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49ers Super Bowl heroes unsung from Dre Greenlaw to Ben Garland

MIAMI — Dre Greenlaw wasn’t supposed to be an important player on the 49ers this season.

Neither was Ross Dwelley. Or Justin Skule. Or Ben Garland. Or Marcell Harris. Or Dan Brunskill.

But all six played a crucial rule in helping the 49ers reach Super Bowl LIV in Miami.

Now, the Super Bowl is a glamorous event — even more so this year, because of its location — and that means that all week, media attention has been firmly planted on the stars of the contest. Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has been a favorite of the endless stream of local television news stations here. Wonder what that’s about…

But as important as handsome quarterbacks are, football — more so than any other sport in the American landscape — is a team sport, and without the unsung heroes, the cameras would not be locked on Garoppolo right now in South Florida.

Every team in football — hell, every team in professional sports — says that they believe in a so-called “next-man-up mentality”. A player goes down? Next man up. It’s a cliche.

But these 49ers have actually practiced what they preached this season.

It’s easy to forget the trials and tribulations of a 13-3 season that has brought this team to within one win of a championship, but they were there. The 49ers had a number of key injuries this season — possibly season-defining injuries — that are easily forgotten because of the outstanding and oftentimes surprising performances of the team’s depth players.

It felt as if the season turned when Kwon Alexander — the emotional leader of the 49ers’ defense — tore his pec on Halloween. The injury was believed to be a season-ender, and given how important Alexander had been to the 49ers’ newfound defensive success, it was easy to question if San Francisco’s best days were behind them.

But instead of going out and signing a veteran linebacker or making a panicked trade, the Niners instead opted to start a fifth-round rookie, a third-day draft pick.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch trusted themselves, they trusted Greenlaw.

The 22-year-old linebacker rewarded that confidence, playing well to start his NFL career and then steadily improving as the season progressed. Then, in Week 17, with everything on the line for San Francisco, Greenlaw made arguably the most important regular-season play in franchise history.

Without that Dan Bunzian tackle in Seattle, the 49ers are probably not in Miami. Remember: that contest — that play — determined the NFC West title. Because the 49ers won the game, they received the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, home-field advantage, and an all-important bye week to start.

The Niners put that week off to good use, arriving for their first playoff game with as healthy a roster as could be expected after 16 games. They subsequently steamrolled their competition in both postseason contests at Levi’s Stadium.

Could San Francisco have gone on the road for three playoff games and still made it to Miami?

That’s as unlikely as Greenlaw’s path to the Bay.

Greenlaw grew up in foster care in Arkansas, living in group homes until he was taken in by the family of one of his coaches in high school.

“The start isn’t always pretty. You go through trials and tribulations… They know my story and where I come from and how hard it was getting — they know the battles that I’ve had to face,” Greenlaw said Wednesday. “It’s about how you go from it and the things you learn and the things you take with you. Always persevering. Always believing in yourself.

“When I got to ninth grade, I got the support from the Earlys, and that’s all a kid ever needed — some support.”

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