On any given gameday, fans and TV cameras focus intently on the sidelines, watching for coaches to orchestrate plays and game strategies. However, amid the national attention is a group of sports business professionals who work diligently behind the scenes, ensuring that players' success extends far beyond the gridiron.
The San Francisco 49ers player engagement department, led by director Austin Moss II, works to help support the every need of players. They are the coaches of financial literacy, networking prowess, wellness management, nutritional awareness and helping athletes become the best versions of themselves in every aspect of their lives. While touchdowns and tackles dominate the headlines, the player engagement team operates with a different kind of playbook – one that emphasizes education, empowerment and engagement, the foundation in which the players' holistic well-being is nurtured.
"I help our young men become professionals faster than they would on their own and outline strategies to help them accomplish their goals on and off the field," Moss II said. "I'm extremely grateful to have a talented staff that effectively supports the needs of our players and families. In addition to executing impactful programs, staff members, Shelby Soltau, Morgan Hersh, Dr. Joe Mattox and Pastor Earl Smith all provide important contributions that help us create a winning culture and standard of excellence.
"It's such a privilege and a great opportunity for these guys to play at this platform and level... They get the opportunity to be a role model, inspire kids and bring joy to others because of their God-given talent. I think it's really important to help them understand that football is what they do, but it's not who they are."
Linebacker Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles was introduced to the player engagement department when he joined the 49ers in 2019 as an undrafted free agent. Moss II was one of the very first people he met after entering the NFL.
"He let us know that he's the guy to go to if we needed any help, regardless of if it was on or off the field, he was that guy," Flannigan-Fowles said. "To this day, any time I have any sort of question or need to talk about something, I go to him. He's a Swiss Army knife."
Moss II and his department understand that being successful in the NFL means mastering more than the game of football. The 49ers player engagement team equip their athletes with the tools to help navigate the challenges and opportunities that life presents beyond the field, empowering players to not only excel in their athletic careers but also to pursue their ambitions beyond football.
"We've got future Hall of Famers here like Trent Williams, Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle, some really talented players," Moss II said. "They can consume themselves with this. But, if you think about how even greater their legacy can be when they have an impact as a husband, as a role model, as a teacher, whatever that may be, they have the opportunity to really leverage their experience in the league. So that's what I try to encourage guys to do."
In the competitive world of professional sports, it's easy to become engrossed by the demands of the game. The 49ers player engagement team helps provide players with unique opportunities to give back to their community, nurture their passions beyond football and bond with their teammates. Over this past offseason, players have attended resume workshops, participated in social justice community events and pursued their interests in music, fashion, Esports and more.
"I've come into my own as a person," Flannigan-Fowles said looking back on his four years with the player engagement department. "They've helped me out a lot. Just by sitting in their room you can learn a lot. I love picking everyone's brains because, honestly, I want to be in player engagement after I'm done playing, it's something that came organically to me. I'm always in their room trying to learn and be a fly on the wall because they've helped me grow as a person and I'd want to do the same for others."
Whether it's pursuing higher education, engaging in artistic endeavors or immersing themselves in philanthropy, the department actively encourages 49ers players to maximize their experience during and beyond their time in the NFL.
These opportunities also allow players to bond with their teammates. Interactions that spark from off the field events help break down barriers, encourage open communication and create an atmosphere of trust that translates into better teamwork on the field.
"Typically, the teams that are the most successful are the closest in terms of just relationships and brotherhood," Moss II said. "I try to create opportunities for guys to spend time with each other outside of the work environment. That's when you can get to know each other and have some shared experiences.
"In this game, you've got to be able to trust that your teammate next to you is going to do his job just as much as they're trusting you to do yours. In order to build that trust, you've got to spend time talking and communicating... Close bonds are created from something as simple as a conversation and finding shared interests."
For the 49ers, the trust that's built in the locker room extends beyond the walls of Levi's® Stadium to the team's alumni network. The engagement department's mission is rooted in the history of the franchise. Iconic leaders of the late 1980s teams like head coach Bill Walsh and the DeBartolo family ownership that sparked San Francisco's championship dynasty set the tone for a culture that prized excellence both in the game of football and in personal character.
By valuing discipline, unity and community involvement, the player engagement team upholds a legacy known as the "49ers spirit" that has transcended eras. The department often brings back alumni from the championship winning teams to instill drive and determination in today's team.
"It's cool to work for an organization with such great history," Moss II said. "What Bill Walsh and that group started, is just phenomenal. And it's a privilege to be able to continue to transfer a lot of those principles. There's a standard of excellence and performance and how you come here every single day. To have Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Bryant Young, Keena Turner and all those guys still so much ingrained in the culture, have them so accessible and pour in their experiences and wisdom, that's the best thing... Players are buying in and we all hold each other accountable."
"The standard our alumni set is how we approach every day," Flannigan-Fowles added. "Being on time, no excuses, controlling what you can control, that's how they built the organization. They worked to win and be great players and that's how we do it. We want to be great in every aspect of our lives, on and off the field."