This story will be featured in the gameday magazine for the 49ers Week 5 home game against the Arizona Cardinals. DeForest Buckner wanted to share a special story about finding love and how it has changed his life.
DeForest Buckner knew he was going to be emotional. The water works, however, were unexpected. Right when Buckner saw Ashlyn take her first step down the aisle, it was as if he were cutting onions while simultaneously watching "The Notebook" for the first time.
"I knew I was going to cry because I'm soft with that kind of stuff, but it was pretty bad," Buckner admitted.
There was no preparing for this moment. There was no practice, no game film, no nothing. No amount of advice from friends and family could have adequately qualified the magnitude of what was about to happen on that alter in Honolulu.
Buckner has dedicated his life to pursuing his football dreams, but this was so much bigger. NFL careers can be fleeting. This promise signified a lifetime contract with his better half. And in that moment, as Ashlyn made her way towards him, Buckner counted his blessings, knowing just how close this was to never happening at all. Which is why the thrill of being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers went well beyond what it meant for his football career.
The two met during the summer of 2015 before their respective senior years at Oregon. Buckner's friend Shane, who was on Oregon's cheer team with Ashlyn, introduced the two. Buckner, Shane, Ashlyn and a few others gathered at Rennie's, a popular hangout spot for students. The two hit it off immediately but agreed that caution was the best approach. Both faced uncertain futures as their college careers neared the finish line. The burden of "what the heck comes next" took priority over dating.
But their chemistry was undeniable, and their friendship naturally evolved into a relationship. Things came to a crossroad as Buckner prepared for the NFL Draft. Buckner, a projected top 10 pick, had potential suitors that spanned the country. The problem was any future with Ashlyn was in jeopardy if he wasn't able to remain near the West Coast.
"She wasn't going to move her whole life just for me," Buckner said pragmatically. "We were still newly dating."
The 49ers, who owned the No. 7 pick, were in the market for a defensive lineman. The Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars picked ahead of San Francisco and were other potential destinations. Ashlyn, a Fresno, Calif., native, had told Buckner in so many words that getting drafted east of Texas would mean the end of their relationship.
So when San Francisco drafted Buckner with the seventh-overall pick, the excitement of making it to the NFL and joining the 49ers was quickly followed by the elation of "thank God I get to keep my girlfriend."
Call it fate. Call it good fortune. Whatever the case, Buckner and Ashlyn made the most of the opportunity life afforded them. Ashlyn had already planned to look for sales jobs in the Bay Area. They moved in together in San Jose shortly after the draft.
As their relationship continued to grow, Buckner did his best to teach Ashlyn more about the nuances of football. She's been a quick study. Ashlyn has gone from being more or less football illiterate to being able to call Buckner out on his mistakes. She'll even peek over his shoulder when he's watching film at home.
"She'll say things like, 'You need to beat your 1-on-1,' or, 'You took a false step there.' And she'll be right. It's impressive. She motivates me in everything that I do."
Fast-forward to the summer of 2016 prior to Buckner's rookie season and the 49ers defensive lineman had marriage on his mind. A trip to Buckner's hometown on Oahu affirmed those feelings.
He introduced Ashlyn to his extended family, and, unsurprisingly, she fit right in.
"It was just the way she was interacting with my family – the way she was around all the kids," Buckner said. "Everyone in my family told me she was awesome. When we got back from that trip, I said to myself, 'I'm going to marry this girl.'"
Buckner would go on to buy the perfect ring shortly after a second trip to Buckner's hometown in July of 2017. He kept it in the safe inside his locker at Levi's® Stadium for more than three months, patiently waiting for the team's bye week to arrive. Buckner would check on it a few times a week just to make sure it hadn't grown legs and walked away.
He planned a mid-November trip to Napa that Ashlyn assumed was just a weekend getaway. They woke up early on that Saturday morning for a sunrise hot air balloon ride. Up next was a decadent tasting at Andretti Winery.
They tried a full menu of fine wine before taking a stroll through the vineyards. This was Buckner's moment.
"My heart was pumping fast," he said. "We'd lived together for a year-and-a-half at that point. We'd known each other for two years. I thought I was going to be OK when that moment came. I knew exactly what I wanted to say."
Buckner found the perfect spot to stop Ashlyn and begin his spiel. Corralling Ashlyn's attention was a bit of a challenge, though. An annoying bumblebee swirled around them and kept interrupting Buckner. She had no inkling of what was about to happen.
"As I'm trying to pour my heart out to her, she was all distracted," Buckner laughed as he recalled his anxiety in the moment. "I was like 'Ashlyn. Ashlyn. Look at me.' When I got on a knee it hit her. She was shocked. I pulled the ring out and she started crying."
The moment went just as Buckner had imagined in his head. But after the initial shock and excitement subsided a bit, Ashlyn told Buckner that there was one thing missing.
"The only thing that would make this day even better would be if my family was here," she told him.
Buckner is unsure of whether or not he kept a poker face, but he was grinning on the inside knowing what was coming next.
"I started walking her to this villa where I had lunch set up," he said. "Her parents, her brother and her sister were waiting for us. That was the cherry on top. It was a great day."
The next 8.5 months were spent planning their July wedding. They decided to have it in Hawaii – they'd get married in a church and then have the reception on the beach.
Planning an event for 250 guests was no easy task. The stress of making preparations was topped only by the pressure of making sure everyone arrived to Honolulu safely and was having a good time. But, as has become the theme of their relationship, everything worked out and went off without a hitch.
"It turned out gorgeous," Buckner said. "There was no better feeling than hearing her say it was the best day of her life and that it was her dream wedding. It all turned out perfect.
"All of the stress going into it was all worth it. It was the perfect day to get married in front of our families. From start to finish, it went how we wanted it to go."
It's crazy to think about how lucky Buckner was to be drafted by San Francisco. The adventures, the random dance parties, the perfect proposal, the dream wedding, their dog Kimo – none of that would have come to be had he gone elsewhere.
"At the end of the day, I would have been excited no matter which team took me. But I'm certainly not arguing with how things played out," Buckner said smiling.