Following a 24-6 victory in Dallas last month, the 49ers landed at San Francisco Airport at about 2 a.m. As he does after every game, the Niners' director of video operations, Robert Yanagi, went directly to their training complex in Santa Clara to prepare tapes of the game for review by the coaches and players during the next few days. He knew the footage of the defense that had been shot from the end-zone camera would have to be readied first. Sure enough, at about 3:30 a.m., right defensive end Kevin Fagan came by to pick up the tape and head for the defensive meeting room to see how he had played. It's his weekly routine.
"It sort of drives me crazy," says Fagan of the time between the game's ending and when he can begin watching the tape. "Everything gets a little blurry out there during the game, and I can't sleep until I see what I've done on film."
On a team laden with stars, Fagan is doing just fine without many people knowing it. In fact, he's capping a terrific comeback story by playing Pro Bowl-caliber football in his third season as a full-time starter. Fagan put the finishing touch on San Francisco's 7-3 win over the New York Giants on Dec. 3 by sacking Phil Simms on the last play of the game. More significant, Fagan has helped the Niner defense become the NFL's toughest against the run. Even the ground-oriented Giants had to go to the air against San Francisco.
The defensive ends who make the Pro Bowl are usually the ones who have the most sacks. The 6'3", 260-pound Fagan, with 6½ sacks through Sunday's 20-17 overtime win against the Bengals, isn't likely to develop into a sack master in San Francisco—free-lancing linebacker Charles Haley, who has an NFC-high 14½ sacks, fills that role in the Niner scheme—but he has proved to be a formidable all-around player against the league's best offensive tackles.
Fagan, 27, has the ability to beat his man with a quick first step to the outside and to bull-rush him in order to stop runners in their tracks. He is tied for fourth among the 49ers in tackles, with 53. "Fagan wears you down," says Cincinnati offensive-line coach Jim McNally. "It's pretty tough to name a stronger defensive player in the league."
That's heady praise given the horrible beginning Fagan's pro career had. While playing for the University of Miami in his last college game, the 1986 Sugar Bowl, Fagan blew out his right knee and had reconstructive surgery. San Francisco risked a fourth-round draft pick on him, but in his first workout that spring, Fagan turned to backpedal and everyone on the field heard a sickening pop. His right kneecap had fractured. Back in the operating room, Fagan had to have part of his pelvis grafted to the damaged knee, and two screws were needed to hold the rebuilt knee together.
When Fagan began light workouts in the fall of 1986, the screws irritated his knee, and arthroscopic surgery was performed to remove them. Doctors got one screw out, but the other had been stripped. Fagan's knee had to be cut open again to have the screw chiseled out, and his pro debut was put off until '87.
He was a part-time player that year and won a starting job in 1988. In Super Bowl XXIII, Fagan had six tackles, including a sack, and was awarded a game ball. "He shows some quickness people didn't know he had," says Tim Rooney, the Giants' director of pro personnel. "He's not a real big guy, but he has the base and power to neutralize the big tackles, and he's athletic enough to be a good pass rusher."
The only reminder of Fagan's injuries is the ice bag he applies to the knee four or five times a day. "Sometimes—not during the season but after the last two Super Bowls—I've looked at how far I've come and what direction my career is going," he says.
This season, if his fellow players are paying attention, maybe Fagan will head in the direction of the Pro Bowl.