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John Keith was a silver lining in a dark cloud

Nov 18, 2000 at 12:00 AM

The San Francisco 49er’s drafted Safety John Keith out of Furman in the Fourth Round (108th) overall in this years 2000 draft order. No one expected little alone myself that this young individual athletic and talented would have such an immediate positive impact on this thin defensive secondary for the 49er’s.

In 1999 Pro-Bowl Strong Safety Lance Schulters anchored this position for virtually all the time, his performances were without challenge or question as he solidified a safety blanket in the middle of the field.

John Keith came in and in a few short performances and devastating hits redefined those positions allowing Schulters to move over to fee safety to cover the passing lanes better and for Keith to be the last man standing in front of a running back and the end zone.

In John’s career at Furman he started 30 of 43 games during his four-year career there. He totaled 320 tackles (211 solo); including 11 tackles for a loss, finished with 11 interceptions, 20 passes defended and one sack.

John Keith had his opportunity to play after the first 49er game against St. Louis when Pierson Prioleau injured his knee; Keith’s mark was felt in stopping the run something he did with acceleration and devastating contact.

In Week Four against Dallas the defense held Emmitt Smith to 31 yards rushing and a 2.8 yards-per-carry average. In Week Five against Arizona Cardinal running back Michael Pittman gained 76 yards, but most of these came in the second half, while Keith was out of the game.

John Keith is not without fault though as in Week Three against St. Louis wide receiver Isaac Bruce burned him for a 78-yard touchdown pass. Defensive Coordinator Jim Mora Jr. blasted him for this defensive breakdown and was intent of pulling him out right then. But Keith kept his head up and trotted back out onto the field and intercepted a Kurt Warner pass in the end zone.

“He made the play right there after that,” said Schulters with pride. “That’s just the kind of character he has. You might get scored upon; everybody does in the NFL. It’s what you do after that.” “I had a couple of mental lapses,” Keith admitted about the Bruce score. “I came up to Mora and said, don’t take me out, I felt like I wasn’t frustrated mentally. I felt like I wanted to make a play.”

Lance Schulters benefited from Keith’s presence in the sense that it allowed him to freelance as the weak side safety. “I like working with him,” said Schulters.

Defensive Coordinator Jim Mora Jr. saw positive potential in this newcomer as his defense was full of rookies and second-year players, Keith allowed him more flexibility, having the same hitting style of Lance they both could lurk around the line of scrimmage. Provide run support and even blitz.

“You can bring him or Lance up into your eight-man front,” said Mora. “That gives you some versatility obviously.”

John Keith has made tremendous strides from a small school like Furman into the National Football League, It did not take long for him to make an impact as in this years Hall of Fame Game our first pre-season game he pasted the Patriots kick-returner on the very first play of that game.

Keith earned a name in Furman called “Shakespeare,” as in one who makes plays. “I like the name,” he said. John Keith also receives enormous support from his family and his tiny town of Newnan, Georgia.

When I first saw John Keith in the lineup in the beginning of the regular season I had all the optimism in the world that he would make an immediate impact. I had high hopes as well as many 49er fans going into this season realizing rookies would have to grow up in a hurry to carry our team.

John Keith turned out to be a silver lining in that dark cloud that hung over the 49er franchise, he reminded me of a lot like Lance Schulters and his hard-hitting physical presence was felt all over the field.

I thought he would be a logical and encouraging force to be reckoned with on a defense that was thin at every position depth wise, He proved that he was in the very beginning and then onward.

“I always play better in front of people I know,” said Keith. “I know they expect me to play at a high level. I kind of put that into my bag and hope I can live up to it. And make them proud. That’s the big driving force in my play right now.”

This is the maturity and enthusiasm this athlete brings to a franchise so adapted to turning regular athletes into champions, The San Francisco ideology is centered around accomplishing victory in one form or another, John Keith is one that can succeed in the long term.

