since that.”
From the time McGlinchey stepped into the 49ers’ locker room, he and Staley developed a friendship that went way beyond football.
“…I guess what surprised me was the way that he took in our relationship with each other. From the moment I got here, he’s opened his arms up to be a friend and to a mentor and all that stuff…But also just the way that he opened the doors up to his family, to himself, to our relationship that we had for the last two and a half, three years, it’s something that I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life. And that was the most surprising thing, was that I became best friends with this 35 year old, that I wasn’t expecting him to treat me that way…”
As seriously as he does take his job, part of what makes Staley special is his ability to see the fun in the game that is serious business.
“I loved how Joe came to practice every day,” Willis said. “I loved how he was serious, but he’s also loose with it. And I learned along the way too that you can be serious about it. You’ll get crap if you’re not serious about your game. But it’s also important to make sure you’re being loose, and keep yourself balanced, because if not, one is just as bad as the other. He done a great job at doing that.”
It’s a quality that was not lost on Kittle, who is another player that likes to have fun but also knows when to focus.
“…Joe…he does such a great job of that,” Kittle said. “He did, day in and day out. He probably, there are times, and he pushed that balance too, he was never right on the line, he always stepped over the line, and that’s what he excelled at. He was great at that. But I mean, just by being himself every day, is what showed me how to do it. He’s like, ‘Hey, just don’t be something you’re not. If you’re going to show up and be that guy, then show up and be that guy every single day.’…So I always just tried to be the exact same person, like Joe was every single day.”
For Staley, that behavior didn’t come naturally, as much as it did as a way to handle stress.
“…Coming into the NFL…I was super serious,” Staley said. “For anybody who was there my rookie year, I was incredibly serious all the time. They actually called me G.I. Joe my rookie year. I just couldn’t deal with the stress that I was feeling every single day to perform and at the highest level and put a lot of stress on myself to be perfect at everything I did, practice field, meeting rooms, all that stuff. I was just like, ‘This is not me, this is not who I am.’ I’ve always been this kind of personality when I was younger and then once I got kind of a little more comfortable and kind of understood and understand what I’m doing around here, then I think my personality kind of came out. I was always able to be able to just flip the switch on and off. I understood when there was a time to lock in and there’s business to be had, there’s technique to learn and schemes to learn in the classroom. There was time to just have fun or I’m going to do some runs and might as well talk some trash and laugh while you’re doing it and make it a competition and try to push guys that way. That’s always kind of been my mechanism of dealing with stress is to try to be loose in that way. It’s served me well…”
Staley played in two Super Bowls with the 49ers, but neither ended with the red and gold hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, which, though difficult, will not define his career.
“…I gave everything I had to the game of football,” Staley said. “I definitely don’t leave my head hung in that respect. I think I did everything I could do, but it just didn’t happen for whatever reasons. Just didn’t happen for me, didn’t happen for us. That’s frustrating but it’s not something that will torment me for the rest of my life.”
It’s the end of an era in San Francisco, Santa Clara and the Bay. Joe Staley personified the 49ers, and though he has not ruled out the possibility of staying involved in some capacity, it won’t ever again as a player.
“…This is all still very, very fresh and my mind right now as it’s going forward is to take some time and enjoy my family and get used to not being a football player anymore and moving on from that,” Staley said. “I still have a huge love for the game of football obviously and I think I can definitely serve in some capacity because I have a lot of knowledge and I feel like I’m a pretty good teacher. I would love to get into coaching possibly down the road, but if not that, maybe some kind of consulting maybe. I definitely won’t be a stranger around here or nothing like that.”
That’s good news for everybody. Go Niners.