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The evolution of Fred Warner

How an obsession with the little things helped the former BYU standout become a prototype modern NFL linebacker and put him in Sunday’s NFC Championship game.

San Francisco 49ers middle linebacker Fred Warner (54) prepares for a game with the Atlanta Falcons in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019.
Josie Lepe, Associated Press

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — There’s a football.

Mud brown, with a few nicks and scratches, it rests at the base of Fred Warner’s locker Tuesday afternoon. It features an inscribed Los Angeles Rams logo and a taped, white note commemorating an interception he returned for a touchdown, on Dec. 21. Why start here, in Fred’s locker, with this month-old memento?

Because this is a story about the little things, so we must start small.

Think of the ball like a three-point buck, a trophy in a deer hunter’s den. Something to be glanced at now and then, something to smile at. It’s the most tangible evidence in Fred’s locker of what he’s done in his young NFL career, and a reminder of what he could eventually do.

The second-year starter emerged from BYU with questions about his speed, weight and durability. He played an unusual hybrid position with the Cougars, making it unclear how he’d fit in the NFL. These concerns made him an interesting but not elite prospect, and San Francisco took him in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft.

Since then he’s started all 32 regular season games. He leads the NFL’s best defense in tackles, has helped the 49ers reach the cusp of a Super Bowl berth and earned a Pro Bowl alternate designation on Dec. 17. Some called that a snub, said he deserves All-Pro consideration. As if to validate their indignation, he scored his first NFL touchdown four days later.

That touchdown ball, then, represents something powerful: Fred’s ascent to professional football’s loftiest heights from an unexpected place. From his mother, Laura, raising him and his two younger siblings as a single mother near San Diego. From the hours he spent on the football field from the time he was 7. From his Latter-day Saint church congregation, which helped him end up at BYU. And from an underweight freshman linebacker to an NFL star who, at each step, found purpose and poise in the little things.

You know the ones. The so-called fundamentals. The clichés coaches spout in every interview: “first one in, last one out” or a “gym rat”; a “student of the game” or a guy who “just loves football.” A player might embody one, perhaps even two of these generic attributes. But together, they add up to one of the grandest of all clichés: a guy who “does all the little things right.”

That guy, his former coaches will tell you, is Fred.

Consider another small thing, at least in celestial terms. A neutron star is a cosmic object with a diameter smaller than the distance between Salt Lake City and Provo with near-incomprehensible density: one teaspoon would weigh as much as Mount Everest. They’re not as luminous as red giants. They’re not as powerful as black holes. But neutron stars hold cataclysmic potential, and under certain conditions, they ignite.

Why the astronomy lesson? Because Fred is like a neutron star: not the flashiest, or the strongest, or the most recognized of stars. But since landing with the 49ers, it seems with each passing week he’s inching toward ignition. His career goals, he’s said, are to win the Super Bowl and become the league’s best linebacker. With a win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, he’d land on the cusp of both.

There were once some toys

It doesn’t matter what toys. Because in the eyes of young Fred Warner, they momentarily transformed from playthings to clutter. “Mom, it’s bedtime!” Laura remembers him yelling to her. “We have to pick up the toys!” Laura didn’t feel well, but she couldn’t deny him. Like her, he gravitated toward order and neatness. But he lacked focus, a place to direct his energy. His mother said she tried to provide that with stints in several sports.

Soccer didn’t work out. Basketball was just OK. T-ball earned a definite no — too boring, she said. No, it wasn’t until Fred took up football at age 7 that she’d never have to worry about his focus and direction again.

“Football just became it for him,” she said. “I think being around those kids and those men, I feel like it really helped him. It changed him.”

Fred’s parents separated when he was a toddler. He and his younger brother, Troy, lived with their mom. Their father wasn’t completely absent, but Laura admits football offered them something that wasn’t available at home.

“They ended up becoming more than just their coaches,” she said of the four instructors who led Fred during his youth football years. “They became family friends… they became role models.”

Or, as Troy said, “We didn’t grow up with much… but I think football was a way for us to feel like we had it all.”

Or, as Fred himself said Friday, smiling and with raised eyebrows under his black 49ers headband, when asked about his childhood hobbies, “What did I like to do? I liked to play football.”

Fred’s natural size — he weighed 10 pounds at birth, Laura said, and kept that heft in his youth — helped him excel. But when he arrived at Mission Hills High School, he wasn’t as big relative to the other players, and he struggled early. Still, he played enough as a junior to put together a highlight reel and land a scholarship offer to New Mexico State, which caught the attention of a fellow member of his ward.

Fred was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Laura converted from Catholicism as a teenager, and she regularly took her kids to their meetinghouse. He’d told ward members of his ambitions to play college and NFL football, to which pretty much any sane person would say, “You go get ‘em, kid!” to his face and “bless his heart” behind his back. But after that first offer, a BYU alum in his ward contacted the Cougars coaching staff.

