Flora, a town of roughly 3.4 square miles, rests in the heart of Mississippi. It's a three-and-a-half hour drive from New Orleans, or about five hours southeast of Little Rock, Arkansas.
To say that Flora is a southern town is a bit like saying that grass is green. But to say that Flora, and its 1,500 residents, all are tied to the 49ers is quite another.
For fourth-year linebacker Parys Haralson, Flora is home. It's there, in that small country town, where Haralson bloodied his lip playing football in the street with kids often twice his age, where he learned the value of hard work and where his mother instilled in him the value of succeeding in school in order to succeed in life.
It's those values, those behaviors that shaped Haralson in both his playing career and how he handles adversity. And after overcoming a torn pectoral as a rookie, and seeing spot-start time as a second-year player, Haralson burst onto the scene in 2008 with a team-leading eight sacks, which led to a four-year contract extension this past offseason.
Life in Flora, Mississippi
Flora was a stereotypical small town, one where he and his mother grew up in his grandparents' home, a place where he had two strong female figures keeping him in line.
"Growing up I came from a small town," Haralson recalled. "Everybody was kind of related in some kind of way. A bunch of the people I met in middle school and elementary school I was related to. We all came from the same area."
In those formative years, Haralson's mother, Jennifer Rosell, made sure to bring her son up knowing that keeping up with academics and school would be crucial to his leading a successful life.
"Before I could go out and play, I had to finish my schoolwork," Haralson said. "My mom gave that to me. You have to keep up on your schoolwork."
But when he did finish his assignments, Haralson was out in the street with practically a whole neighborhood of kids, all playing sports. Football, basketball, any kind of sport, Haralson said he played it.
Although he considered himself to be a great basketball player, he admitted that football turned out to be something he not only loved, but was good at.
"I always thought I was a fullback or running back," Haralson remembered. "Everybody wanted to run the football. And we would be playing in the street with the older guys, the older kids in the neighborhood."
Along with playing in the street came the usual bumps and bruises, none of which bothered Haralson though. He would always look forward to the street games, despite the age difference.
"If you could play, you were out there," Haralson said. "You would want to play with the older guys and probably get knocked around a little bit. I would always get mad and want to tackle them, but I wasn't as big or as strong. But I'd still try my best."
As Haralson grew both in age and in size, his middle school and high school years gave him an unrivaled work ethic.
At the age of 9, Haralson joined his grandfather at the family junkyard as a first job. No task was too small for him, as the pair would haul the junk across the yard, cut sheet metal and go through the duties of shuffling to make space to keep the business going.
Not too many years later, when Parys entered Madison Central High School, he went to work for his uncle, James Harrison, in a shipping warehouse, Sun Belt Bolts and Screws.
"I had that job all through high school," Haralson said. "I saved up some money eventually and got a car, '99 Ford Ranger."
But, before he got that car, he relied again on his mother to chauffeur him between his blue-collar job and football practice.
"My mom used to drop me and my cousin off at the warehouse in the morning," Haralson said. "She would come pick us up after and drive us to our football workouts in the summer. She would sit in the car and wait while we worked out to drive us home. But, it was nice after I got my truck though. She didn't have to drive us around anymore."
The Football Years
The Madison Central Jaguars played as if they were a big-city powerhouse, contrary to the school's surrounding geography. The team featured five future professional athletes, but the star of the team was a lineman, Chris Spencer.
Haralson and Spencer were good friends, and in a way, Haralson owes Spencer some credit.
"When I played in high school, college scouts would come down to see Chris play," Haralson said. "And that's kind of how I got noticed."
No matter who the scouts came to watch, Haralson's play on the field quickly garnered him recognition as well. Haralson was an All-Metro choice as a sophomore, when Madison won the Class-5A state championship. In the next two years , Haralson would go on to earn All-American honors on his way to being courted by a handful of SEC powerhouses.
Spencer chose to attend the University of Mississippi, where Haralson initially wanted to go. But, that's when Haralson's family, his mother in particular, stepped in for guidance.
"I wanted to go to Miss, but my mom felt that I should go somewhere where I could grow up and become my own man," Haralson said. "At home, you can always go back and see a bunch of guys that could have been playing at colleges. But as far as the academic part of it, they didn't get it. They didn't do it. My mom wouldn't let me fail out of school."
