49ers dis­re­garded his­tory of trou­ble

Pride in Fos­ter pick is em­bar­rass­ment 19 months later

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - SPORTING GREEN - By Eric Branch

In­stead of cross­ing their fin­gers af­ter draft­ing Reuben Fos­ter, the 49ers raised their hands in tri­umph.

In their draft room, where em­bed­ded sports­writer Peter King doc­u­mented the scene last year, there were “shrieks” and “bro hugs” af­ter the 49ers landed their third-ranked prospect with the No. 31 pick.

Screamed some­one amid the chaos: “How about that s—!”

Was the out­burst odd? It would have been to oth­ers in

the NFL given Fos­ter’s back­ground.

For ex­am­ple, at least one team re­port­edly didn’t have Fos­ter on its draft board due to what it called his “im­ma­tu­rity” and “is­sues with life skills.” And that was be­fore the 2017 draft com­bine, where Fos­ter failed a drug test and was kicked out of the event af­ter a ver­bal al­ter­ca­tion with a male hos­pi­tal em­ployee. Ac­cord­ing to an­other re­port, a wary team had crossed Fos­ter off its list for an­other rea­son: the sta­tus of his sur­gi­cally re­paired right shoul­der.

The first ev­i­dence of Fos­ter’s poor de­ci­sion-mak­ing was

im­me­di­ate: Two months af­ter his failed com­bine drug test, he took the call from the 49ers at his draft party, which was spon­sored by a tobacco and mar­i­juana va­por­izer com­pany.

How­ever, then-rookie gen­eral man­ager John Lynch didn’t have se­ri­ous mis­giv­ings about Fos­ter’s char­ac­ter or med­i­cal file: The 49ers were pre­pared to in­vest the No. 3 pick on the Al­abama inside line­backer if their se­lec­tion, Stan­ford de­fen­sive tackle Solomon Thomas, hadn’t been avail­able.

“Had Solomon been gone, we’d have gone Reuben,” Lynch said in the draft room. “And been happy.”

Nine­teen months af­ter re­veal­ing that plan to King, Lynch spoke with re­porters Nov. 25 in Tampa, Fla., three hours af­ter re­leas­ing Fos­ter. His 16-game ten­ure in­cluded three ar­rests — two on sus­pi­cion of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence — and an as­sort­ment of in­juries, in­clud­ing sev­eral is­sues with his right shoul­der.

“We have to learn from the process,” Lynch said. “And we have. And we will. But at the same (time), you can’t play scared.”

Lynch meant the 49ers can’t let their ex­pe­ri­ence with Fos­ter pre­vent them from se­lect­ing an­other prospect with red flags.

So what can the 49ers learn that will al­low them to take more ed­u­cated draft risks in the fu­ture? And can they change any­thing to en­sure a player with off-the-field is­sues re­ceives bet­ter struc­ture?

As for the lat­ter ques­tion, it ap­pears clear in hind­sight that the 49ers were partly blinded by Fos­ter’s im­mense tal­ent and over­es­ti­mated their abil­ity to change him. As for the for­mer, they might have learned some­thing about the fu­til­ity of pro­vid­ing struc­ture to a trou­bled player prone to self-de­struc­tive be­hav­ior.

“I put my be­lief in him, and that hurts for me be­cause I be­lieved in the kid,” Lynch said Mon­day on KNBR. “I wanted him to be suc­cess­ful. I re­ally thought I could help him in that. I thought the re­sources we put into him could help him.”

Fos­ter was ar­rested Nov. 24 at the team ho­tel in Tampa on one count of first-de­gree mis­de­meanor do­mes­tic-vi­o­lence bat­tery. Po­lice say Fos­ter was in­volved in a ver­bal al­ter­ca­tion with Elissa En­nis, his spo­radic girl­friend for the past three years, dur­ing which he slapped her phone from her hand, pushed her in the “chest area” and slapped her across the face.

The in­ci­dent oc­curred six months af­ter En­nis, 28, re­canted do­mes­tic-vi­o­lence al­le­ga­tions against Fos­ter that had led to his ar­rest in Fe­bru­ary in Los Gatos. En­nis tes­ti­fied in May that she lied to po­lice as part of a “money scheme” and wanted to “end” Fos­ter be­cause she was an­gry af­ter he broke up with her. She said she had stolen more than $8,000 in cash and two Rolex watches from Fos­ter. She also tes­ti­fied about ly­ing about do­mes­tic-vi­o­lence charges in Louisiana af­ter a boyfriend broke up with her in 2011.

