A collection of stories that helped shape the life of Joe Staley, the San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl left tackle.
Jan Staley did her best to console her son.
“I’m sorry, honey,” she told Joe. “It will be OK.”
A move from tee ball to live pitching had Joe questioning his prospects of becoming a professional baseball player. It wasn’t quite the soul-searching impasse usually reserved for college graduates bracing for the real world, but don’t tell that to 6-year-old Joe Staley. The future decade-long left tackle for the San Francisco 49ers and five-time Pro Bowler wrestled these demons nonetheless.
Live pitching is a bit of a misnomer. Rather, coaches fed a jugs machine, tuned to loft perfect pitches down the middle of the plate. That way, kids gained experience hitting a moving baseball without the fear of being plunked by an erratic kindergartner.
But for the little leaguer from Rockford, Mich., it might as well have been Nolan Ryan hurling 100 MPH heat.
Joe struck out four times against his mechanical nemesis. To say he swung and missed would be kind – “floundering” was the word Jan used. For an ever-confident, exuberant kid like Joe, navigating through his first encounter with self-doubt was no small undertaking.
“He was so used to being able to handle himself, but now he was striking out all the time,” Jan said.
Jan could feel her son’s dejection from the stands. Joe’s head hung lower on each trip back to the dugout. To his credit, Joe kept things (mostly) together until the game concluded. With his hat concealing his eyes, Joe sulked across the parking lot and dragged himself into the passenger seat of the family’s maroon Dodge Caravan.
Then he unraveled.
Joe cried for 5-10 minutes, picking up the pieces of his shattered childhood dreams. Meanwhile, his younger sisters played in the back seat, completely oblivious to their brother’s strife.
And then the switch flipped. Joe figured it out. Contrary to previous belief, things were going to turn out all right, and his baseball career wasn’t hopeless after all.
“You know what mom, it’s gonna be OK,” he said calmly. “I’ll just be one of the lesser known people.”
Make no mistake, Joe still planned on being a professional ball player. But a 6-year-old who struck out too much had to keep his expectations in check.
“He just wasn’t going to be one of the more popular ones,” Jan said, fighting through her own laughter while retelling the story. “And then he just quit crying, that was it. He had it all figured it out in his head.”
The pragmatic solution was indicative of Joe’s personality. There wasn’t a second to be wasted on anything other than having fun and enjoying life.
“He was a dad’s dream,” said Butch Staley, Joe’s father. “He was just a fun, always upbeat, just wanting to have fun little kid – always active, up for sports, up for games, anything. I’ve been blessed to be his father. I couldn’t have asked for a better son.”
Joe wasn’t one to push limits and find trouble. Because getting in trouble meant not being able to play. And not being able to play meant not being able to have fun.
Sound logic. However, exceptions could always be made.
“Fun trumped trouble,” Jan said.
And when Joe got caught between the two, he’d lean on his sense of humor. He’s always had the innate ability to make people laugh, and he knew it.
“That was my get out of jail card,” Joe smiled.
Like the time when Joe started a “tiny little food fight” at dinner when he was 13-years old. Jan, Joe, his best friend Kyle Wallace and his two sisters sat around the dining room table for taco night. Without warning, Joe sent a piece of corn flying across the table. Everyone else, Jan included, returned fire.
“In your head, you think you can shut it down whenever you need to,” Jan said, understanding her naivety now years later.
Within minutes, the harmless fun (predictably) escalated into a full-fledged food fight. Jan tried to put the kibosh on the ill-mannered horseplay before being struck by another wayward piece of corn.
Sensing his mother’s laughter was inching closer to anger, Joe kicked in the charm.
“I could do something that I knew I was getting in trouble for,” Joe explained, “but I’d be like, ‘Aw, mom, are you really upset?’ I’d get her to laugh and tell her, 'You’re laughing, you’re not that upset.’”
Jan, annoyed with herself for unintentionally endorsing the situation, always had a hard time staying upset with Joe.
“He’s pretty charming. I didn’t stand a chance,” she admitted. “He’s got a way of turning things around so you can’t be mad at him.”
