It didn’t seem like much at the time to the casual observer, but to those in the know, it was a genuine gesture from the heart offered by Jim Harbaugh.
When the San Francisco 49ers hit the Superdome field for Super Bowl XLVII, the head coach insisted that inactive players on the 53-man roster dress for warmups.
“That was awesome,” said Tolzien, a second-year player who was active for three times in the regular season as San Francisco’s third-string quarterback. “That’s the game you dream about as a kid playing so to be out there in uniform, might not have looked like a big deal to a lot of people, but for us, it was. It was a big deal and we really appreciate that.”
The group found out about their inclusion in pregame warmups a week prior to kick-off. To them, it meant the world that the head coach would insist they be a part of the experience.
“That was kind of like my Super Bowl right there,” said Williams, an undrafted 6-foot-1, 305 nose tackle who played in three regular season games, totaling three tackles in his second season.
“To be out there dressed up and to be able to hop around, break a little sweat, it kind of felt like I was getting ready for the game.”
Williams felt like the gesture from the 49ers coach was appreciated by the entire team, especially the young guys who were able to soak up the experience of a lifetime.
“It meant a lot to me,” Williams said. “It showed that he does really think about the guys on the team and the guys who don’t play as much. For him to give us the opportunity, I’m grateful for it.”
Harbaugh considers his young players on the 53-man roster and practice squad to be “future starters on future championship teams.” In his two seasons in San Francisco, Harbaugh has brought practice squad players on every road trip to help them prepare for future opportunities.
In Tolzien’s mind, allowing the inactive players on the 53-man roster to participate in warmups was a shining light as to how the 49ers coach treats every player on the team.
“More than anything else,” Tolzien began, “he cares about our improvement. Ultimately, he just wants all of us to reach our potential and to work as hard as we can. That was a perfect example of that, letting us dress on Super Bowl Sunday.”
The 49ers coach certainly had a lot going on his mind last week in New Orleans. A battle against his brother John comes to mind, yet Jim Harbaugh made sure his players were not an afterthought.
“It’s the Super Bowl and there’s bigger fish to fry than who’s dressing for warm-ups,” Tolzien said. “But for him to consider that and push for that, that was really nice of him to do that.”
Johnson, a seventh-round draft pick, spent the first 15 weeks of the regular season on the practice squad. The 6-foot-3, 268-pound outside linebacker is arguably the best evidence of San Francisco developing young players through experience. Johnson was active for the final two regular season games and was active for the team’s Divisional Playoff win over the Green Bay Packers.
Johnson felt like he grew a great deal as a professional from everything he was exposed to while traveling with the team during the season.
“It’s great because you get to build your routines, the things you do before the games,” Johnson said. “When it’s your time to play, you don’t have to start over. You don’t have to start fresh. It gives you a foundation of what you want to do, where your goals are set before game starts.”
For Hampton, the road to Super Bowl XLVII was challenging to say the least. The undrafted running back spent the first 12 weeks of the regular season on the reserve/non-injury football list. Hampton was promoted to the active roster in late November, but was not active for any regular season or postseason games.
The 5-foot-9, 210-pound running back’s only time in a 49ers uniform for fans to observe was at the Super Bowl.
“It was a great experience,” Hampton said. “I have to thank Coach very much for that. It’s not every day, being a rookie that you get to enjoy the experience of the Super Bowl, just to be out there with the guys suited up, it was a dream come true.”
Hampton, like many of his young teammates, is eager to build of their Super Bowl experience. With a full offseason ahead of them to take advantage of, the up-and-coming talent on the 49ers roster looks to make the most of their offseason.
“It all comes down to experience,” Hampton said. “Being a young guy and being able to experience things like traveling with the team, it’s all set up for the following years. You’ll know what to expect and you’ll know how to do your job even better.
“I’ve been preparing my whole life to play in the NFL,” Hampton added. “That’s what I’m going to do, continue to work hard and excel. Everyone can get better and that’s what I want to do.”
The same goes for Tolzien.
“The next move is to keep on keeping on,” the 49ers quarterback explained. “Keep on working because every day counts. I haven’t really established myself in this league yet so it’s a work in progress. You have to continue moving forward each day.”
Johnson said he’ll keep in contact with San Francisco’s coaching and strength staffs to figure out the best way he can improve this offseason. Johnson will head back to Maryland to spend time with friends and family, but plans on coming right back to work when the offseason program picks up.
Until that time comes, Johnson will reflect on a remarkable rookie season. And, he’ll think about Harbaugh’s gesture.
“He’s a great coach, a great guy and a great motivator,” the rookie linebacker said. “We’re just lucky to have him lead our team and it was an awesome experience.”