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A Natural Progression

Posted Jun 8, 2011

Bobby Engram excelled as a wide receiver in the West Coast offense. Now he hopes to carve out a successful coaching career starting as an offensive assistant with the San Francisco 49ers. Can this former 14-year NFL veteran succeed? If he treats it anything like his playing career, the answer will be a resounding yes.
Click here to watch Engram's interview.

PART OF the reason the Seattle Seahawks were so successful in the mid 2000s was because of a consistent passing game. A key contributor to the aerial artillery was a crafty wide receiver, who routinely made big plays in crucial moments. Unfortunately for 49ers fans, eight of Bobby Engram’s 14 seasons of professional football came largely at their expense. Former teammates referred to him as, “Mr. Consistency,” – a significant reason why Engram was the slot receiver on Seattle’s 35th Anniversary team. But luckily for the 49ers Faithful, Engram is now on their side, working as an offensive assistant for Jim Harbaugh’s coaching staff.

It’s a natural progression for Engram, a once detail-oriented player who regularly mentored his younger teammates. But Engram’s ascension to the coaching ranks wasn’t a foregone conclusion by any stretch of the imagination. Though he had always wanted to enter the profession, Engram first consulted with his family. “I guess they saw the desire, that I talked about coaching the same way I was about playing,” says Engram. “They said, ‘Go for it. We’re behind you.’ That sealed it for me. That’s when I knew I wanted to give it a shot.”

LIKE MANY, Engram’s passion for football developed from the backyard pickup games of his early childhood. Growing up in Camden, S.C., Engram was a regular at neighborhood games along with his cousins and he often stole the show. Engram was 8 when he signed up for tackle football. “I fell in love with it and I’ve been playing ever since,” he says. “It’s been a passion and it’s been a tremendous experience in my life.”

Early on, he played all over the field, soaking up experience at every turn. But as a junior at Camden High, Engram began to focus solely on the finer details of the wide receiver position. “I’ve never been accused of being the most talented guy,” humbly says Engram. “But I started focusing… I really started honing in on route-running, catching the football, trying to be a difference-maker every time I touched the football.”

Engram didn’t label himself as the most gifted player, but the state of South Carolina would beg to differ. In high school, Engram was a three-time All-State selection at wide receiver, which helped him earn a scholarship to Penn State University. There, Engram would meet one of the most influential figures of his life, legendary Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno.

OF COURSE he had nothing to do with his laundry list of accomplishments in a Nittany Lions uniform… That’s exactly what Engram, the selfless, school-record holder would want you to believe. Without talented players like quarterback Kerry Collins and running back Kijana Carter, Engram says he would have never set the bar for wide receivers at one of the nation’s most prestigious football schools. “I was fortunate to be at Penn State at a time when Joe Paterno just started to love throwing the football,” jokes Engram, a three-time AP All-American and the first ever Fred Biletnikoff Award recipient in 1994. Engram played a key part in the Nittany Lions’ Rose Bowl victory that season and for much of the program’s success in the mid 90s. He stands as Penn State’s all-time leader in receiving yards (3,026), receiving touchdowns (31) and 100-yard receiving games (16). Only Engram has totaled a 1,000-yard receiving season in a Penn State uniform – and he did it twice.

“Having the records makes you feel good, but at the same time, I realize why I was able to accomplish some great things at Penn State,” says Engram. “It was because of the talent I had around me.” And it was also a result from working with a respected coach like Paterno, who regularly stressed important details to his players. Paterno valued education and made sure his players left Happy Valley with a meaningful degree. “There are a number of reasons why I love him,” says Engram. “but that’s one of the more important reasons why I respect him.”

AN EMPHASIS on education helped Engram throughout his football career. Having played for a detailed coach like Paterno, Engram felt prepared for the next stage of his football life. So when the Chicago Bears drafted him in the second round of the 1996 NFL Draft, Engram firmly believed he had a leg-up on other rookies. He was right. From day one, Engram understood the importance of time, a major lesson from Paterno, who regularly started team meetings five minutes early just to prove a point. “If you weren’t 10 minutes early, you were five minutes late,” recalls Engram. Those instances proved to be important for Engram as he carved out a career path in professional football.

Following his five-year stint in Chicago, Engram unsuspectingly found a home in the NFL city furthest from his hometown in South Carolina. The location didn’t matter. The opportunity did. Engram signed a one-year contract before the 2001 season with the Seahawks and ultimately, he lasted eight seasons in the Pacific Northwest. Now, Engram ranks fourth and fifth respectively in the franchise’s history for receptions (399) and receiving yards (4,859). Moreover, Engram holds the team’s single-season record for receptions in a season (94 in 2007). He also led the team in catches (67) during the 2005 season when Seattle fell short in Super Bowl XL.

