Tony Wragge's been battling his whole professional football career, but never in seven NFL training camps has he been in a position to fight for a starting role.
The 49ers expect David Baas to return from his pectoral injury as the starting right guard, but in the meantime, the job is Wragge's.
"I think Dave is a great player," said Wragge. "The healthier he gets, that just improves our team, but when the 49ers asked me to step in, I'm there to do a job. I'm going to try to do that to the best of my abilities."
Working with the first unit has been Wragge's responsibility ever since the early May mini-camp, and Wragge believes it's only strengthened him as a player.
"It's so vital to get the reps with the first teamers. It's such a jump. It's elevated and when you get a chance to work with those guys day in and day out, that's when things start clicking. They make me a better player and I hope I am making them be better players too. The longer I spend next to Jonas, the better I get. It's the same thing with Heitmann. Getting to play with these guys is humbling, and it makes me want to do my job even better."
Some camp observers feel that second-round draft pick Chilo Rachal will usurp Wragge, a former undrafted free agent by camp's end, but they might give pause before they count the veteran journeyman out.
"I've been labeled an underdog my whole life, my whole career, and I've surprised a lot of people," said Wragge. "I've been through a lot. A lot of hard, tough times and I haven't quit yet."
Because as his favorite motto goes, "Tough times don't last,but tough people do."
Wragge has experienced a trying road in order to continue his pursuit of the game, but by toughing it out, he's still standing.
He spent his first two seasons in Arizona, primarily on the Cardinals practice squad. Following the 2004 training camp, he found himself out of the NFL and desperately missing football. He opted to sign on with arena football's Los Angeles Avengers during the 2005 season, and shortly after finishing his season there, Wragge latched on with San Francisco, reuniting with two of his former Cardinals offensive line coaches in George Warhop and Pete Hoener.
Wragge survived the final round of cuts in San Francisco, only to be released a day later when the 49ers picked up fullback Chris Hetherington. He may have had the proverbial rug pulled from underneath his feet with that news, but he didn't allow it to knock him down.
He told the 49ers he'd love to return if they ever needed him, and he returned to Arizona where he worked as a sales counselor at LA Fitness for a short time before deciding he needed to do something more physical. Wragge turned to Home Depot, working in the floor department for five weeks before the 49ers came a calling.
Wragge spent the last five games of the 2005 season on the inactive list, was sent to NFL Europe by the 49ers that spring and has been retained ever since in a backup role.
Given all he's been through and the not so sturdy nature of the NFL, Wragge isn't one to look too far ahead. In fact, he's predisposed quite nicely for head coach Mike Nolan's one at a time theme.
"I'm always looking to progress and I measure myself every single day," said Wragge. "I'll ask myself 'Am I getting better? Have I eliminated mistakes?' I know when I have done bad, I know when I've done well and I constantly strive to do better."
Wragge, who said he likes to keep it real with himself, has a mental list of specific things he's pleased with, and ones he's not so happy over.
On the plus side, Wragge owns more confidence in his reach blocking and his ability to shift his weight better and slide out in pass blocking to defend against the 49ers 3-4 defensive scheme.
On the work in progress list, "I still need to be quicker with my hands, and I think I still could be better with my plays," he said. "This game is like a chessboard. You are only as good as the moves you know you can do ahead of time. When you think you know it all, that's when you get in trouble because you never know it all."
He does however give credit to one man who just might be close to knowing it all, and that's his offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
"I just have to compliment Mike because the guy has an answer, a legitimate answer for every single question you could think to ask," said Wragge. "He is concise about how we are going to handle the problems in front of us and how we are going to execute."
As intricate as Martz' offense is known for being, Wragge believes it's just the opposite when it comes to the assignments for the offensive line.
"I'm no expert, but it's simplistic to me," said Wragge. "They are asking us to line up and play, and not worry about anything else. We just worry about what is in front of us with our rules and go from there. It's either this or that, and there's no gray."
As for the rookie Rachal hot on his heels, there's no uncertainty there for Wragge either.
"I think healthy competition is good," said Wragge. "It only makes you better. I have been competing for a job my whole career and it's only made me better. We want to be the most productive line that we can be and that takes all of us striving to play at our best."
Not that he's one to need extra motivation, but Wragge does have added incentive to be the starter at guard when the 49ers open the season against his former Arizona Cardinals squad.
"I know we beat Arizona twice last year, but the first game I wasn't even suited up," said Wragge. "The second game I was suited up, but out of the 47 guys who suited up, 46 of them got to play and I didn't. I was pumped that our team beat them twice last year, but I can't really take credit for that. I played them both times in '06 and we lost to them. So, it would be pretty sweet to beat those guys. They are very competitive, they are in our division and it'd be a big deal for me to get to play in that game."