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The San Francisco 49ers continue their purge of the roster in obtaining youth and showing aging veterans the door so to speak. Some may go quietly others leave being obviously vocal and upset about it. Still others bow out gracefully and retire into obscurity like they never will be missed, but the real truth is that they will be missed. The 2003 NFL season brings a lot of promise for fellow 49er fans, for it is the start of something new and genuine in the form of management and newly drafted expectations.
One of the relics and true patriots of old will retire this very month in head athletic trainer Lindsy McLean. He will retire following his 65th birthday, which has already gone by this June 28th. McLean has been around and he has seen it all with the San Francisco 49ers, and was an intriguing part of five Super Bowl championships and 14 National Football Conference Western titles. McLean and his staff have mended to the sick and injured on this 49er roster since 1979 and he has never blinked an eye in doing it either.
Just recently, his staff received the NFL Athletic Training Staff of the Year award in 2001. And at the collegiate level, McLean was once named the United States Collegiate Trainer of the Year in 1976. He has supervised and assisted many athletic trainers in accomplishing their dreams and goals and helped them become successful in all phases of their development. Many that have worked under him and for him are grateful for what they have learned under his tutorship and have enjoyed the benefits of being sound quality trainers in other sports professions.
Some of the athletic trainer assistants under McLean have gone on to be head trainers, including Fred Tedeschi (Chicago Bulls), Ray Tufts (San Jose Sharks), Scottie Patton (New Orleans Saints) and Jason Powell (Los Angeles Clippers) in professional sports and several in college athletics, which include Charlie Miller (head football trainer at Stanford).
As you can see the same family tree that accompanies the great legendary Bill Walsh with the San Francisco 49ers also follows root in Lindsy McLean with trainers. He leaves a legacy for all to admire and has been a leader in the field of athletic training and physical therapy for 42 years now.
Lindsy began his career as an assistant trainer at the University of Michigan in 1961 and he had stops as the head trainer at UC Santa Barbara (1963-64) and San Jose State (1965-67) before finally returning for an 11-year run as head trainer at Michigan from 1968-78. It was from there that he came to the San Francisco 49ers as their trainer and eventually head trainer and has been entrenched here with us ever since.
He remembers that when he first became an athletic trainer, the job lasted only as long as the football season lasted. Over time though, he said, players grew faster and stronger. And the job evolved into a yearlong commitment that now lasts 12 hours a day, sometimes even longer. With 24 years of service with the 49ers McLean needs to be commended and honored for such a long tenure as our head athletic trainer. He has overseen so many injuries and has been a part of many a player’s career. He remembers each and every player as they all have a special place in his memory.
“To be able to do what I love to do at the highest level with the finest athletes has been a great pleasure,” McLean said. “I have made a lot of friendships and have so many wonderful memories. I have been fortunate to have worked with a variety of interesting, talented and outstanding people. There will be a lot of things that I miss, but I will especially miss the people in the organization and the players.”
It is hard to believe that in McLean's first season as a trainer with the San Francisco 49ers that they finished their season with a record of 2-14. But it was just shortly after that, when the 49ers became a legacy by going on to win five Super Bowl championships and many more division championships. When he reflects back on his toughest patients he has ever treated some familiar names come to mind.
“Brent Jones was always saying he was the toughest guy when he played here,” McLean said. “Otherwise, I might say Ronnie Lott, and certainly Jerry Rice was a phenomenal guy.”
Aside from his trainer experience McLean has also served as chairman of the National Athletic Trainers Association Certification Committee for 10 years, was a U.S. Olympic Team trainer for the 1976 Winter Games and was inducted into the National Athletic Trainers Association’s Hall of Fame in 1988. He is also a charter member of the Far West Athletic Trainer’s Association Hall of Fame and is also a member of the Michigan Athletic Trainers Society Hall of Fame.
McLean’s record speaks for itself and I for one am sad that he is retiring but at the same time proud of what he has provided this organization. Certainly anyone that provides 24 years of dedicated and unprecedented service should be recognized for what they are. Assistant trainer Todd Lazenby was the man to replace MacLean as he was promoted to take his place just recently this past May.
“I congratulate Lindsy on an impressive career and thank him for the tremendous service he has given to the entire organization,” 49ers owner John York said. “Treating injuries and keeping players healthy is a very tall order in the NFL and Lindsy has done it as well as anyone can do it. We will miss his leadership and decision making, but we still have his friendship. He will always be a part of the 49ers family.”