But Joe wasn’t the only crowd-pleaser in the family. Butch taught him everything he knows.
“He’s not as funny as I am,” Butch said. “I know that. Print that.”
“OK I’ve got a funny one,” Butch said over the phone as one of his favorite stories popped into his head. “Joe will kill me for telling it, but that’s OK.”
Butch, a mailman for 31 years, attended a career day at Rockford Middle School while Joe was in eighth grade. After serving as a guest speaker to a few classes, he spotted Joe in one of the school’s hallways.
Keep in mind, nobody’s most glamorous moments came during the eighth grade, and Joe openly admits he had a “prolonged awkward stage.”
So Butch sees Joe – sporting braces, glasses and his finest puka shell necklace – talking with Kyle and two girls. It turns out one of them was the most popular girl in school that Joe had finally worked up the courage to approach.
The father and son made eye contact from afar. Joe immediately looked away, silently praying that his dad would spare him sure embarrassment.
No such luck.
Butch approached the group in his typical outgoing fashion and introduced himself.
“Hey, I’m Joe’s dad, who are you?” he asked before having some fun with Joe. “Great to see you son. It’s your dad. Don’t you want to say hi to your dad?”
It didn’t take long for Butch to realize his presence was unwelcome.
“I could see him shaking his head, going, ‘Oh my goodness, what are you doing?’” Butch said.
Joe, mortified at this point, couldn’t believe the scene unfolding before him.
“Why, of all days, is this the day you decide to do this?” he commiserated to himself.
The best part of the story was that Butch had no idea of the social fallout for his teenage son. Joe came home that night heated that his father would have the audacity to embarrass him amid such exclusive company.
“Butch had no idea why his eighth-grade son wouldn’t want to see him,” Jan said.
Joe cut his losses and never approached his middle school crush again.
“That was my one shot. I don’t think she was interested,” Joe said, laughing at the situation. “It was just cool for me to talk to her. That was it.”
The awkward stage, including a phase with bleached blonde hair the summer going into ninth grade, carried into Joe’s time at Rockford High School. Thankfully, his “gangly,” 6-foot-4 frame served him well athletically.
Joe turned to track and field after being a surprise cut from the baseball team his junior year. He’d always been fast, but he didn’t initially consider track to be anything more than an avenue for football conditioning.
But then Joe won. A lot. He proceeded to bring home three first-place medals at his first meet.
“He’d look like a giraffe when he was running,” Jan said. “It took him a while to get his legs going. It was just cute.”
Joe didn’t argue with his mom’s evaluation of his less-than-elegant running form. The Pro Bowl left tackle jerked his head back and forth to reenact his unorthodox movement off of the blocks.
“Like I said, a prolonged awkward stage for me,” he said.
Awkward? Yes. Effective? Absolutely. Style points don’t matter when you cross the finish line first, and nobody could keep up with Joe’s giraffe-length strides. He excelled in the 4x200-meter relay and the 4x100-meter relay, but his best event was the 200-meter individual. Joe would bring up the rear heading into the last turn, only to blow past his combatants in the final stretch.
“Once I hit my stride, I would catch everybody,” Joe said.
Jan and Butch never pushed sports on Joe. They weren’t necessarily “sports people” themselves, and wanted their son to know that their love didn’t hinge on athletic achievement. But there was no question that Joe had natural ability.
He (finally) emerged from his awkward stage in his senior year. A growth spurt mixed with a summer of hard work sculpted Joe’s 6-foot-4, 170-pound lanky frame into a 6-foot-5, 205-pound potential Division I athlete.
Joe continued to develop as a top-flight tight end at the prep level. He caught 24 passes for 559 yards and seven touchdowns in his senior season and was named to the Grand Rapids Press Dream Team.
But Joe was still a late bloomer in regards to the recruiting process and received only one scholarship offer: A chance to play for the Central Michigan Chippewas. He signed the offer letter and was off to Pleasant, Mich.
“I give Joe a lot of credit for staying with his dream, putting in the work, loving it and doing it,” Butch said.
