© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA – Few players define being on the bubble more perfectly than Azeez Al-Shaair. The undrafted rookie out of Florida Atlantic University worked back from an ACL and meniscus tear suffered in his senior season before the 49ers signed him to a deal.
He initially seemed like one of those players who you see flash or two out of, but know in the back of your mind, “He’s not making the roster.”
Yet on the eve before roster cuts are made, that’s far from the case. After an upbringing that saw early divorce, sleeping on floors, a fire in his grandmother’s home, as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch described, and then the knee injury in his senior season at FAU, Al-Shaair made his way to the 49ers’ roster and has made a compelling case that he should be included.
In his five preseason games, he’s accrued 13 tackles, one pass breakup and a fumble recovery while playing well on special teams. When the roster is cut down by Friday, keeping or cutting Al-Shaair is expected to be one of the toughest decisions the 49ers have to make.
Al-Shaair says he’s made it this far by “stacking the days,” as special teams coordinator Richard Hightower likes to say; not getting caught up in anything other than what’s immediately ahead of you. Some key advice from Richard Sherman, Fred Warner and an early wakeup call also chipped in.
“[Sherman] was telling me, in blatant Sherm fashion, ‘Don’t give a F.’ He was like, ‘It is what it is. Just go out there everyday. Don’t give a F. Just go out there, do what you can do and just let it go.’ You can’t do nothing more than what you can do,” Al-Shaair said. “And everything else isn’t in my control. There’s too many people who’ve got different things going on, whatever happens, that can lead to me being on the team or not being on the team, so I can’t try to cross the lines together or nothing like that.”
In his first day at practice, Al-Shaair said he saw Sherman and other veterans out on the field looking like they’d worked out for a full 30 minutes before practice had started. “What the hell are they doing?” Al-Shaair recalled wondering. That sight woke him up to the reality and necessity of the absurd physical preparation the NFL necessitates, especially as a player coming off an injury.
Unlike Jerick McKinnon and Kentavius Street, who are both in danger of losing their second-straight seasons with complications from torn ACLs, Al-Shaair has shown no signs of such complications.
“It wasn’t smooth sailing or nothing like that, but I just told myself, I didn’t give a damn what anybody else said, how long they said it was going to take me, because that’s just my life,” Al-Shaair said. “Everything I’ve been through, I’ve had to fight for. So I was just willing to fight, so that’s all I did every day, just kept fighting.”
In his junior and abbreviated senior season before he was injured on the team’s bye week, Al-Shaair played MIKE linebacker, and has had the opportunity to learn from one of the most up-and-coming MIKEs in the league in Fred Warner.
“[Warner] kind of just keeps me encouraged, just to let me know that when I do make mistakes that he made a lot of mistakes when he was a rookie and I’m going to make a lot of mistakes too,” Al-Shaair said. “Even when you think you’re right, you think you’ve got it, there’s so much stuff, the small details that you have to lock into in the NFL that you’ll get beaten any given week if you put bad stuff on tape.”
All those lessons and demonstrations on the field might still not be enough to beat out veterans like Mark Nzeocha and LaRoy Reynolds for the final linebacking roster spot. But there’s not much more Al-Shaair thinks he could have left on the field.
“I feel like I did everything I could do,” Al-Shaair said. “I did everything in my power. Obviously, you’re not going to make every play, so I went out there, I gave it everything I had everyday.”
The 21-year-old will know by 4 p.m. on August 31 whether he’s made the 49ers on the roster or not. While he waits to find out his fate, he’ll do his best to enjoy his time with his wife, Yahaira.
“I’m just going to spend time with my wife and just chill out,” Al-Shaair said. “At the end of the day, like I said, it’s not up to me, so whatever happens, it is what is.”