“We like John because he’s tough and physical,” said Mora. Keith has a former 49er he looks to for inner strength and encouragement that is recent Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. Keith was in awe of Ronnie Lott at the Hall of Fame Game and couldn’t even bring himself to approach him.

“Ronnie Lott is like football to me,” said Keith. “I want to be a hard hitter and the hardest hitting safety ever is Ronnie Lott.” Keith has driven himself mentally to excel like Ronnie by watching lots of film, and having a passion for the game itself.

“The things he brought to the game are emotion and will,” said Keith. “I’m a very emotional player, and I idolize Ronnie Lott.”

In Week Six in the Battle of the Bay at home against The Oakland Raiders Strong Safety John Keith incurred a season-ending injury just as he was getting started. He decimated his right forearm while covering the opening kickoff of overtime. Keith was steaming down the field and felt something hit his arm.

“A helmet, or knee,” Keith said, his voice just above a whisper. “I didn’t know what it was.” Keith didn’t hear or feel anything when he hit the turf, but when he tried to get him he knew something was wrong.

“I tried to push myself off the ground and my arm just wasn’t working right,” said Keith. He then looked at his arm and saw it dangling at a strange angle.

“I saw the X-rays,” coach Steve Mariucci said. “He definitely broke his ulner and his radius.” John Keith’s world all of a sudden came crashing down on him as doctors said he would be out 10-12 games.

But even after all this and its details John Keith, maintained his head and said “I hope to have a long career.” John Keith joins a many 49er’s whom are out due to injuries as this has been one of the worse I’ve ever seen this year.

Such a horrible set of circumstances in a defense starving for playmakers or any form of redemption for last year, John Keith was certainly one of those playmakers relegated to watching from the sidelines wondering what it would have been to be there all season long.

Replacing Keith has not been easy Zack Bronson has been bothered by a neck stinger which has caused weakness in the triceps muscles of his left arm, He also experiences tingling in his arm often.

Pierson Prioleau has been bothered by knee troubles throughout the season. His latest is a bone bruise on his femur near his knee, which is causing fluid to collect. On (10-13-00) The San Francisco 49er’s signed second-year-safety Jason Moore released by Green Bay. The 5-10, 195-pound Moore played in three games with the Packers this season and had two special teams tackles to his credit.

The thinness of the secondary has been so evident as of late that in Week Eight at Carolina Practice Squad Ronnie Heard came into play and Cornerback Monty Montgomery has been practicing at safety as Jason Webster assumes his position.

Still Carolina Quarterback Steve Beuerlein scorched the 49er Secondary to death as he threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns. Again a superior receiving corps demolished this young rookie secondary. Full of veterans and big playmakers.

Injuries continue to take a toll on this young and promising defense that every time there on the field experience is derived and learned.

Defensive Coordinator Jim Mora Jr. has done everything in his power to adapt and teach fresh new talent and mold rookies and second-year-players into situational playmakers. This task has been his greatest challenge as injuries have demolished so many inspirations on the field.

The San Francisco 49er’s have fallen into the cellar of oblivion in the National Football Conference’s West Division, St. Louis The World Champions remain untouched above all the rest. Their offense has been so mind blowing that no defense even a veteran and disciplined one has been able to curtail their onslaught of 30+ points or more a game.

St. Louis could be forming the new dynasty in The National Football League as their franchise has so many playmakers on both sides of the ball and are relatively salary cap friendly going into next year.

San Francisco again faces real unpleasant decisions ahead as salary cap nightmares will be back again this coming season, many will have to be cut or waived as salaries are restructured or terminated.

Athletic Individuals such as John Keith give us the best long-goal chance of rebuilding successfully and profitably, I hope that in his second-year Keith will be the young Ronnie Lott of the future for this franchise and that he can in some ways live up to such a high standard.

That is what this incredible franchise is all about molding and defining champions, athletic individuals who have everything to gain and a place they can truly call home with dignity and pride.