The college tight end was accustomed to playing without fanfare, but he still couldn’t have predicted the curveball following his freshman season. Joe caught only 11 passes for 130 yards and one touchdown during his first year at CMU in which the Chippewas posted a subpar 3-9 record.
Enter Brian Kelly, an up-and-coming head coach brought in from Grand Valley State University to help turn things around at CMU.
Joe initially hoped that Kelly would move him to slot receiver. As you can probably guess, that was never in the cards. His new coach told Joe that he was in need of an athletic left tackle and that he would never touch the ball again.
Kelly followed with a call to Butch to break the news. Neither were thrilled, but Joe opted to make the move and give it a shot.
The drastic position change didn’t start smoothly. Joe, who’d never been injured in his career, tore up his pinky finger just a week into spring practices. The damage required surgery and several pins to be put in place.
Joe wasn’t deterred. He'd grown an appreciation for the blue-collar nature of being a left tackle.
“I was made for this. I love being a lineman,” Joe told his father at the time. “I’m going to embrace this and do the work.”
Butch calls that moment the turning point for Joe and the springboard that led to his NFL stardom. If there was ever a moment that exemplified his son’s character, that was it.
“You are confronted with something, and you don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” the father explained. “You go through the door, you don’t look back and you make it happen. That’s Joe.”
Joe starred at CMU for the next three seasons and earned All-Mid American Conference honors. His rare combination of size, speed and agility at the position made him a top draft prospect.
The 49ers selected Joe with the 28th-overall pick in 2007, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Carrie Dew arrived in the Bay Area two years later. FC Gold Pride took Notre Dame’s star center back 12th-overall in the 2009 Women’s Professional Soccer draft.
Three months later, San Francisco landed Michael Crabtree in the first round of the NFL draft. The team’s player engagement department asked Joe and several other 49ers players to take Crabtree out to dinner upon his arrival. Joe, as well as fellow offensive lineman and his roommate at the time Joe Toledo, were both in town and agreed to attend.
The group went out to Maggiano’s in Santana Row to welcome the team’s newest wide receiver to the club. As fate had it, Carrie and her teammates also had the appetite for Italian food following one of their matches.
Toledo was the one that spotted Carrie at a nearby table. The two went to the same high school in San Diego, and Toledo happened to be friends with Carrie’s sister. Joe capitalized on the opportunity and introduced himself.
After a year of being friends – including Joe’s attendance at a number of Carrie’s soccer games – they started dating in 2010. Two years later, Joe found himself in Lake Tahoe with a small box burning a hole in his pocket.
He’d planned the perfect evening. The night would begin with a boat ride across the lake to a romantic dinner. Following the meal, the same boat would escort them to a dock for dessert, complete with wine, candles and a storybook sunset.
“He really outdid himself,” Carrie said. “He pulled out all the stops.”
Everything was in place, but anxiety still took over, knowing how the night would conclude.
“I was so nervous,” Joe said. “I ate my whole meal – steak, potatoes and everything – in probably four minutes.”
With a clean plate in front of him, Joe could feel himself counting the seconds until Carrie was done with her food as well. The sunset, after all, waits for no one.
A photographer awaited their arrival at the dock in order to capture the moment. He did his best to remain concealed behind the dock at Joe’s request. When the boat pulled up, Joe spotted him immediately.
“The first thing I see is this dude hiding in the woods with a camera,” Joe recalled.
And if Joe could see the photographer, that meant Carrie could have seen him as well – at least that was the panicked rationale going through Joe’s head. Instinct kicked in, and he jumped in front of Carrie, deliberately ushering her onto the dock in order to shield her view.
In reality, there was nothing to worry about. His soon-to-be fiancé’s eyes were too transfixed on the spread before her.
The sun began to set as they cracked open the bottle of red wine and dove into the chocolate cake. Mission accomplished.
“Out of nowhere he popped the question,” Carrie said. “I was totally shocked. It was really impressive.”
