This year the beat writers voted Donte Whitner the Garry Niver award winner for the player most accommodating with the press.
Garry Niver covered the championship 49ers teams for the San Mateo Times. He died in the early ‘90s of a heart attack. My dad knew him very well and says he was a lovely man. The award is named in his honor.
Whitner was a great choice for the Niver award. He’s accommodating and generous with everyone.
But lots of 49ers are accommodating and generous in their own ways. I got to know quite a few 49ers this season, and here are my five favorites.
1. Vernon Davis. He’s the biggest star on the team – bigger than Jim Harbaugh – and yet he’s easy to relate to. I didn’t even have to try to relate to him – he wants to relate to everyone. He makes it a point to say hello to each member of the press as he walks through the locker room. He makes eye contact and smiles. He sees every question as a fair challenge. He thinks and speaks for himself. He’s equally thoughtful and creative talking about football and non-football topics. He’ll give one-on-one interviews on the spot, and he’ll also linger long after group interviews to answer individual questions.
My dad always told me when I was a kid that athletes come into the league pleasant and normal but as they get rich and successful they inevitably change. You’d expect a player as famous as Davis to blow off the media sometimes at this point in his career, but he doesn’t. Every day he’s thrilled like a rookie as he answers our questions. But he’s not a rookie. He’s Vernon Freaking Davis.
2. Anthony Dixon. The biggest talker on the team, you could even call him flamboyant. But he didn’t get much playing time this year, so he didn’t get the chance to answer many questions.
Still, he was my go-to guy. His words didn’t carry the weight of Davis’ because he’s young and he’s low on the offensive depth chart, but he’ll sit and talk about anything. You can get three, four-minute monologues from him on almost any topic.
One time I asked him what he kept in his locker. He gave me a full presentation, going through and explaining his possessions one by one including Gold Bond Powder, deodorant and facial cream.
3. Ricky Jean Francois. Davis and Dixon are performers. Jean Francois is an observer. While Davis is holding a 20-minute group interview and Dixon is starting a dance party at the other end of the locker room, Jean Francois is sitting on his stool watching. He can relate to the players fine – he’s always talking with Parys Haralson and Ian Williams, and he’ll jump into Dixon’s dance parties every now and then. But the way he observes and analyzes, he’s more like a writer. If you ask him a question, he gives you a look like, “I’m glad you asked that, I just so happen to have a really interesting thing to say about that.” Or if you ask a question that doesn’t do anything for him, he’ll take you in a more interesting direction. He’s so good he can write your story for you.
4. Donte Whitner. The most mature man on the team. He’s not as whimsical and creative as Davis, Dixon and Jean Francois, but he’s especially sincere. Here’s what I mean.
The week before the NFC championship I wrote about the two Donte Whitners – On-the-field Donte and Off-the-field Donte. On-the-field Donte had just become an iconic player in the NFL the Saturday before with his knockout hit on Pierre Thomas, and all the national media wanted to talk to him.
I wanted to interview him one-on-one, so I waited until after his group interview one day to ask him about his two personalities. But the group interview went well over half an hour, and it wasn’t fair to ask him to do a one-on-one with me on top of that. So, I asked him if he would do the interview the next day. He said, “I’m good with that,” and he put out his fist for me to pound.
The next day, he sat just with me at his locker answering my questions for ten minutes before his group interview.
5. Chris Culliver. I never really went to Culliver for quotes. He’s not too comfortable talking on the record yet, he just finished his rookie season. He hasn’t found his voice, like these other four guys have.
But, he’s my age, and we related well.
Let me explain through my wristwatch. My girlfriend got me a big-faced stainless steel Michael Kors watch for Christmas. It’s the closest thing I have to jewelry, and I’m very proud of it.
There was an article in the New York Times around Christmas about a concept called “wrist presence.” It was about how watches are getting bigger, and the industry term for that is “wrist presence.”
I’ve noticed that a lot of the 49ers, especially the young ones, have wrist presence. I asked Aldon Smith if he had any. He looked at me like I was crazy, so I showed him my watch. He laughed and said he wasn’t in to jewelry. Fair enough.
I asked Culliver the same wrist-presence question and he knew exactly what I was talking about. He peeled back his jacket sleeve and showed me his watch, and it just happened to be the same one I had – the Michael Kors.
I showed him that we were watch twins. He smiled an embarrassed smile and walked away. I felt like I had ruined his day. If I was a football player I wouldn’t want a sports writer wearing my watch.
“I’ve BEEN wearing Michael Kors,” he muttered to himself, as if I stole and then ruined his style.
But the next week he tapped me on the shoulder in the locker room and said, “Guess what?”
The question caught me off guard. I’ve never heard a professional athlete ask a writer “Guess what?” Usually they let the writers come to them.
“What?” I asked him.
“Shawntae Spencer got me a new watch,” he said, grinning.
He one-upped my wrist presence, in other words, and he wanted me to know.
“Can I see it?” I asked. I didn’t know what else to say.
“No,” he said, feigning fear that my girlfriend would go out and buy me this watch, too.
Culliver and I spoke frequently on and off the record after that, but he never showed me the mystery gift watch.
I have to assume it was fictional. Chris, if you’re reading this, the ball’s in your court. Prove the existence of the new watch or accept the fact that my presence is just as present as your presence.