Along with the promotion of Todd Lazenby to head trainer, Jeff Tanaka was promoted as well and will coordinate the rehabilitation programs of the 49ers injured players. Lazenby is in his eighth year with the team, after joining the 49ers following five years with the Health South Corporation in Orlando, Florida, where he was the staff athletic trainer. He arrived to San Francisco with some knowledge of the 49er organization, having worked with the team in its 1990 training camp.
“Lindsy McLean has been an outstanding member of this organization for a long time and we truly appreciate his dedication,” 49ers General Manager Terry Donahue said. “I hate to see him leave and wish him well in his retirement years. We are very excited that Todd will take over the head trainer’s duties and are pleased that Jeff will continue with our organization. Both of these individuals are the highest quality and caliber and will do an outstanding job for the players, coaches and organization.”
Lazenby has very good credentials in that he earned a bachelor’s degree from Ohio State in health education and a master’s degree in sports management. He is a certified member of the National Athletic Trainers Association. Tanaka is in his fifth year as an assistant athletic trainer with the 49ers, as before he spent two years at the University of California in the same capacity. Tanaka has extensive experience having worked before his tenure at California with the Los Angeles Raiders, San Francisco 49ers and Amsterdam Admirals.
Jeff Tanaka has a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, in 1994, and recently completed his thesis at San Jose State to earn a master’s degree in kinesiology.
The passing of the athletic torch has been passed and Lazenby will have a tall order to fulfill in stepping into McLean’s footsteps of 24 years. I am honored to have such an individual as McLean on our staff for such a long time. The stories and memories he has are so invaluable I would give anything to sit down and just chat with him for a couple of hours. This organization has been a better one with people such as himself that have dedicated their lives to making a difference here. That stability and presence says a lot to an organization that has bred tremendous talent over the years.
Stanford has been a breeding ground of talent for the San Francisco 49ers. It has been a bastion of talent for the team for many years and has turned out some phenomenal players over the years. This year and last have been no exception as the 49ers drafted 2002 Stanford graduate Eric Heitmann in the seventh round of the 2002 NFL draft. Since then Heitmann has out performed almost everyone and has established himself as the starting left guard after Dave Fiore fell to a season ending knee injury yet again early in the season.
Football is something that grew up with Eric. It was a big part of his high school life and continues even today. He has never let his dreams run away with him, because he is always focused on what is now and what is moving ahead gradually. He has a set number of goals in his life and he has concentrated on accomplishing each and every one of them until they are completed. Balance is something that has become Eric’s best friend and companion, and the 49er coaching staff has been very proud of where he is now after playing a superb rookie year in his baptism of fire.
Eric Heitmann grew up in Texas and down there football is as big as life could get. In fact football is something the Heitmann family is very familiar with as Eric’s four brothers have all had a part in the local high school football program while growing up. “Football has always been a huge part of Texas life,” the Katy (Texas) High School graduate said. “And in Katy, it was very comparable to “Varsity Blues.”
“I always kept my goals realistic,” Heitmann said. “It was always one step at a time. Early on, I wanted to be a great high school football player. Then I wanted to be a great college football player. Now my goal is to be successful in the NFL.”
And he is on a tear at that folks. He was seen some of the best in pass rushers in the NFL and has neutralized many of them. He was thrown into the fire as a seventh round draft pick and performed as he was a first round draft pick in my opinion after Dave Fiore went down with a knee injury. Dave’s injury ended his career as a 49er as the 49ers moved on without him cutting him after the high-octane performance of Eric Heitmann in 2002.
Back in Katy High School football coach Mike Johnston always had a feeling of something special with Heitmann, a 6-foot-3, 305-pound lineman. It wasn’t just about his strength and balance, but something in his DNA. There is a plaque in Johnston’s office with Eric’s four brothers, Michael, Chris, Eric and Lee. Eric happens to be the third of the brothers and helped lead the Tigers to their first state 5A-Div. I championship in 1997.
Eric’s high school football coach Mike Johnston has that plaque as a reminder of what Eric and his brothers did for the school and the Tigers as a team. Along with that plaque that honors the Heitmann’s, they also have Eric’s Stanford jersey tacked on the wall.
