Offensive lineman Derrick Deese finished his 49er career strong, not allowing a sack over the past two seasons
Twelve years into a stellar NFL career – twelve years after he was virtually ignored on draft weekend and 10 years after his first Super Bowl title – Derrick Deese is driven by a force that is at once completely opposite yet exactly the same as that which propelled him in the early days.
Simply put, Deese is motivated to prove the doubters wrong, same as in 1992. It's an inspiration he came by naturally, one common to players who aren't considered good enough to make it. The thing is, in 1992 the San Francisco 49ers were the ones who believed; now it is those same 49ers whom Deese counts first among the doubters.
The 49ers, who originally signed Deese as an undrafted free agent a dozen years ago, released their starting left tackle just days before the start of the NFL's 2004 free agency period. The move almost certainly provided the 49ers with some salary cap relief, but Deese is convinced the team could have found a way to keep him if it so desired. Instead, he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a few days later and is a good bet to continue his starting days at left tackle come this fall, just on the nation's opposite coast.
The outgoing, 33-year-old Deese, a tell-it-like-it-is-type who was popular in San Francisco's locker room, is eager to show the 49ers that his best days are not behind him.
"I look at it like this is the same situation all over again," he said. "The Niners felt like I couldn't do it, so, you know what? I'll prove them wrong.
"When I first came in, it was the whole NFL except the 49ers that didn't believe in me. Now, the way I look at, they let me go and I'm playing great football. I have that streak going of 35 games with no sacks (allowed), but they let me go. I'm happy I got released, but in my mind they didn't let me go for any reason other than they didn't think I fit in their offensive line anymore."
The irony, of course, is that Deese has spent his entire career proving he could fit virtually anywhere along the line, playing all five spots at some point during his career. He didn't ask to become Mr. Versatility – in fact, after starting at right guard during San Francisco's championship season in 1994, Deese expected that spot would be his home for years to come – but he has never balked at a move. Now, on a new team for the first time in 12 years, he's willing to take on any role necessary.
"I'm not the type of player who goes around saying it's all about me or what I can do," said Deese. "I'm more of a team player, so wherever a team needs me to play, I'll play. Whatever it is, I have no problem doing it as long as it's going to help the team win."
That being said, the Bucs held their first organized workouts of the year on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Deese saw his initial action at left tackle, the spot he held down in San Francisco for the better part of the last four years. He feels comfortable at that position and has a good bank of knowledge on the Bucs' three NFC South opponents, Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans. All three were NFC West teams with San Francisco until 2002.
"I'd love to play one spot," he said. "You get to know your opponents a little bit better. I've been fortunate enough to play left tackle for the last four or five years with the Niners, and I got to know my opponents. It's real funny because, coming into here I'm actually coming into a division that I already played in. Like I said, I'm happy about the whole situation and I think when I look at what happened to me, I've been blessed. I'm on a team that actually has a chance to win a Super Bowl, and that's all they care about. It's a situation where I left guys I played with and friends back with the 49ers, but I think the best thing that could happen to me happened."
If Deese brought his affinity for pulling pranks with him from one Bay area to the other, than his new Buccaneer teammates better keep their eyes and ears open in the locker room. In San Francisco, he had an approach for keeping teammates loose that was handed down by veterans from the 49ers' multiple-championship teams of the late '80s and early '90s.
"Everything and everyone was fair game," said Deese, who has yet to identify the juiciest targets in the Bucs' locker room. "We had a lot of guys on that team who started it. We had guys like Kevin Gogan and Ken Norton and Gary Plummer and Tim McDonald. All of those guys had passed it down – Rickey Jackson, Harris Barton. They all passed down these jokes and I helped keep the tradition going."
Deese believes he will be remembered among his former San Fran teammates as a guy who gave his all, worked hard and also knew to have a whole lot of fun. He'll leave behind a resume that includes 116 starts, several successful position switches and an All-Pro selection by Sports Illustrated in 2002. He also finished his 49er career on a high note, having not personally allowed a sack during his final two seasons, as determined by San Francisco's coaching staff.
He did all of this despite a 6-3, 289-pound frame that makes him one of the 'smaller' left tackles in the National Football League. Of course, he is undersized only in relative terms, and perhaps even then we're using the wrong measurables. Size is irrelevant; this is a fierce competitor who wins some of his battles solely on desire.
"I love to run-block," he said. "It's smash-mouth ball, you against the guy in front of you, one-on-one. Who's got the most heart? Who's bigger really has nothing to do with it. You could be the biggest guy in the world and still get put on your back by the smallest guy in the league."
As true as that may be, prospects are still weighed, measured and tested in dozens of ways, and Deese, a USC product, didn't score well enough on such charts in '92 to catch any eyes outside of California. He then lost most of his first two seasons in San Francisco to injuries. Still, he had made believers of several key people in the 49ers organization, including the late Bobb McKittrick, surely one of the most respected offensive line coaches in league history.
"First of all, I had a couple people with the 49ers who recognized that I had some ability, and that was Bobb McKittrick and John McVay," recalled Deese. "They basically got in my corner, and when I had my opportunity to perform, I had to perform. It's really easy to be the guy who everyone doubts, the guy no one thinks can do anything. When you go out there and prove everyone wrong, that just makes you feel a whole lot better."
Because he proved himself so convincingly in 1994 at right guard, then in subsequent seasons at every position on the line, Deese is now a well-established player and one of the Bucs' most important signings of 2004. Had he failed to make enough of an impression in '92, however, Deese might have long since turned to his secondary career choice: law enforcement.
He has always wanted to be a police officer. It's actually not hard to imagine. In football, he has an interesting mixture of relishing confrontation and at the same time wanting to defuse tense situations with humor. That might have played well on the streets.
"I think I can control my temper a little bit," he said. And on the field, too? "To a certain extent. You know, you can't push a cop around. It's the same thing on the field! When I say freeze, I mean freeze!"