Did a podcast recently with my dad talking about some of the key personalities on the 49ers. Here is Joe Staley, who retired this past weekend.
Joe Staley is an all-time great left tackle and a mumbler.
He always mumbled during his press conferences. Expected you to get in close to him, the way Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal did. You’d think Staley was an egomaniac just based on a quick listen to his group press conferences if you didn’t know him.
But when you listened closely and really watched him, you noticed he was messing with you. Had a twinkle in his eye and a dry sense of humor, and he was a riot. A sophisticated person pretending to be a dumb jock.
Staley is special, but also representative of most offensive linemen. And offensive linemen are the most normal players on any football team. They’re the grunts. They protect the quarterback and take lots of abuse from defensive linemen and linebackers. And they work as a unit, as opposed to a defensive end who runs into the backfield solo and gets all the credit and waves his arms. You don’t generally see offensive linemen go solo. Their movements are choreographed.
As a result, offensive linemen are normal, self-effacing, humble, reliable, polite, nice. People you can talk to. People who ask about you. They’re highly intelligent and have no ego. They’re part of a group. They’re not celebrities.
All of those words describe Staley to a T. He is a down-to-earth, overwhelmingly likable person.
I’ll give you an example.
In 2014, after the 49ers lost to the Seahawks in the NFC Championship game, Staley stood at his locker and cried. He took every loss personally. Still, writers went to him for quotes because he’s the normative figure in the locker room. The person most like us.
My dad, Lowell Cohn, who was a columnist for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat at the time, asked Staley the first question. Something about how does it feel to lose again in the NFC Championship? Staley, who normally had poise, just didn’t have it at that moment. “How do you think it feels?” he snapped at my dad. The kind of thing Staley would never say. He was hurting.
So we left him alone and moved on and interviewed other people. Everyone understood Staley’s pain and gave him the benefit of the doubt. He had come through so many times for so many writers in the past. He was entitled to grieve.
A few minutes later, my dad and I left the locker room and waited in a small conference room for head coach Jim Harbaugh. But before Harbaugh came out, Staley poked his head in the room and said, “Lowell, could you please come here?”
My dad didn’t know what to expect. Thought Staley might be angry. But he wasn’t. They met alone in a hallway outside the interview room. “Lowell, I was rude to you,” Staley said. “I want to apologize. Please accept my apology. That’s not me.”
Understand, players don’t do this with writers. Ever.
“You have nothing to apologize for,” my dad said. “My question may have been out of line.”
“Ask it again,” Staley said. “I want to do the interview again.”
And Staley did it over, because he’s a gentleman, and also because he’s competitive. He wanted to do well. Even when he mumbled.
Joe Staley always did well.