And so, with his mother's guidance, Haralson headed to Knoxville and the University of Tennessee to become a Volunteer. There, fueled by the same sense of hard work he got from splitting scrap metal in a junk yard and working before the sun came up in a shipping warehouse, Haralson earned a reputation as a worker.
He stayed after practice to talk with coaches and watch film. He lived in Tennessee's weight room, earning Lifter of the Year in 2005, just a year after winning the Bill Majors award, given to the player who most dedicates himself to football.
He saw his first start as a sophomore, and never looked back. He was elected team captain in both his junior and senior seasons, a rarity at a school of Tennessee's pedigree.
As his senior year came and went, Haralson had earned second-team All-SEC honors while starting the entire season at left defensive end, and after three strong seasons in the toughest football conference in the country, Haralson landed at fifth all-time on Tennessee's sack leaders list.
"That was a great accomplishment," Haralson said. "But I didn't even know until I looked at it and saw I was behind guys like Reggie White."
In fact, he wasn't that far behind the Hall of Fame defensive end. White finished his Tennessee career with 32 sacks, and Haralson was only 11 behind, finishing his career with 21.
Welcome to San Francisco
For Haralson, who finished his senior season at Tennessee with 10 sacks, the next step in his life would be the one he had worked for since his childhood — making it to the NFL.
It was late April 2006, and he was waiting feverishly in Knoxville to find out if he would ever join the ranks of players he looked up to as a child. During the two-day NFL Draft, Haralson, a man known for his toughness and tenacity on the field, had stressed his nerves to the point where he was pacing furiously before his name was called.
So anxious was Haralson that he inadvertently dropped his cell phone and crushed it between his thunderous steps. In the middle of the fifth round, with his name still on the board, he rushed to a cell-phone store in Knoxville as the 49ers were desperately trying to get a hold of him, eventually reaching him through his girlfriend's line.
"Just getting out here I was excited," Haralson said. "I just wanted to get out here and play."
He saw time as a rookie in 2006, playing in seven games on special teams and as
a reserve linebacker, but much of his season was cut short due to injury. A foot ailment caused him to miss much of training camp and bumped his NFL debut back a week to September 17. And just two months later, Haralson suffered a torn pectoral that would knock him out for the rest of his rookie campaign.
"Injuries happen," Haralson said. "But you have to overcome them and adjust. That's the way I look at life. You have to overcome and adjust."
The linebacker did just that the next year, breaking into the starting lineup after starter Manny Lawson was felled by a destructive knee injury. Building upon his string of second-year starts, Haralson entered the 2008 season more ready than at any other point in his career.
"It was everything," Haralson said. "It was coming out prepared last year, having more experience and having great coaches and teammates."
The experience and preparedness paid off as Haralson had a breakout season, spearheading the pass rush with a team-leading 8 sacks. That number was good enough for second among all NFC linebackers and the most sacks by any 49ers player since 2002.
Haralson enters the 2009 season hoping to continue the upward trend he has shown since his days in Flora, overcoming, working hard and getting results.
"I just want to play," he said. "I want to get out there with my teammates and just play."
PARYS HARALSON'S "DON'T TELL ME – SHOW ME" MOMENT:
The 49ers had just won a pivotal game a week prior to facing Brett Favre and the New York Jets. Against Buffalo, San Francisco squeezed out a 10-3 win in bad weather, and Head Coach Mike Singletary and company looked to build momentum going into a game against a team looking to make a playoff push.
The Jets, competing in the rough-and-tumble AFC East, hoped to outmatch the 49ers and gain a game in the standings over the Bills, whom the 49ers had beaten the week before.
In a game dominated mostly by San Francisco, the Jets kept pushing the ball into 49ers territory before being thwarted by a defense — often involving linebacker Parys Haralson.
Haralson finished the game with 1.5 sacks, including a crucial solo sack of Favre with 33 seconds left on third down.
The 49ers had just scored on the previous drive, and on the ensuing Jets possession, Haralson stunted up the middle of the field, forcing Favre to roll to his right. But Favre couldn't escape Haralson as he reached an arm out and corralled Favre, slowing the quarterback down just enough for a teammate to come in and finish off the tackle, forcing the Jets to punt.
The game ended a few minutes later in a 24-14 49ers victory.