The elegant speech Joe prepared went out the window. He’s still not sure exactly what rambled out of his mouth, but he nailed the four most important words. That snapshot, with his bride-to-be on a dock in Tahoe, is still one of the most perfect moments in Joe’s life – but not the best.
That would come on May 1, 2014 – the day Joe and Carrie welcomed the birth of their first child.
Grace Staley is nothing if not patient – an impressive quality for a 2-year-old girl. Especially during training camp, she'll wait days at a time before she gets to see daddy.
“Daddy’s home?” she asks Carrie each morning, who has to be the bearer of bad news.
It’s no easier for Joe. He explained how the birth of his daughter is unquestionably the best day of his life.
“Every great emotion you’ve ever had in your life,” Joe paused to make sure he accurately described the magnitude of seeing Grace for the first time, “what you felt in those moments, put all of that into one single second.
“It was the coolest thing in the world. You don’t fully understand love until you have a child of your own.”
So when Joe is stuck in the team hotel each August, it takes its toll. But that’s part of it. He does his best to balance work and family, knowing that his dedication on the football field is for the benefit of those he loves.
“I want to put everything I have into my job and trying to be the best I can be,” Joe said. “If that means my schedule is longer, then that’s what it is.
“But in the offseason, I’m not really doing anything. I’ll work out for two or three hours, and then I’ll come home and it’s family time, all the time.”
And nobody takes family time more seriously than Joe.
“Gracie!” he calls out when he walks in the house.
Grace comes sprinting wildly like she’d just washed down a bag of candy with a 2-liter of Mountain Dew.
Joe’s favorite part of coming home is the evolution of Grace’s welcome. When she was a baby, she’d smile and crawl to daddy. Next was the full-speed sprint and leap into Joe’s arms. Now, it’s all about playtime, and it begins with a game of show and tell.
“Whatever the nearest thing is, that’s what she wants to show me. There will be a package of Goldfish sitting there. ‘Daddy want to see the cracker? Want to see this? Huh, dad?’” Joe said, emulating his daughter’s excitement level.
The apple certainly didn’t fall far from the tree. Both Jan and Butch recognized that Grace’s zest for playing and having fun reminds them of their son. They admire how hands-on Joe is as a father. That’s because Joe hasn’t changed all that much. He’s still a kid – albeit, a big, 6-foot-5, 315-pound kid.
They go to the park. They run around the house. They play pretend. No activity is off limits with Joe and Grace.
“Anything she wants to do, I’m all about it,” he said.
Joe is also an avid singer. From top-40 jams to children’s songs, his range has no limits. Joe’s specialty is to take a tune from Grace’s music class – such as the catchy “Oh My, No More Pie” track – and sing it with the elegance and precision like he’s performing a ballad in front of a packed house at Carnegie Hall.
Bedtime stories are also a staple in the Staley household, and Joe always brings his “A” game.
Grace not only gets to pick which book daddy reads, but she also gets to choose his pace and delivery. Sometimes she wants Joe to use a silly voice. Other times Grace has daddy read in his deepest voice. Lately, Joe has been racing through “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” as fast as he can.
“She thinks that’s pretty hilarious,” Carrie said. “He’s over the top. I can’t compare with his storytelling.”
Joe never comes home too exhausted to be the dad that Grace adores. Not even after the most grueling days in the office as one of the NFL’s premier left tackles.
“He gives all his attention and energy to Grace,” Carrie said. “She loves him. She’s obsessed with him. No one can make her giggle like her daddy can.”
Added Jan: “It warms your heart. It makes you feel like you did your job well as a parent.”
And Butch: “I’m proud of the man he is.”
Maybe the best part of it all is that Joe doesn’t think twice about it. There is no decision made to be a loving husband and a superhero dad. That's just Joe being Joe. What other option is there?
Because a life full of fun is far more about whom you’re enjoying it with.
“Be close to the people that you choose to be close with, and give them all you’ve got,” Joe said.
Photos and videos courtesy of the Staley Family
Written by Joe Fann
Produced by Rusty Parker
© 2016 Forty Niners Football Company LLC