Joe Staley changed out of his No. 74 jersey a final time, put on a white sweatshirt with the 49ers’ crest, then took a seat atop a media podium to emotionally unpack the heartache of another Super Bowl loss.
This was Staley’s last image as a 49er.
It should not be the prevailing, lasting memory of the franchise’s greatest-ever left tackle, the former Central Michigan star who announced his retirement Saturday, the same day the 49ers traded for his successor, Trent Williams, from Washington.
Staley’s service extended beyond protecting the blindsides of a dozen 49ers quarterbacks, starting with his good buddy Alex Smith and closing with Jimmy Garoppolo.
He was the franchise’s frontman during especially trying times. That was a chore he took on somewhat reluctantly yet dutifully, as their most-tenured veteran, amid familiar losses and inevitable coaching changes.
He also could play the funny man, be it off to the side with cordial media sessions or more staged productions, like when the 49ers would put a camera in his face and a microphone in his hand so he could interview teammates in the locker room for “The Joe Show” or ham it up at “State of the Franchise” events.
On the field, he used his underreported strength to stymie pass rushers, and he exhibited his athletic prowess racing way down field as a blocker or even a receiver (three career catches, 26 yards).
Remember that block he threw to spring Alex Smith’s end-around run in an epic playoff win over the New Orleans Saints? It was the first of 11 playoffs games in Staley’s career. The 49ers went 7-4 in those, including Super Bowl losses seven years ago and 12 weeks ago.
“After 13 incredible seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, and many recent months of consideration, it is with very mixed emotions that I am announcing my retirement from the NFL,” Staley wrote in a social-media post. “The game of football has been a true passion of mine since I was 8, but my body is telling me it is time.”
He was so intent on enjoying one last Super Bowl run that he overcame a broken leg and a mangled knuckle last season.
“Thanks for an amazing career Joe. You are always part of the family,” 49ers CEO Jed York tweeted Saturday.
When Staley walked off Seattle’s ultimate battleground Dec. 29, after his final regular-season game, he shed tears and relished the moment. Afterward, he denied he was headed for retirement. He said he was still under contract (through 2021), that “I still love playing football.”
That love resurfaced, Staley has said, once Kyle Shanahan took over as coach in 2017, igniting a turnaround that took a 2-14 franchise to a NFC Championship in just three years. Along the way, Staley developed a perfect kinship with Mike McGlinchey, their top draft
When Staley began what would be his final training camp last season, he instantly mentored defensive end Nick Bosa, the ensuing NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. After an initial camp practice, Staley took a seat on his helmet next to his young daughters, Grace and Audrey, and they gazed into the practice field and the South Bay horizon.
“They are my world,” Staley wrote in his retirement post. “To choose to play another season when my body says it’s done, and risk my future with them and my ability to be the father I want to be, would be selfish and reckless. I want my daughters to know that I will always choose them, no matter what.”
Staley then expressed his gratitude to the 49ers’ York-family ownership, his coaches, his teammates, the team’s support staff, the 49ers Faithful fans, and, last but not least, his wife, Carrie.
Staley was such a role model to teammates that they poured out their sorrow for him after the Feb. 2 Super Bowl loss in Miami, a defeat in which they let a 10-point lead slip away in the fourth quarter.
“Everyone feels the same. It (stinks) losing it for a guy like Joe and everything he’s been through,” Garoppolo said after the defeat.
“I love Joe Staley. He is incredible,” tight end George Kittle added. “To see him get back to this stage, how happy he was and how locked in he was, he has been a leader for us all year. … There is nothing more than I want than to give him a win and give him a ring. So that one hurts.”
In that finale, Staley rushed off to the locker room in the third quarter after his thumb somehow got sliced and needed treatment. He returned to the game. But he won’t return for next season.
“This football team is built for the long haul, and I could not be more proud of the guys that we have in our locker room,” Staley said on the Super Bowl’s postgame pulpit. “We have a ton of talent and we’ll be back.”
Staley’s final words of his retirement missive: “I hope to be present with the organization moving forward and will always have a deep love for the San Francisco 49ers and Bay Area. While I am sad and disappointed my time has come to step away, I leave with my head held high, knowing I gave my all to the game. I fulfilled the dreams I had as a kid. Now, I will turn my attention to helping my daughters cultivate and achieve dreams of their own. … With sincere love and gratitude, Joe Staley.”