For Deebo Samuel, the challenges of the 2020 NFL season went deeper than what we saw from the outside.
After a breakout rookie season, Samuel was limited to appearing in six games in his sophomore year, seven if you count the contest where he pulled his hamstring running out of bounds on the first play.
Samuel finished the 2020 season catching 33 of his 44 targets for 391 receiving yards, not even half of his 802 yard total from 2019. On Monday, the South Carolina product admitted how challenging missing games has been for him.
“This year, for me, was real rough,” Samuel said. “I dealt with a lot of injuries in my life and through college. I had bumps and bruises last year, but this last season, I never got down mentally like I did after I pulled my hamstring in this last game.
“It took a toll on my body and it made me realize health is the most important thing in this league, just being available.”
After George Kittle’s rookie season, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan spoke to the tight end about the importance of taking care of his body. They urged him to develop a routine that would help ensure his availability for a full 16 game NFL season and ultimately secure his career longevity.
The two 49ers executives' open door policy have been invaluable for their players. Samuel revealed he reached out to both Shanahan and Lynch throughout his time away from the field, seeking advice on how to deal with the reality of not being able to play.
“There’s been a couple of days, just sitting in the room and just thinking about [things],” Samuel said. “I use football as a getaway so when football was taken away you just think about everything you’ve been through your entire life and it just kind of breaks you down.
“I was going through it bad. I talked to John and Kyle a few times a week just to keep my head on straight.”
The head coach understood how the young receiver felt, in essence letting his team down by not being able to contribute. Shanahan appreciates Samuel’s desire to contribute to the team but also hopes it is a lesson that the receiver will benefit from in the long run.
“I think Deebo was hurting because he loves football and he was stuck in a place where he couldn’t play football,” Shanahan said. “Deebo doesn’t want to let people down. He knows how important he was to us. He knew how hard it was going to be when we did lose him.
“When he pulled his hamstring on that first play, he knows how much that hurt the team. That sucks for a player, and Deebo cares a lot about his teammates and he cares a lot about people. I think reality hit him last month how big a deal that is and I hope that’s a good thing for him, to feel that pain to feel what it does because that’s the reality of this league.”
Lynch referenced his own NFL career in speaking to the young receiver, noting how in his first few seasons as a safety he missed several contests due to injuries. Lynch barely missed a contest in the remainder of his 15-year NFL career.
The silver lining for both Lynch and Shanahan is knowing how much Samuel cares about the team and what the game means to the young receiver.
“Deebo cares, it’s part of what makes him special on the field” Lynch said. “He’s got tremendous skill and then then his will is good as I’ve ever seen. You just see it in the way he plays. A lot of guys decide, 'pretty good play, tackle me, I’m going to go down.' Not Deebo, he runs through people.
"I think he was more crushed. Deebo cares about his teammates and I feel like he was letting people down and so yes, you have to counsel people through that and you rely on your own experiences."
Samuel hopes to be fully recovered from his hamstring injury by the end of January and added that from then on, it will be full speed ahead in preparing for the 2021 season. He sees the potential of what the 49ers will be able to do with a healthy stable of playmakers in the upcoming and can't wait to get started.