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Handling of Reuben Foster disaster shows Kyle Shanahan’s strength of character, leadership



© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

SANTA CLARA — In the face of constant questioning, amid a situation that has cast the 49ers in a negative national light, during the nadir of the current 49ers regime, Kyle Shanahan’s character shone.

At his Monday press conference, Shanahan answered difficult, direct questions that almost exclusively centered upon Reuben Foster. One day earlier, the 49ers released the second-year linebacker about nine hours after he was arrested for alleged domestic violence during the team’s trip to Tampa Bay. Cutting Foster deemed San Francisco’s 27-9 loss to the Buccaneers as an afterthought.

And Monday evening, it was.

Shanahan typically answers questions for about 15 minutes during press conferences. He answered questions for 23 minutes Monday. When he walked off the stage, there was little doubt as to how he felt about Foster and his disappointment in a sad fact: that one of the most talented 49ers players in recent memory did not make it two professional seasons without being released.

Character concerns always clouded Foster, a Butkus Award-winner and consensus top-10 draft projection coming out of Alabama. He tested positive on a drug test at the 2017 NFL Combine and was later booted from the event following an altercation with a hospital employee. Foster’s draft stock fell after both incidents.

When the 49ers traded the No. 34 and No. 111 picks to select Foster at No. 31 overall, Shanahan felt the pick presented tremendous value. But he did acknowledge the risk.

“There were things we believed we could help him with,” Shanahan said Monday. “We jumped in front of a number of other teams who were going to take him. We felt good about it at the time. We have worked on him since he has been here.”

Foster ran into legal issues when he was arrested for a marijuana misdemeanor charge in January, weeks after his stellar rookie season concluded. One month later, he was arrested for domestic violence, possession of an assault weapon, and criminal threats involving his then-girlfriend, Elissa Ennis. If proven guilty, he faced major prison time. After about four months, the charges were dropped.

Shanahan believed Foster when he said he did not hit Ennis. The 49ers allowed due process to play out, which appeared a wise move.

“I want to do what’s right. We want to do what’s right,” Shanahan said Monday. “We are not going to do something because people think something happened or it didn’t. I’d like to know. We supported Reuben through that and felt good about it. With the way it worked out, I am glad we did. But we also knew Reuben had a string of making bad decisions. We knew that when we took him. We thought he would improve, and we were going to do everything we could to help him.”

When Foster returned to the team facilities in May, the 49ers wanted to ensure a similar situation would not resurface. They took a hands-on approach with Foster, who was suspended for the first two games of the season. Shanahan outlined a clear set of guidelines that Foster would have to obey. Shanahan made it clear that if Foster, or any 49ers player, ever hit a woman or significant other, he would be immediately released.

But Foster required treatment different from most other players because of his rough childhood, growing up without much parental guidance and consistently moving homes. Shanahan said a team representative checked in on Foster at his house daily. After San Francisco’s loss Sunday, Richard Sherman said Foster “knew his deficiencies.”

“You are more patient knowing his upbringing,” Shanahan said. “I’ve heard of some really bad situations of kids growing up. Reuben grew up in as bad as one as I have ever heard. That’s where I feel that it’s been hard for him to be the same way as everyone else. I do believe in his heart. I always have.”

Shanahan wanted to help Foster without being overly intrusive. The 49ers head coach shot down the idea of a team employee living with Foster, which other teams have done for players with checkered pasts.

But Shanahan said the 49ers “went above and beyond to help Reuben.”

“I want people who are trying to get better,” Shanahan said. “I think Reuben was in some ways, but not enough. He had a long way to go and he didn’t get far enough. When I go back and look, did we handle anything wrong in what we tried to do for Reuben? I think we tried to do more for him than I have seen anywhere I have been do for a player.”

Foster’s lapse in judgment Saturday night was ultimately too great for the 49ers to forgive. Shanahan says he does not know the specifics of Foster’s and Ennis’ argument that led to her calling Tampa police and claiming Foster had hit her. But the fact that Foster invited Ennis to the team hotel the night before a game told Shanahan everything he needed to know.

As Shanahan prepared to lead a team meeting around 8 p.m. E.T. Saturday night, he was informed that police had shown up to the hotel in response to a domestic violence incident involving Foster and Ennis. Shanahan knew “right away” he would cut Foster.

Whether he had actually put a hand on Ennis was beside the point when it came to Foster’s future — Foster had not learned from his mistakes.

“It’s hard to comprehend how you could put yourself in that situation again,” Shanahan said. “I am not OK with that, regardless.”

Shanahan made it clear that domestic violence would never be allowed on his team. Whenever he elaborated on Foster’s lapses in judgment, Shanahan denounced the act of domestic violence and its intolerance within the 49ers’ walls.

“There’s not many things in this world more wrong than domestic violence and things like that,” Shanahan said. “Everyone in our building, just like other people, we feel extremely strong about that and will always support that.”

Shanahan continued along those same lines a few minutes later.

“When we say we are feeling for Reuben,” Shanahan said, “that’s not at all because if anyone is involved in domestic violence, you feel more sorry for that person than anyone in the world.”

Shanahan added that Foster is “not dead to me.” The 49ers head coach called Foster twice Monday and left a voicemail when he did not pick up. Shanahan said he hopes Foster finds success in life and “hopefully” with another NFL team.

Shanahan’s comments may seem straightforward. Every coach, you’d think, should display the kind of transparency and sensitivity Shanahan showed in this situation. We are, however, reminded that is not always the case, whether in recent months — like when Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer was widely criticized for his insensitive comments during his own program’s domestic violence scandal — or in recent years — like when previous 49ers coaches failed to carry forward with the same dignity as Shanahan.

Shanahan will ultimately be judged and remembered on wins. His handling of a disastrous situation will not overshadow the 49ers’ status as arguably the NFL’s worst team this season. But mismanaging the Foster scenario could have added another negative storyline in a season full of them. That did not happen.

On Monday, the young coach known for his offensive mind proved he’s the type of noble leader who won’t run from the tough questions.