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Blue Collar Personified

Posted Oct 20, 2011



Attitude and a tooth brush. That’s what Jim Harbaugh said Blake Costanzo, a 49ers special teams standout, brings with him on every road trip.

There’s certainly more in the suitcase of the fifth-year veteran, who signed with the 49ers prior to Harbaugh’s first season coaching in the NFL, but Costanzo makes sure to bring his work ethic and unique outlook to every 49ers game. He also brings an assortment of colorful socks (more on that later).

Costanzo’s personality, as rare as any that can be found in an NFL locker room, has been infectious.

Teammates might not follow all of his particular activities – or wardrobe habits, for that matter – but when it comes to attitude, there are many who share his workman-like approach.

When Harbaugh was asked specifically about Costanzo’s contributions to the special teams success in a 5-1 start to the season, the 49ers head coach’s face lit up immediately. He offered this sentiment on what the 6-foot-1, 235-pound linebacker has brought to the Bay Area in a matter of months.

“Attitude, great attitude,” Harbaugh said a day after his team defeated the Detroit Lions 25-19, extending the team’s four-game winning streak. “Guys feed off that.

“He’s a football player – darn near blocked a punt in the ballgame yesterday – core teams guy that is a real leader in that phase and on our football team.”

Emotional leadership is one thing, production is another. Costanzo delivers on both fronts.

Through six games, he leads the 49ers with seven special teams tackles, which includes back-to-back, two-tackle performances against the Eagles and Buccaneers.

Costanzo’s contributions, largely unnoticed by those fascinated by offensive and defensive performances, haven’t been undervalued by his teammates or head coach, for that matter.

Costanzo also helps the team get better in practice, serving as a do-it-all player on both offensive and defensive scout teams.

“(Costanzo) Gives us a great look in practice,” Harbaugh continued. “He’ll play fullback for you, he’ll play linebacker, anything that you need him to do. He’s been a great addition, just another example of this team, these guys affecting each other.”

With Harbaugh stressing a blue-collar mentality for his 49ers ballclub, it was easy for Costanzo to carry out that particular mindset.

In fact, Costanzo has played the game that way his entire life.

As a two-time state champion at New Jersey’s Ramapo High School, Costanzo wasn’t offered any scholarships by big-name collegiate programs.

“I had all types of accolades, but for whatever reason, maybe I was too small or whatever, I didn’t get a lot of looks,” Costanzo shared. “I always thought playing high school hopefully I’d get a scholarship, but that never came.”

Instead, he weighed the options of going into the Army or Naval Academy to find his way back on a football field. But things changed soon after when Lafayette College came to him with an offer to play football. Costanzo checked out the campus with his parents and immediately signed on to play for the school in Eastman, Penn., known mostly for academics.

“It was probably one of the best decisions for me – I wouldn’t change it for the world,” said Costanzo, who met some of his best friends during his time in college. “It made me overcome even more to get to where I’m at now.”

The gritty football player was just beginning his years of overcoming hardships to compete at football’s highest levels.

Following his time at Lafayette where he was an All-Patriot League linebacker, Costanzo went undrafted in 2006 and was waived twice by the New York Jets in 2006 and 2007 before the start of the regular season. In 2007, however, Costanzo excelled in a different professional league, the NFL’s developmental league known as NFL Europa.

That year, Costanzo was selected to the All-NFL Europa team for his contributions for the Rhein Fire, the same club previously coached by 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who served as the Fire’s head man in 2006 prior to joining the 49ers in 2007.

To this day, Costanzo is very proud of his time in the now defunct league. On the flight to Detroit last week, he donned a throwback hat, a Rhein Fire fitted cap. Costanzo also keeps in touch with the league’s former NFL Eurpoa members, most notably Fred Jackson of the Buffalo Bills, a former teammate of his, who is enjoying a breakout season.

Throughout Costanzo’s time playing football overseas, the goal of making it to the NFL was never far from his mind.

“Whatever you have to do to get to where you’re at now, you have to keep working, keep working to get where you want to go,” Costanzo explained. “I wasn’t going to give up. I was going to keep working to get to that goal.”

In 2007, Costanzo made his NFL debut with the Bills. He played in 19 games over two seasons with Jackson as a teammate, while quickly showcasing his fearless play to many respected NFL talent evaluators.

In 2009, Brad Seely, the 49ers current special teams coordinator and assistant head coach, began working with the unheralded linebacker on the special teams units of the Cleveland Browns. Costanzo felt working with Seely was the perfect match for him based on their diverse personalities.

