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Azeez Al-Shaair reflects on likely end of time with 49ers: We did ‘something special’



© Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

If you go back to 2019, Al-Shaair was — and still is — one of the 49ers’ inspiring stories.

He made his way onto a roster with Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander as a “legendary” duo, and Dre Greenlaw as a rookie standout. Al-Shaair battled as an undrafted free agent to beat out a host of veteran backers for the final spot.

He’d torn his ACL his senior season at Florida Atlantic a year after being third in college football in 2017 with 146 tackles his junior year and would surely have been drafted if not for that injury.

His story was much deeper than that though, as chronicled here. He faced homelessness growing up in Tampa, Florida, as one of seven kids. In 2012, his family’s house burned down.

To make matters substantially worse, and because his family lost all documents proving who they were, the government thought Al-Shaair’s mother, Naadhirah, was fraudulently claiming food stamps.

An arrest warrant was issued for his mother, and stood for seven years. For that entire time, she couldn’t leave the state of Florida.

When Al-Shaair made the 49ers roster, he was able, with some legal assistance from the 49ers, to get her case dismissed. It cost about $5,000, roughly the amount the government thought his mother was fraudulently claiming.

That, somehow, was four years ago.

Since then, Al-Shaair has worked himself into a relentless, rapid linebacker who has comprised the league’s best linebacker trio of Warner, Greenlaw and himself.

But with Greenlaw getting an extension earlier this year, there is an understanding that Al-Shaair — as the third in the pecking order — will likely sign elsewhere, to be paid as a starting linebacker. No one would be surprised for him to join DeMeco Ryans in Houston.

Fred Warner was honest about the reality of the contract situation and recognized that Al-Shaair has aspirations of his own, which he wants him to pursue.

“I want him to go be somewhere where he can be the guy,” Warner said. “For as long as he’s here, unfortunately, I’m here. He wants to go be the Fred Warner somewhere else. Not to toot my own horn, but he certainly wants to go be the guy. And I want that for him. He deserves it. He’s capable of it.”

It’s a surreal thing for a group that has literally grown up together. They’ve all been coached by Ryans since he became an inside linebackers coach, then jumped to defensive coordinator and now to the Texans’ head coach.

All of them learned under Johnny Holland — who coached Ryans as a player — and stood by him as he’s fought multiple myeloma.

As a rookie, Al-Shaair told KNBR he used to spend his weekends hanging out at Holland’s house in Santa Clara. Back then, he only had a bike, and would ride that to and from the 49ers facility.

“Literally me and Johnny, in our exit meeting, we were talking about that,” Al-Shaair told KNBR. “He was talking about, ‘You need to get that bike framed.’ That old rusty bike that I had. Yeah, man, life’s coming full circle. It’s crazy.”

There are deep connections with that group, the kind that won’t dissipate when Al-Shaair likely finds a new home.

Al-Shaair likened the situation to the cycle of college.

“It almost feels like you’re graduating college again,” Al-Shaair said. “That’s literally how I feel. I’ve been here for four years and I’ve had a great time here and grown as a player, as a man, a person. And now you’re graduating. Going on to the next step, next phase in my life, so definitely grateful for all the memories I’ve got here, but excited for the future too.”

He said he’s asked some veterans who have been through the free agency process what it’s been like.

The reoccurring theme? Patience.

It’s a situation that defines your future. That dive into the unknown, with the likelihood of relocating yourself and your family, can be an anxiety-inducing proposition.

Al-Shaair, though, places a premium on mindfulness. He’s a Muslim, praying five times a day in the direction of the holy city, Mecca.

He’s paired prayer with meditation. Al-Shaair said after he prays at night, he’ll usually turn the lights off, light a few candles, and sit on the floor to meditate.

“I’m just kind of thinking to myself,” Al-Shaair said. “Just sitting in my thoughts and processing, letting me feel whatever I’m thinking about — feeling it and letting it come in and pass through me.”

As anyone who meditates can attest to, it can simultaneously clear the mind and provide a rush of thoughts.

Al-Shaair said he likes to journal, too — especially in moments of stress — so he can remind himself later that he got through that tribulation. Those pangs of worry can feel overwhelming in the moment, and Al-Shaair said he tries to appreciate the “small victories,” and remind himself that he’s resilient.

“It gives you time to reflect on a small moment,” Al-Shaair said. “That’s what I’ve realized — is to have gratitude. Because you think you’re not doing enough. [When you look back], you’re like, ‘Oh, I did get something done.’”

It’s easy to be hard on yourself. Those moments of reflection are reminders of achievement, of the process and effort it took to arrive at a point to be proud of. If you don’t take a second to reflect, you’re failing to appreciate your work.

After the 49ers’ 31-7 loss to the Eagles in the NFC Championship — a result in large part out of their control — that emphasis loomed ever larger. Al-Shaair noticed some criticism of the 49ers online and reminded himself why that criticism even existed:

100 percent, [it’s easy to be hard on yourself]. Because you don’t really get to see how far you’ve come. You just think, ‘Man, it’s not enough.’

Even with us as a team, if all you’re looking at is this game, then yeah, you’ll be disappointed. But then you look at what got you to this game and after we lose, you’ve got every team and every player that’s not playing in that game and has something to say.

Either we beat them or they weren’t good enough to play us and make it, and they’re salty about it.

It’s just something where you realize there’s a reason why we were able to get there in the first place. That is what you need to have pride in and have gratitude for, because we could have been easily one of those teams tweeting about the game instead of playing in it.

It may come as little surprise, then, that Al-Shaair didn’t rest on the flight back from Philadelphia.

He was soaking it all in, knowing it might be the last flight home he would have with the 49ers.

“Talking. Talking, talking, talking,” Al-Shaair said. “I don’t think I slept at all. I slept, probably, maybe eight hours in the last 48 hours… you’re just trying to hold on to the team, and hold on to the moment that you know is gonna be gone and so it’s hard. You process it, but I think it takes time.”

Al-Shaair knows the future is murky, but the bond he has with the likes of Warner, Greenlaw, Holland, Ryans and others won’t be easily shaken.

As Al-Shaair was walking around the locker room, Warner joked — after being asked about his teammate’s likely departure — about how he’s never going to see Al-Shaair again.

That, obviously, won’t be the case.

Al-Shaair said he plans to head home to Florida to see his family. After that, he’s planning on taking a trip with Greenlaw — his rookie year roommate — before diving into offseason workouts.

At some point, the magnitude of the journey he’s been on will fully sink in. He said he’s tried to appreciate the totality of it, but it’s a tough proposition during the season.

“You try to do it while you’re in it. It’s a little hard,” Al-Shaair said. “It was hard to do that, but I tried to take the time to do that during the season and obviously now it’s actually over, I’m able to truly reflect. It’s definitely something special that we were able to do.”

Now, though, it’s about that patience.

There are a host of high-profile linebackers on the market, like Tremaine Edmunds, Leighton Vander Esch and T.J. Edwards. If that’s the top tier, Al-Shaair is decidedly in tier two.

And with a familiar face and the fourth-most cap space in the league waiting in Houston, it would be surprising to see Al-Shaair not getting a solid deal this offseason. It’s out of his control, but he’s confident in what he’s accomplished.

“Expectation wise it’s just so wide open,” Al-Shaair said. “You just kind of wait and see how it works out and trust the process. I did everything I could, so now I’m just sitting back on my work and just being patient to make sure I’m ready for wherever I go.”