In October of his junior season of high school, Dre Greenlaw rescued his team from an upset loss.
His appreciative coach, unbeknownst to Greenlaw before he saw the local newspaper the following day, gave him a nickname that would stick through the remainder of high school, four years at the University of Arkansas and, now, with the 49ers.
Big Play Dre.
“It definitely boosted my confidence, my self-esteem, and it made me want to go out there and make those big plays,” Greenlaw said on the latest edition of 49ers Talk.
The new identity came as Greenlaw’s life was beginning to settle down. He found stability and started to showcase his immense skills on the football field.
After living in foster care and boys homes for six years, Greenlaw was accepted into a strong and supportive household with Brian and Nanci Early and their young children.
Seven years later, the Early family officially adopted Greenlaw shortly after he turned 21 in 2018.
Greenlaw showed his penchant for making big plays rookie linebacker with the 49ers last year. His stop of Jacob Hollister on a fourth-and-goal pass from Russell Wilson in Week 17 against the Seattle Seahawks was the defensive play of the season.
The big play clinched the NFC West title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
On Sunday, Greenlaw and the 49ers return to face the Seahawks in a key divisional game.
“Everything he touches turns to gold because he works hard at it and he’s got great confidence,” said former Fayetteville High coach Daryl Patton. “I didn’t know the ‘Big Play Dre’ moniker was going to give him confidence, but you could just see every day he got better.
“He won the day. That’s the way Dre is. He is always in the right place at the right time.”
Greenlaw did everything for his high school team. He played the safety position, but he scored touchdowns in every imaginable way. That is why for most of that October 2014 game, Rogers Heritage had avoided kicking the ball to him.
But after taking the lead with less than two minutes remaining, Rogers Heritage made the mistake of allowing Greenlaw to get the ball in his hands. He returned it 92 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
“When I got it I just started smiling,” Greenlaw told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “When I got it I had a good little burst of speed because I’m so excited that I got it. At about the 50-yard line it was just me and the kicker, and I was like he’s not catching me this time, no way.”
Said Patton, “When that game was over, that’s when I started calling him 'Big Play Dre.' ”
“As the year went on, plays kept getting made and he kept saying 'Big Play Dre,' ” said Greenlaw, whose Instagram account is @bigplaydre1.
“And eventually everybody started catching on to it. And it’s been sticking with me since all the way back to high school.”
Greenlaw came to the 49ers in the fifth round of the 2019 draft as an under-the-radar prospect.
He ended up starting 14 games as a rookie, including three in the postseason. His tackle of Hollister just inches short of the goal line in regular-season finale was ranked as the No. 9 play in 49ers history in an NBC Sports Bay Area countdown earlier this year.
He is back starting and playing at a high level at the weakside linebacker position with Kwon Alexander out with an ankle injury. Greenlaw registered a sack of Cam Newton in the 49ers' 33-6 victory over the New England Patriots in Week 7.
Greenlaw said that play last year served as a springboard into his second season in the league.
“I think it gave me motivation and it gave me confidence just to know I can make those hits in the NFL and that I belong here,” Greenlaw said. “At that time, it was like a ‘Wow’ moment, not because I was shocked I made it, but I was shocked at how big it was. I didn’t realize it at the time. For us to get that bye week was huge.”
When Greenlaw got back to the locker room, he saw a slew of text messages and missed calls from contacts in his phone since he first got his number as a ninth grader.
How many people reached out?
“Too many,” he answered. “I had to change my number ... I was getting crazy phone calls.”
For once, Big Play Dre could not answer all the calls.