“We pulled up the film,” remembers Kelly Poppinga, a linebackers coach at BYU who soon became Fred’s lead recruiter, “and he was pretty good.”

A tsunami of interest followed his early commitment to BYU, with Pac-12 powers like Washington and USC in pursuit. But, Laura remembers, “Once we went on the visit together to BYU, he reaffirmed that this was where he wanted to be.” She hoped it would equip him with a strong spiritual foundation, and maybe even a wife.

“He failed to do that at BYU,” she said of the second one, laughing. But he failed at little else, thanks in large part to the little things he carried with him from his youth football days.

“Fred knew that if he put in the work, and did all the little things, it could lead to something great,” said Troy, a senior safety who followed his brother to BYU and is expected back with the team next year. “I just think football was a way for him to continue to be motivated.”

When Fred arrived, Poppinga said, he did so with confidence. Not arrogance, but confidence. And it translated to playmaking darn near every day in practice.

“That’s when I knew,” Poppinga said, “he was going to be special.”

Fred showed it early, reading a screen out of the backfield against Boise State, grabbing the pass near the 20-yard line and walking into the end zone. A back injury ended his freshman season early, and as Poppinga recalls — with a sigh and some regret — Fred seemed to carry those limitations into the following season. So one day at practice, he called Fred out. “You just don’t look the same,” he told him. “You’re not playing at the level you finished your freshman year at.” Now Poppinga adds the caveat that it might have been unfair for a guy coming off a broken back. Nevertheless, Fred responded and played to prove him wrong from then on.

He also found a mentor in former BYU and current New England Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy, especially regarding film study. “He was a big film junkie,” Fred said. “That’s where I really learned to study the game.”

But in some ways, he’s always had that edge. Always believed he needed to do more. “There were always players that had a little bit more athletic ability than him,” his mother said, “and early on, he found that he could have an advantage by being more cerebral about the game.” Once in college, he also tried to be more studious, more health-conscious and more dedicated. Any possible advantage was worth attacking. Any small, little thing that would help.

“The thing I always say about Fred is he loves football, and he loves the process of what it takes to be a great player as far as film study and weight training,” Poppinga said. “One of the best I’ve been around at just loving the process.”

After the Cougars finished 9-4 in Fred’s sophomore season, Poppinga left BYU, following head coach Bronco Mendenhall to Virginia, but the new head coach saw the same qualities. Fred worked when no one watched, Kalani Sitake recalls, “because he absolutely loves it.”

“I would take 100 guys like him on our team,” Sitake said. “I’ve never seen a guy disappointed that there was a bye week — that’s Fred Warner.”

That energy drove Fred through another 9-4 season as a junior, and never dissipated the next year, even as the Cougars stumbled to 4-9. If he hasn’t quite joined the pantheon of BYU legends, that could be the reason.

Still, Fred’s talent intrigued NFL scouts, even if they were hesitant about his transition to the NFL. At BYU, he played “flash” linebacker — an outside linebacker-safety-nickelback hybrid that didn’t match up to a traditional position in the NFL. He also had an injury history and weighed 235 pounds — small for a linebacker, big for a safety. Would his body withstand the punishing toll of a professional season? Could he handle a more traditional role? Would one team see past the questions and take him early anyway?

Analysts weren’t sure. Neither was Fred.

Given the uncertainty, he didn’t want a big party for the 2018 NFL draft. Instead, his immediate family and a few friends — including his youth coaches — gathered at his father’s house to watch Day 2. Early in the third round, his phone rang. As Troy frantically Google searched the area code, the rest of the room wondered, and then celebrated. San Francisco had taken him with the 70th pick.

“To see it happen on social media (is one thing),” Laura said, her voice cracking, “but to go through it — it’s pretty special.”

Fred Warner’s helmet

There’s a green dot on Fred’s helmet, about the size of a quarter. The helmet sits in his locker, near a jumbo jar of Muscle Provider protein powder. And there’s an iPad somewhere in his bag loaded with film of every snap he’s played for the 49ers, all the little things that provide a window into what he’s become since BYU.

Let’s start with the green dot, which designates him as the quarterback of the defense — the player who receives radio transmissions from defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and must convey his plans to his teammates. Warner has taken to this responsibility with an abundance of enthusiasm. Coach Kyle Shanahan has said Fred sometimes disseminates the plays too loudly, so loud they can hear him in the offensive huddle. This role pits Fred in a chess match against the opposing quarterback; so just as Aaron Rodgers will try to align his offense in the most effective formations on Sunday, Fred will try to counter.

He has the traits for the job. Like Laura said, he’s always been very cerebral, and his score of 32 on the Wonderlic test at the NFL combine placed him behind only two other linebackers in his class. “I think the biggest thing is really his preparation. His mind,” said fellow linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair. “He’s able to memorize plays, take what we’re learning in meetings to the field and put it all together.”