We must continue to fight and be prepared as best we can for every game, no matter what the circumstances may be, we have entered the third quarter of the season, our defense is up against the ropes battered and bloody taking shot after shot like a severely wounded boxer.

Someone must emerge and be a defining force to redefine and turn the tide in this seemingly hopeless defensive struggle, that we fight every game. Real learning and experience will in time reshapes and mold these individual units into well-oiled machines of power and recognition. We must continue to have hope and sit on the edge of our seats and will this team to victory every time for it is the right thing to do.

In regards to Week Eleven’s victory over Kansas City 21-7 The San Francisco defense played with a renewed vigor and stamina in this game, the presence of Safety Zack Bronson was a definite upgrade from Pierson Prioleau. Bronson returned from a neck injury after a five-game absence, setting up a second-quarter touchdown with an interception.

Pro Bowl safety Lance Schulters and ring leader of of the 49er’s league-worse secondary, made seven tackles and set the San Francisco defense’s physical tone with two vicious hits on receivers Derrick Alexander and Sylvester Morris.

Both Chief receivers were briefly knocked out of the game by the hits, and Schulters continued to play despite nerve problems in his neck and left leg. San Francisco hand-cuffed Kansas City to 290 total yards, and their offense that threw for a team-record 504 yards the week prior in Oakland couldn’t penetrate the league’s worst pass defense.

In all the 49er defense rated the worse in six statistical categories, thoroughly dominated the Kansas City offense, which had scored 109 points in it’s last three games.

The secondary was ready and prepared for this game a far cry from what it has been over the season; mainly in due to rookie experience and nagging relentless injuries that has plagued this team from the very start.

However these excuses were not meant to be any more, the coaching staff and mainly defensive coordinator Jim Mora had this defense ready to squash all relevant statistical figures by going out and playing with determination and with renewed senses of building back what has been taken from them.

Cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster continue to learn and grow and they have impressed me with their playmaking skills that become more defined and sharp as time goes on.

I believe that they spell the future for us at these positions and next year we can expect even more of a shutdown in these areas regarding the passing defense. We will have to still look at bringing in competition but these two are growing up fast in this professional league.

Lance Schulters in Sunday’s game looked so much like legendary Ronnie Lott, with his devastating hits on the Chief’s receivers and his ability to be in the right place in so many offensive snaps against us, we have to admire and comprehend that we have a real difference maker here.

Signing Schulters to an extended contract is most vital if we are to transform this secondary into the elite unit we need it to be, without him it will take that much longer for true consistency and productivity to appear in this unit.

In all fairness to San Francisco defensive coordinator Jim Mora, his injury-plagued group has used the same starting lineup in back-to-back games only once all season and twice in the past 23 games.

Slowly but surely, newcomers like Julian Peterson, Jason Webster, Ahmed Plummer, John Engelberger and Anthony Pleasant are starting to have an impact. And time is something that 49er fans are not at all used to, as we are so comfortable over the years realizing we had a playoff caliber team for so many years 16 consecutive seasons with 10 wins or more in fact. We never have had to be more patient and understanding, as we have had to become, starting with last year when Quarterback Steve Young hit the field literally for the last time.

In all sense’s Sunday’s victory was as sweet as they come as Kansas City came into 3-Com with visions of extending their winning record as they contend for a playoff picture in a division dominated by the Oakland Raiders.

“Guys were out there having fun, something we haven’t done in a long time.” Said defensive tackle Bryant Young. Who collected two of the team’s three sacks against Elvis Grbac and has five in his past four games.

So without further recollection the 49er defense showed what it can do when the formula is right, we have youth to evaluate and analyze as time goes on, prospects to look at and identify as real solutions at each and every defensive position.

I believe the future holds even more light as we have some of the best front office people in the business working for this franchise. We have one of the best coaching staffs also and I am confident that we will triumph over this and will have a defense that is respected and reliable on the field of battle on any given day.

The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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