Although the transition from Stanford to the San Francisco 49ers has been hard it has been a welcome challenge for Eric Heitmann. The playbook featuring the West Coast offense is as thick and comprehensive as a collegiate dictionary. Heitmann also has played the piano since he was four years old and he even composes his own music. Going from that to the NFL seems a contrasting contradiction, but Heitmann uses it as a casual distraction and a means of relaxation.
Eric can only continue to improve as a dominant offensive lineman, in fact he will be relied upon more than ever to deliver as the 49ers show a wide open passing attack under new head coach Dennis Erickson. Heitmann seems so far to be a steal in a seventh rounder going from the bottom of the stack in the draft to NFL starter the next. I can only see more great things coming from this great athlete as he takes the game to yet another level in his second year with the team.
On the other side of the coin stands new first round draft choice Kwame Harris. On the first day of the draft Commissioner Paul Tagliabue even mispronounced his name as he was drafted and ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. called Harris a “major under-achiever.”
Kwame Harris in many scouts’ eye is the very best in offensive lineman material and the San Francisco 49ers did not hesitate to pull the trigger when he was still on the board in the first round at the No. 26 spot. Kwame Harris entered the draft from Stanford as well and was highly conceived to go somewhere in the early stages of the first round instead he fell towards the bottom where the hungry 49ers lie waiting.
Believe it or not Kwame Harris was the third offensive tackle taken in this draft falling behind Utah’s Jordan Gross (eighth to the Carolina Panthers) and Georgia’s George Foster (20th pick to the Denver Broncos).
Harris was contacted via phone by General Manager Terry Donahue to welcome him to the 49ers. It was a relief to the 6-foot-7, 310-pound lineman. As Kwame Harris was very frustrated at not getting picked sooner rather than later. The pick by the 49ers is still a wonder as almost all 49er fans were sure that something other than the offensive line would get the very first pick in this draft.
However when you look at the necessity on the offensive line to get younger the process can only happen with the 49ers drafting for the immediate future now. The days of aging veteran Derrick Deese are now numbered, as he will now have the full responsibility for bringing Kwame Harris along in order to supplant him in the lineup. A bittersweet reminder to all veterans yet again that the league mandates this youth movement based upon the salary cap.
Harris has made indications that it his intention to be a starter, but in reality he will probably be a back-up in his rookie season behind Derrick Deese, and will see spot duty here and there to rest tired offensive starters. Draft day is something Harris still thinks about with agony as he thought his number should’ve been called much earlier.
“I was really surprised,” said Harris, a Jamaica native who moved to the United States when he was two-years old. “I had expectations of going a little higher; I’m not going to lie to you. I thought I would go after Jordan Gross. But it just didn’t work out. We all know that the draft is crazy, and crazy things happen like today.” “When it started getting pretty late, I stopped focusing on what spot I was going in and started focusing on what team I was going to.”
Harris who has just turned 21 on May 15, earned first-team All-Pacific-10 Conference honors last season. He also won the Morris Trophy as the conference’s best blocker. Despite Mel Kiper’s sarcasm and analysis the San Francisco scouting department believes it has a keeper in Kwame Harris for a long time to come. Certainly the coaches are already impressed with his talents and abilities as demonstrated in mini-camps so far. After an All-America career at Newark, Delaware High School, he was the nations top offensive-line recruit when Stanford signed him in February 2000.
Stanford provides a lot of proximity for Harris as well in finishing his education and being close to where he will have a full time job as an offensive lineman with the San Francisco 49ers. He realizes what is expected of him and knows that this is the season that all eyes will be on him as the number one pick in the draft.
“Playing in the NFL, you have a microscope on you at all times, but that’s not hard to adjust to when you’re shining that microscope on yourself,” he said. “I expect nothing but the best from myself, so I don’t need a coach or a general manager to ask me for that.”
Harris is well known for his articulate way with words and he pays a great deal of attention to classical art and music as well. He has been known to play Mozart on a violin and dives into readings involving Shakespeare as well. However Kwame’s older brother Duevorn warns don’t let the well-mannered schoolboy look fool you. For when Kwame is on the football field the intensity and tenacity are all there. He speaks from experience as they were playing a friendly game of football with friends that turned nasty with both of them pounding each other into a bloody pulp.
