SANTA CLARA – On Oct. 24, 2013, a young man was at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. to watch his first NFL game. It was an escape from the difficulties he and his family had experienced for quite some time.
His early life was difficult. His parents divorced when he was young. His living situation was never stable. He was living with his grandmother, and when her house burned down in August 2012, he and his seven siblings were homeless.
Azeez Al-Shaair this week will return to his hometown of Tampa. And he will be back in the Buccaneers’ home stadium as a rookie linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers.
“You turn through the pages of the book and at first it’s like, ‘I really don’t like this book,’ ” Al-Shaair said on The 49ers Insider Podcast. “Then, you keep reading and keep reading, and, ‘You know what? This turned out pretty good.’ That’s kind of an accumulation of how my life has been.”
Al-Shaair (pronounced Al-SHY-urr) was one of eight rookies to win a spot on the 49ers’ 53-man roster to open the season. But he is the only one who earned his way onto the team after being undrafted.
“For the rest of my life, for the rest of my career, before you say my name, they always say ‘undrafted free agent,’ and it’s like a sting to me,” Al-Shaair said. “I hate that sound. I hate that name. I hate having that attached to me, just because It reminds me every time that I didn’t get drafted, that everybody passed up on me. There were 250-whatever guys they said were better than me.”
After a dynamic junior season at Florida Atlantic University, Al-Shaair opted to return to college for his senior season. In October, he sustained a torn ACL to end his college career and severely impact his draft stock.
He was not among the 254 players drafted, but the 49ers promptly signed him as a free agent. Chris Kiffin, brother of Florida Atlantic head coach Lane Kiffin, coached Al-Shaair in 2017 as the team’s co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. Kiffin joined Kyle Shanahan’s staff in 2018 as the 49ers' pass-rush specialist.
Al-Shaair gave himself some time to reflect on Saturday with his wife after learning he was not among the team’s final cuts before the start of the regular season. Even with all of the family hardships he endured, he said he reflected on his knee injury as proof that he can overcome anything.
“That was one of the toughest moments for me because I had an opportunity to leave as a junior and deciding to come back to have that happen, it was like somebody just spitting in my face,” he said. “It was like kicking you while you’re down. It was the toughest thing for me.
“After overcoming that, it’s hard for me to think that there’s anything else I can’t overcome. Because I was probably at one of my lowest of lowest points.”
The next day, Al-Shaair got back to work to prepare for his role as a backup linebacker and a special-teams contributor.
After years of not knowing where he would get his next meal or where he’d be sleeping at night, Al-Shaair said he is determined to make his NFL experience last as long as possible.
He said he will “do what I got to do so I can stay in the NFL and not just be a feel-good story for somebody.”