That’s made possible by the tablet he uses to re-watch his performances and critique himself, sometimes for hours. Troy saw it while visiting last weekend.

“He literally doesn’t leave his iPad,” he said. “He watches games three to five times, and he’s always looking for how to improve.”

It’s a sentiment Fred backs up Wednesday afternoon at the 49ers training facility, after teammate Richard Sherman practically put on a comedy routine at the podium. Fred was laughing along with the rest of the room, but he gets serious when it’s his turn to speak, especially when he’s asked what’s made him a better player.

“I don’t want to talk about what I’ve improved upon,” he said. “I always think about what I can do better. I’m pretty hard on myself.”

It shows in the hours he puts in, whether in the film room or the weight room — that jug of protein powder is there for a reason. The rigorous preparation has catapulted Fred to the forefront of San Francisco’s elite defense, in a system that thrives on his varied skillset. As NFL offenses have evolved, adopting run-pass options and jet sweeps and other elements of the college-style passing game, Fred has become the antidote: an athletic, rangy linebacker who can stop the run and cover like a safety — as evidenced when he picked off that pass against the Rams.

Just like against Boise State, Fred read the opposing running back tilting toward the sideline. Just like against Boise State, he sprinted upfield. And just like against Boise State, the quarterback never saw Fred, never expected him and tossed a freebie right into his hands; he almost had to reach backward after outrunning the pass. The play punctuated an 11-tackle performance — one shy of his season high.

All the little things coalesced in that moment. The weights, the diet, the film study, the hours after practice, gave him the confidence to make the read, the athleticism to react and the skill to finish the play.

His skills, it seems, have translated to the NFL just fine. His habits are already leaving an impression on teammates. Al-Shaair, an undrafted rookie out of Florida Atlantic, said he’s looked to Fred as a role model since he arrived ahead of the season.

“If he’s here until 5, I know I need to be here until 5:30,” he said. “I don’t care if I did everything. If I see Fred, I think I better go do something. Because he’s the starting linebacker, and he’s doing a great job, so my mentality is to do what he’s doing.”

The 49ers open Tuesday’s afternoon practice with stretches, amid the occasional waft of wet industrial fertilizer. Fred seems to enjoy himself, bobbing his head to Dreamville and other hip-hop beats, along with his teammates. The same is true Wednesday, in conditions so soggy that each footstep seems to create a puddle, with tunes like Fat Joe’s and Lil Wayne’s “Make It Rain,” among other songs inspired by the weather.

“The stakes are high and there’s a lot on the line,” Fred acknowledged. “We don’t treat it as such. We treat it like it’s another week. The routine doesn’t change. Our preparation doesn’t change.”

For every lunge or trot or backpedal, Fred, with a towel hanging from the back of his shorts like a tail, leads the way. After stretches, he leads his unit to the team huddle at midfield. In linebacker drills, he moves deliberately. Every step with purpose, each solid stomp of his black-and-white Nikes sending up a puff of shredded grass. He can cut loose sometimes, but his body language shows that this is a serious moment.

“This game was meant to be played with joy,” he said. “You’ve just got to know when to turn it on and be dialed in.”

And he should be — will be — dialed in on Sunday, facing Rodgers and the sixth-ranked Packers offense at Levi’s Stadium. If his team is successful, Fred will advance to the Super Bowl, where he could accomplish one of his two main career goals. And the second — to be the NFL’s best linebacker — appears within reach.

He has the requisite physicality. The speed. The playmaking. Whenever Poppinga can catch a 49ers game, he marvels at Fred’s consistent impact. “I just didn’t see it happening this quickly,” he said. “I mean, he’s become an elite player. It’s not like he’s some average NFL dude — no. He’s a Pro Bowl type of guy.”

Which brings us back to the neutron star. In seldom-observed circumstances, one neutron star forms a binary with a second. They orbit each other and, eventually, collide. The collisions can be powerful enough to send ripples through the fabric of spacetime, and large enough to create a single new entity: a black hole. Think of this binary as Fred and his circumstances: He’s brought his skills; his size; his focus on the little things to the equation. His circumstances include a scheme that allows him to shine and coaches who trust his judgment. They’ve come together to send ripples through the NFL, and to create a focal point of San Francisco’s defense — one of the league’s most powerful forces.

The little things add up. All those extra weightlifting sessions and film studies and nutritional supplements have given Fred a chance to fulfill the longings that gave his childhood direction. Which is why anyone who knows him will tell you even if he hoists the Lombardi Trophy come Feb. 2, he’ll be back on the little things by week’s end.

“If you want to be a great player in this league, it takes those everyday things leading up the game,” he said. “It takes preparing day in and day out, and doing the little things right.”

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