SANTA CLARA – Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was an ecology and evolutionary biology major at Colorado who has plans to become a surgeon after his NFL career concludes.
That revelation alone might have scared off some teams after growing concerns over long-term injuries associated with playing the sport and a spate of early NFL retirements in recent years.
But midway through his rookie season, Witherspoon said during a wide-ranging interview on “The 49ers Insider Podcast” that his passion and determination to have a successful career have only increased since entering the NFL draft.
“I’m even more excited to build a career in this league,” said Witherspoon, 22, a third-round pick of the 49ers. “I thought I knew what it was and I was excited coming in. But then getting a taste of it and being in it, it’s even more inspiring and it makes me want to work even harder.
“In terms of the violence and what could go wrong, I just live with faith in God and fear is second. If something happens, it was meant to happen. I could die walking out of this building right now. That’s kind of the mindset I have. You can control what you can control. It’s as simple as that, and that’s the approach I take.”
Witherspoon’s regular season got off to a rocky start. After being inactive for the 49ers’ first four games of the season behind starting cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson, Witherspoon made his NFL debut Oct. 8 against the Indianapolis Colts.
He played six snaps before exiting the game and being diagnosed with a concussion. Witherspoon, who first played football as a senior at Christian Brothers High in Sacramento, had two concussions in his past, he said.
“It’s part of the game,” he said. “If it happens, it’s unfortunate. You just want to come back healthy and keep playing.”
Witherspoon has taken over a starting job in the 49ers’ defense. His emergence also enabled the 49ers to trade inconsistent Robinson to the New York Jets for a fifth-round draft pick.
Witherspoon is learning how to apply his intelligence to optimize his success on the football field. Smarts can only carry him so far, and then he has to learn how and when to clear his mind and just play the game.
“I feel like I’ve found that balance where pre-snap, you want to see things, analyze, understand what could come and what could happen,” Witherspoon said. “But once that ball is snapped, you just got to react and respond to what the receiver is doing. And that’s one thing I’ve definitely improved upon.”