A Santa Clara County Su­pe­rior Court judge dropped the do­mes­tic-vi­o­lence charges, but Fos­ter didn’t emerge un­scathed from his first NFL off­sea­son. He served a twogame NFL sus­pen­sion to start this season be­cause of his ar­rest for mis­de­meanor mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion in Jan­uary in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and a gun charge that was part of his ar­rest in Fe­bru­ary.

Since Fos­ter’s re­lease, both Lynch and head coach Kyle Shana­han in­di­cated they es­tab­lished guidelines for Fos­ter to re­main on the team af­ter his two off­sea­son ar­rests, but those didn’t in­clude sev­er­ing his volatile re­la­tion­ship with En­nis.

The 49ers didn’t think it was ap­pro­pri­ate to de­mand Fos­ter end a per­sonal re­la­tion­ship. How­ever, they did make it clear he would be re­leased if there was an­other in­ci­dent be­tween the two, even if Fos­ter was later ex­on­er­ated. It’s not known whether a non-phys­i­cal “do­mes­tic dis­tur­bance” in­volv­ing Fos­ter and En­nis in Santa Clara in Oc­to­ber would have led to his exit. The 49ers have said they were un­aware of the in­ci­dent, which prompted a visit from po­lice.

Fos­ter had told the 49ers his re­la­tion­ship with En­nis wasn’t good for him. And Shana­han be­lieved Fos­ter’s tur­bu­lent off­sea­son rep­re­sented a “rock bot­tom” that would serve as Fos­ter’s “wake-up call.” On Mon­day, Shana­han said it was in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to him that Fos­ter brought En­nis to the team ho­tel.

“You’ve got to make sure

that doesn’t hap­pen again,” Shana­han said. “How can you do that? By con­tin­u­ing to be with that per­son … that’s not very good judg­ment. I be­lieved what Reuben said, but for him to say that and then show the judg­ment that he did — I per­son­ally have a hard time re­lat­ing to that and un­der­stand­ing how that could hap­pen.”

Shana­han has said he’s never seen an­other or­ga­ni­za­tion pro­vide the struc­ture and re­sources to a player that the 49ers gave Fos­ter. Many specifics of that sup­port aren’t avail­able due to pri­vacy is­sues, but it’s com­mon for NFL teams to make life coaches and men­tal­health re­sources avail­able to play­ers.

Di­rec­tor of player en­gage­ment Austin Moss had a deep re­la­tion­ship with Fos­ter in which he spoke with him daily, ei­ther in per­son or on the phone. How­ever, the team never con­sid­ered a round-the­clock ad­viser for Fos­ter.

Dur­ing the reg­u­lar season, Fos­ter and En­nis, who lives in Ba­ton Rouge, La., saw each other fre­quently in the Bay Area. So why didn’t the 49ers have more over­sight on Fos­ter off the field? Shana­han said the 49ers had a level of be­lief and trust in Fos­ter.

“If you need to have a per­son live with some­one ev­ery sec­ond,” Shana­han said, “then I don’t think you to­tally be­lieve that per­son is what we be­lieved Reuben was.”

The 49ers be­lieved they could change Fos­ter, who had a trau­matic fam­ily back­ground that in­cluded do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. Ac­cord­ing to Roanoke, Ala., po­lice re­ports, Fos­ter’s fa­ther, Danny, shot his ex­girl­friend, Inita Berry Paige, and their 19-month-old son, Reuben, in Novem­ber 1995. Law-en­force­ment of­fi­cials say Danny Fos­ter shot Paige in the back as she was hold­ing Reuben, who also was wounded in the back. Shana­han said he’d never heard of an NFL player who had a worse child­hood than the one Fos­ter ex­pe­ri­enced.

Last year, the 49ers hosted Fos­ter for a pre-draft visit. And they later sent team pas­tor Earl Smith and ex­ec­u­tive Keena Turner, then in­volved in their player-en­gage­ment depart­ment, to visit with Fos­ter for two days in Tuscaloosa.

Since his re­lease, Lynch has said Fos­ter didn’t get into an in­or­di­nate amount of trou­ble at Al­abama. Fos­ter was present at a night­club in 2016 dur­ing a triple homi­cide in which one of his friends was shot to death, but po­lice said he was not in­volved. As a 49ers rookie, Fos­ter and a team­mate ran to safety af­ter guns were pointed at them dur­ing an at­tempted rob­bery out­side a San Fran­cisco night­club around 2 a.m.

“We sit in th­ese draft meet­ings and you’d be shocked by the things you hear about play­ers and how many times a cer­tain player had been in trou­ble,” Lynch said on KNBR. “That wasn’t sig­nif­i­cant with Reuben.”

