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‘We cried on each other’: Excitement of training camp tempered by reality as some 49ers leave families behind

It took 19 days for Raheem Mostert to go from requesting a trade to re-committing himself to the 49ers with an amended contract. There were some eyebrows raised at the request, publicized by his agent, Brett Tessler. Mostert was only entering year two of a three-year deal and plays a devalued position on a team which has proven itself relentlessly efficient at replacing that position.

His argument was that he was one of the best running backs in the league last season, rushing for eight total touchdowns and leading the NFL in yards per carry at 5.6 in the regular season, and thriving in the playoffs with five touchdowns and 6.3 yards per carry. It amounted to 1,108 yards (5.83 yards per carry) and 12 rushing touchdowns along with a pair of receiving touchdowns and 180 receiving yards. He was — is — verifiably elite.

Clearly, though, it went deeper for Mostert than wanting to simply be paid what he’s worth — an entirely reasonable request in and of itself. If he committed to playing this season, he’d be doing so, at least in the short term, without his family.

That is, without his pregnant wife, Devon, due in September with their second son, and their one-year-old son, Gunnar — named as an homage to the special teams position which gave Mostert’s less-than-certain NFL career a foothold.

Mostert said he and his wife made the decision for her to stay behind in Cleveland, Ohio. Richard Sherman said Tuesday he and his wife, Ashley Moss, and their two children, Rayden and Avery, will stay behind in the Seattle, Washington area.

But it helps.

That incentive helps when every player, like Mostert, who chooses to participate this season, is doing so with the risk of contracting COVID-19, and once the season starts, with a much higher risk than most of the population of contracting it. Despite the NFL’s daily testing at the start of training camp, the league is scheduled to move to testing every other day once benchmarks are met, and players will inevitably be face-to-face with their opponents. If any player has it, it will spread.

That incentive helps when the profession of these men demands physical excellence and strain every single day. Injuries are inevitable, and many, like Mostert, Sherman, and Mark Nzeocha — as Mostert relayed — are leaving their young families behind for a sport which will do verifiable damage to their bodies, likely with an outsized impact on their brains, while being publicly scrutinized by the media and fans.

This isn’t a “let’s cry for football players” statement, but it is the reality. They make more than most Americans, but their careers also last, on average, for 3.3 years, and the median salary in 2018 was roughly $860,000, per the Houston Chronicle.

Some players, like Trent Williams, who sat out the entirety of last season following a trade request with the Washington NFL team, said Thursday that opting out wasn’t even a consideration.

Currently, wide receiver Travis Benjamin is the only recorded opt-out for the 49ers, with NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reporting offensive tackle Shon Coleman will also opt out of the season.

But players like Mostert, Sherman and Nzeocha have had to decide that the benefits of providing a substantial amount of money for their families outweighs the already existing health concerns of playing football, couple with the increased potential to contract the coronavirus, the long-term effects of which are still being studied.

Sherman said he didn’t consider opting out, but had to make the decision with his wife to go to Santa Clara on his own. These are nebulous, terrifying, and no doubt emotionally draining propositions.

Some of these players don’t know when they’ll see their families next. It could be more than six months. That’s a mentally straining thought, and if players do need help with mental health, they can consult a the 49ers’ team clinician who works in conjunction with the medical team to provide services and support to players and staff. It was part of a much-needed change and mandate by the NFL to provide readily available mental health services for players.

But much of that support will come from the locker room, simply being around and leaning on teammates and coaches.

Mostert spoke frequently of the 49ers being a family; not “like a family,” a family. He spoke with Kyle Shanahan near the outset of training camp, when Shanahan said he supports whatever Mostert decides to do, including leaving to return home for the birth of his second son. Devon Mostert has told him not to return if cases are spiking in Ohio, and Mostert said he hasn’t decided if he will return for the birth yet, leaving it up to his wife’s preference.

When Mostert was still waiting to resolve his contract, he said he and Shanahan remained in contact, talking mostly about life, and he reached out again to give his condolences after he said Shanahan’s grandparents died this summer.

“He’s my good friend and so is John [Lynch] and everybody else, so it was good to talk to them and be able to not necessarily talk about the business aspect, but to see where each other’s heads are and to see where family matter is, because that’s the ultimate thing right now for each other, especially in the time of this pandemic. It’s all about family and who’s closest to you.

Before speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Mostert said he spoke to Nzeocha, who also has a one-year-old, and was “stressed out” with the knowledge that he’d be away from his family for the duration of the season, which, if all goes well for the 49ers, means at least six months away from them.

“I tried to bring some ease into the light and be like, ‘Hey, look man, you’re the breadwinner in your family and so am I. You’re not the only one in this position. But we just got to make sure that we just keep each other accountable, and keep the guys in the locker room accountable so that way we can actually go home and the end of this thing COVID-free, and be safe and to make up those lost times that we’ve been away from our families,'” Mostert said. “Which is tough to think about at the moment, but in the grand scheme of things it will pay off.”


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