“I messed around with Brad, but he was awesome,” Costanzo said. “He’s the serious guy and I’m more of the ‘joke around, keep it kind of loose, kind of dude.’ But he’s taught me a lot about football, reading things, and the more years you get in, the more experience you can draw from. It’s a pleasure working with Brad… he knows all.”

After working with Seely for just one season, SI.com named Costanzo as its All-Pro special teams player for the 2009 season.

They spent 2010 together in Cleveland, too, before reconnecting this past offseason through a series of text messages.
 
“I remember talking to Brad when the lockout was over,” Costanzo recalled. “I think SF ranked 31st in special teams, so I texted him, ‘Let’s change this. I want to be No. 1. When I go somewhere, I want to be part of the No. 1 special teams unit in the NFL.’

“And, obviously, he had that same sentiment. So I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ That’s been our goal from the start, switch the whole thing around.”

Costanzo was signed to the roster a week into training camp and has asserted himself as a key contributor on special teams. Whether it’s his fiery on-field demeanor, or easy-going attitude away from the action, players seem to gravitate to him.

C.J. Spillman, another main contributor to the 49ers’ special teams success, has enjoyed getting to know Costanzo in a short amount of time. It’s mostly because the two banter back and forth on the field or when playing cards to pass time on cross-country road trips.

“I respect his journey because I went through the same kind of things,” Spillman said. “We’re in the same boat.”

Likewise, Costanzo has enjoyed getting spending time with his new teammates. Though, he won’t miss them as much this week with the team heading into a bye week, he’s glad to have built strong bonds so fast.

“We have awesome guys to play with,” Costanzo said. “You know all those guys have your back. We roll together and that’s helped us be successful.”

So far, the 49ers special teams have done tremendously in covering opposing punt and kick returners, largely due to the effort from Costanzo and company. Opponents have averaged 21.3 yards on kickoffs and 9.6 yards on punt returns, respectively.

But not to be forgotten, their work on return teams has been vital as well.

Ted Ginn Jr.’s two touchdown returns in the opening game come to mind when thinking about the return game’s impact in a 5-1 start to the season. Same goes for last week in Detroit, when Ginn returned a punt 40 yards to set up the 49ers’ game-deciding touchdown in the fourth quarter. For the year, Ginn has averaged 13.7 yards per punt return and 31.8 yards per kick return.

“We just want to help our offense get good field position and we all want to help block for Ted,” Costanzo said. “We don’t care if we get the notice, because we all notice each other and that’s pretty unique.”

It’s hard not to notice Costanzo around 49ers headquarters.

For one, he’s usually wearing bright socks. The basketball fanatic only wears NBA socks with some of the most unique color combinations known to man.

More than a fashion statement, it speaks to who Costanzo is under the helmet, the same one he uses to bash his way through opponents.

“I just like to wear what’s comfortable… I like being a little different. Everyone’s so concerned about what they look like,” Costanzo said. “I just go for the comfort level in things.”

The same can be said for the linebacker’s lunch break routine. While many of his teammates conduct interviews, seek medical treatment, or hang out in the team café or player’s lounge, Costanzo is outside enjoying the great outdoors.

Well, to be perfectly honest, Costanzo can often be found lying face-down on the grass outside the team’s media tent. There, he might make a phone call to friends back home, but mostly Costanzo uses it for relaxation.

“I don’t think there’s anything better than trying to take a little nap on some grass underneath a tree – that’s old school,” he explained. “I used to do that in my grandmother’s backyard. It gets you away from football a little bit.”

With the bye week in full swing and the players off for a six-day stretch, Costanzo will be back home to see his grandma soon enough. He’ll spend a few days on the East Coast with her, before heading back to prepare for his former teammates on the Cleveland Browns, who are the 49ers’ Week 8 opponent at Candlestick Park.

At that time, Costanzo will be able to appreciate the struggle, effort, and time it took to get to where he’s at today.

“It was my dream from ever since I was a little kid to play in the NFL, and I just love the game of football. I’ve been blessed to get opportunities to play for some awesome teams. I take it one day at a time, and I think that’s what helps me keep that edge. I think special teams are that way, too. A lot of guys in their careers play special teams primarily, never knowing when your last play will be or if a team wants you or not. I think that helps you keep that edge throughout your career, just to play every play like it’s your last one.”

If Costanzo keeps up his work ethic, and blue-collar mentality, that career will extend for quite some time.

“I embrace my role. It’s been a tough road to get to where I’m at and for a lot of guys in my position. The only way you can get there is through hard work and being selfless. I embrace it. I love it and I think a lot of guys have bought into it. That’s why we’re having the success we’ve had.”