Al­abama head coach Nick Sa­ban, one of Fos­ter’s staunch­est sup­port­ers, ac­knowl­edged Fos­ter would need sig­nif­i­cant struc­ture in the NFL. Be­fore the 2017 draft, Sa­ban hinted to Sports Il­lus­trated that Fos­ter could be eas­ily trig­gered. Sa­ban said Fos­ter would need peo­ple around him “with the abil­ity to an­tic­i­pate what’s hap­pen­ing, so you don’t get th­ese emo­tional responses to things that are in­signif­i­cant.”

De­spite his is­sues, the 49ers an­tic­i­pated get­ting a gamechang­ing player in Fos­ter, who while at Al­abama won the Butkus Award given to the na­tion’s best line­backer.

Lynch, a hard-hit­ting safety dur­ing his dec­o­rated 15-year NFL ca­reer, was among those smit­ten by Fos­ter’s phys­i­cal­ity. De­spite se­lect­ing Thomas with the No. 3 pick, both Lynch and Adam Peters, the team’s vice pres­i­dent of player per­son­nel, termed Fos­ter their fa­vorite player in the draft. Lynch said he couldn’t sup­press a smile when asked about Fos­ter. Lineback­ers coach Johnny Hol­land termed him one of the best inside-line­backer prospects in the past 10 years.

Lynch said the 49ers had been drawn to Fos­ter’s char­ac­ter.

“I’ll just be hon­est … he’s just my kind of player,” Lynch said on the day Fos­ter was drafted. “He plays side­line-to-side­line and he’ll hit any­thing that moves. … He’s a re­ally gen­uine young man. He’s got a smile that lights up a room, and the way he plays foot­ball’s spe­cial.”

Lynch told re­porters that evening that the 49ers, who had the 34th pick, be­gan call­ing teams who were draft­ing in the “early teens” in an ef­fort to trade up for Fos­ter. And the emo­tion in­volved in their ex­tended pur­suit ex­plains why their draft room turned into a Mardi Gras cel­e­bra­tion af­ter they dealt a fourth-round pick to Seat­tle, moved up three spots and stopped Fos­ter’s slide.

In mid-cel­e­bra­tion, Lynch asked head ath­letic trainer Jeff Fer­gu­son if there were con­cerns about Fos­ter’s right shoul­der. “What shoul­der!” Fer­gu­son yelled back and, as King wrote in his story, “more laugh­ter en­sues.”

Nine­teen months later, that oft-re­peated story is no longer amus­ing to the 49ers, who omit key de­tails in the retelling of Fos­ter’s draft day since his re­lease.

Both Shana­han and Lynch have said the 49ers in­ten­tion­ally waited to take Fos­ter un­til the penul­ti­mate pick of the first round be­cause of his red flags.

“That’s why we waited and didn’t take him where we thought he was val­ued be­cause we knew he was slip­ping and there were some risks,” Shana­han said. “Once he got to where he was (at No. 31), we felt good at that point at tak­ing him.”

Said Lynch: “I think where we took him, we felt com­fort­able with it. Know­ing that it was a risk.”

Both Lynch and Shana­han noted other teams were lined up to take Fos­ter at the end of the first round. How­ever, it was the 49ers who would have been com­fort­able tak­ing Fos­ter at No. 3 and were will­ing to sur­ren­der draft picks to trade up for him.

So are Lynch and Shana­han’s com­ments an at­tempt to save face, or a case of am­ne­sia?

What­ever the case, if the 49ers want to learn from their ex­pe­ri­ence with Fos­ter, they need to an­swer this: What led them to place so much be­lief in a player they still don’t re­ally know?

“I do be­lieve in his heart,” Shana­han said. “I have (be­lieved). I hope I’m not wrong on that. Shame on me if I am.”

San­ti­ago Me­jia / The Chron­i­cle 2017

Reuben Fos­ter is in­tro­duced to the Bay Area dur­ing a news con­fer­ence at Levi's Sta­dium af­ter the 2017 NFL draft.

Michael Za­garis / San Fran­cisco 49ers via Getty Images, 2017

Nin­ers gen­eral man­ager John Lynch cel­e­brates with line­backer Reuben Fos­ter af­ter a win in Houston last season. It was one of the few high points of the trou­bled player’s 49ers ten­ure.

Al­abama Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions

Danny Fos­ter, the fa­ther of Reuben Fos­ter, shot his son and the boy’s mother in 1995.

Hills­bor­ough County (Fla.) Sher­iff / AP

A book­ing photo from Nov. 24 shows Reuben Fos­ter af­ter his ar­rest in Tampa, Fla.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.