Engram went on to play one more year with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009 and was cut by the Cleveland Browns before the start of the 2010 season. But Engram’s playing legacy was forged in Seattle as a wideout in the West Coast Offense and it didn’t go unnoticed. Seattle’s fans rewarded his contributions, voting him to the team’s 35th anniversary team. “It was a bit of a surprise,” says Engram of his inclusion with receivers Steve Largent and Bennie Blades. “I was humbled by the news. I think that’s kind of a fitting end to my career. I gave them everything I had and I think the fans recognized that and the organization recognized that.” But again, Engram credited his teammates for his accomplishment, saying Seattle’s cast of talented players made him better.

IT WAS a two-way street for Engram. He didn’t just allow teammates to influence his actions; he made sure to set examples too. It stemmed from his experiences playing for Paterno and alongside other veterans in the league. “I was fortunate to have some of the older guys grab me,” says Engram, who finished his career with 650 catches for 7,751 yards and 35 touchdowns. “I think it’s our responsibility as older players to pass down that tradition of helping guys acclimate to the league and become better players.”

With that mindset, Engram had been coaching without the official title. But the designation came officially this past January, when Harbaugh hired him. Engram thought long and hard about a foray into a profession known for fluid job movement. But after praying on it, he got the blessing from his family and took an interview with Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke. “I knew right away this was going to be the place for me,” recalls Engram. “My interview confirmed that.”

Harbaugh’s West Coast offensive system aligns nicely with the concepts Engram learned as a player in Seattle. His experience and knowledge of the scheme allow him to be a great resource for the offensive staff. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to learn from a veteran staff, guys who have tremendous experience in the coaching ranks, guys who know football, guys who are well-versed in the West Coast offense,” says Engram. “I’m very fortunate and humbled to be here. I’m very excited about this opportunity.”

A REPUTATION can stick with you for some time in the NFL. When it comes to Engram, he’s been thought of highly for some time. Though he had never coached in the NFL or on any level of football for that matter, pro coaches were eager to work with him.  Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has always been intrigued by Engram’s actions. “Bobby Engram was a player I held in a very high regard over his years in the NFL,” says Roman. “He just impressed me as a player who was always doing his job.”

That understanding and awareness will translate into Engram’s new role on the 49ers staff, assisting Roman as well as wide receivers coach John Morton. Engram will be called on to perform some of the laborious behind the scenes work in addition to working with the wide receivers. “That’s a huge asset for us,” says Roman. Initially, Engram has been responsible for drawing the 49ers playbook through a computer program as well as learning Morton’s coaching philosophies. “I’m learning a lot from him and his approach, what he’s looking for and how he’s trying to use it to make our players better,” says Engram.

The old crafty wideout isn’t resting on his playing accomplishments however. He’s utilizing all the knowledge around him. “Being in the league for 14 years is a tremendous blessing. You learn a lot about football and about people,” Engram says. “I think my playing days will have some carry over, but it’s up to me to transfer those skills into coaching… I understand what needs to be done on an intricate level. There’s a lot to be learned in terms of preparation, putting together game plans, cutting up film, doing all the things I didn’t have to do as a player. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

FOND MEMORIES from Candlestick Park remain with Engram. After all it was a stadium he loved playing in and now he’s fortunate to begin his coaching career there. In fact, Engram’s first regular season game will be against his old Seattle franchise. The moment will be a unique one for both parties, but it probably won’t compare to Engram’s return to Qwest Field, home of the Seahawks. “I’m focused on what we need to do to win that game,” says Engram. “But first things first, we have 15 regular season games before that one.”

Engram has a lot to do before the regular season begins, which includes his coaching and father duties. As a father of four, including an eight-month-old daughter, Engram is plenty occupied with his family life. But when he has spare time, Engram has been active in philanthropic work too. He established the “Bobby Engram Foundation,” to aid sickle cell anemia research, after his daughter Bobbi was diagnosed with the disease. Engram’s obligations with the 49ers take a considerable amount of his time, but he’s not lost focus of the Foundation’s goals. “We’re excited about refining and refocusing the vision to help people,” says Engram. “The foundation is simple to me, it’s teach, care, cure. And we need to find the best possible means to do that. We need to teach people about sickle cell disease, what it is, who is affected and how they can help.”

When Engram is not enjoying the company of his wife Deanna, who he met in college, he’s typically playing with sons Dean and Trey or daughters Bobbi and Phoebe. Engram also admits to having a passion for fishing. “The family is first priority; they take first dibs on any of my time. And if I do get a little time for myself, I might go cast a line somewhere.”

Fittingly, it appears Engram has casted himself into a great opportunity with the 49ers coaching staff. Working for a former player like Harbaugh has been a great fit for Engram already. “That’s something I respect because obviously I’m walking the same road,” says Engram. “I can pick his brain and learn from him.”

But before Engram even took an interview with Harbaugh to become a football coach, he made sure to get one last blessing, one from his mentor, Coach Paterno. “I gave him a call and just ran it by him, told him what I was thinking, and he gave me his thoughts and put his blessing on it,” Engram recalls. “He said he thought I’d make a pretty good coach… We’ll see. That’s yet to be determined.”

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