At that time Duevorn was an underclassman in college better known as a 259-pound defensive tackle as a senior at Colgate, and Kwame was a star offensive tackle at Newark High School. It was the first time that they had truly tested each other physically. But Duevorn says, “When he puts on a helmet, he turns into something else,” the elder Harris said. “There’s something brooding inside him.”
What all of his brothers and himself has in common is that whatever they did, he tried to do the opposite. If his brothers wanted to be cops he would be the robber. If they were cowboys he would be the Indian. In fact Kwame was a tennis player believe it or not before his brothers encouraged him into trying football in high school. He eventually gave in but always on his own terms. If Duevorn and his younger brother Orien were defensive linemen, he would then do the opposite and play offense.
“He wanted to be the bad guy in all the games we played,” Duevorn says. “I think Kwame just tries to distinguish himself. He likes to be his own individual.” In fact in Kwame’s first mini-camp with the San Francisco 49ers he moved from the right tackle position he played at Stanford to the left side, and he already has drawn praises from the 49er coaching staff. Especially 49er offensive line coach Pat Morris, who coached at Stanford in 1995-96 and still has great contacts there, raved about Kwame as their first pick.
“Usually you see a guy like this taken in the top 10,” he said. Morris also noted that Harris is lean; 17% body fats and smarts enough to adjust quickly to a new system and position at the same time. Harris off the field is well known for his laid back style of character and some in the NFL wonder including Mel Kiper Jr. that this will ultimately hurt him down the road.
Current offensive lineman Eric Heitmann, who also played with Kwame Harris back in Stanford for two years, shook his head in disapproval when hearing this. “He will get in your face,” Heitmann said. “I saw him dislocate a finger, pop it back in, then keep right on playing. He’s a tough kid.”
Where does this leave Derrick Deese? Many including myself see Derrick Deese as being the proverbial teacher to Kwame Harris this season, and then seeing him waived at the end of the season. Deese could be even more expendable upon the notion that we have many unrestricted free agents in 2004 that will need to be signed. Clearing additional salary cap room will be a huge priority in doing just that.
Derrick admitted that he is not “down and out” regarding the selection of Kwame Harris and that he realizes that he will be his successor in the near future. Deese had an outstanding season last year protecting Jeff Garcia from harm with amazing precision, in not allowing a sack from his position. He has been a mainstay for the 49ers one of the last holdovers from the dynasty era that once defined the 49ers.
“I wasn’t shocked,” said Deese, an 11-year veteran. “I felt all along they’d draft a tackle if one was available. It wasn’t any kind of frustration.” Shortly after the draft Deese received a phone message from 49er General Manager Terry Donahue. “He said he wanted me to help Coach Harris and bring him along,” Deese said. “I never said I wouldn’t.”
After working with Harris in mini-camps Deese finds immediate promise in Harris. Deese evaluated Harris as needing some help on technique and some minor tweaking such as his footwork. “Derrick’s going to coach him up and help. We’re all in it to win,” coach Dennis Erickson said.
The fast paced start of the NFL has already amazed Kwame Harris in a big way. Learning the left tackle position from a master such as Derrick Deese will do wonders for Harris emotionally and physically. Derrick remains one of my favorite players, as he is known as the comedian in the 49ers locker room. Sometimes though he has been well known to carry a prank or a joke a little too far which creates some frustration among some of the players.
Quarterback Jeff Garcia was also just as excited about the prospect in Kwame Harris and welcomed him into the rank and file of the team. “It’s great to see them take a tackle in the first round. He’ll learn a lot from Derrick Deese and be more ready to play down the road.”
What is Derrick Deese all about? He is a man always on a mission. He never quits and he never says “enough is enough.” Playing at 100% intensity is something that Derrick lives and breaths and instills in his fellow offensive linemen. I see it as a honor to have him teach Kwame Harris how to play the position, the most important position to a quarterback that is.
His own personal bodyguard when you get right down to it. Every quarterback in the league looks for that one special guy that will be his last line of defense once the pass rush starts unfolding. Derrick Deese has been right there through thick and thin in covering Jeff Garcia. I would be a liar if I thought someone could possible play better than he could right now.
The offensive line is still evolving and we will see it blossom this season with the tandem that we have and the injections of youth in Eric Heitmann and Kwame Harris. Training camp will materialize those that need to be recognized for depth purposes, but one thing is for sure in that these guys mentioned will be right in the thick of it this season. In fact I predict that the offensive line will be the dominating line on this team hands down.