Mike McGlinchey lined up against J.J. Watt with what felt like the whole world watching. Focus on 49ers joint practices with the Houston Texans wasn’t quite that intense, but it sure seemed that way to a first-round pick nearing his first competitive rep against real opposition. It was, however, a local attraction with most all eyes present glued to this particular matchup.
McGlinchey wasn’t necessarily nervous, but he sure wasn’t ready for Watt. The simulated practice snap prompted a flurry of physicality that put the rookie offensive tackle on his heels and then flat on his back.
The teams went about their business without much fanfare, though the exchange surely raised some eyebrows and provided an opportunity to jab the Notre Dame alum taken No. 9 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Joe Staley didn’t take it. The 49ers star left tackle known to crack a joke kept a straight face and offered some sage advice.
“Joe came over to me, dead serious, and said, ‘It can’t get any worse than that,’” McGlinchey recalled. “He told me, ’You might as well stop thinking about it and just cut it loose the rest of the day.’”
Staley then relayed a not-so-flattering story of Michael Strahan working him over his rookie year. The moral: Everyone takes their lumps in the NFL. It’s all about how you rebound.
“He connected with me in a way that, when it felt like all the world was coming down on my shoulders and I wondered how I would succeed, he put me at ease and I was able to re-focus and keep growing step by step from there,” McGlinchey said. “Among the multitude of lessons he has shared with me in the times we had together, that was the first one.”
McGlinchey told that story in a Tuesday afternoon video conference honoring his best friend and mentor’s 13 seasons in the NFL, all in a 49ers uniform. Staley announced his retirement Saturday during the NFL draft, an emotional moment for all in an organization profoundly impacted by his presence.
McGlinchey was privy to the information far earlier that most, but it still hit him in a way few have since Watt did almost two years ago now.
“There were a lot of emotions,” McGlinchey said. “I didn’t get hit with them until it became official and I saw the outpouring of people that he truly touched. The number of fans and coaches and former players that he had come in contact with who he left with an imprint was so powerful.
“There’s a great deal of sadness because I’m losing my best friend and teammate, but I’m excited for him at the same time. He has earned the right to hang it up and walk away with his head held high after spending a career with one organization. That’s something that’s so impressive and something I’m shooting for.”
McGlinchey’s shooting to have a career and a 49ers impact like Staley, with talent and temperament ideally suited to be the keeper of his flame. The 26-year old isn’t taking Staley’s literal spot at left tackle, not after the 49ers traded for Trent Williams. Just being himself would keep Staley alive in the 49ers locker room considering their personality types are virtually identical. So is their passion for the game and barometer for when to be serious and when to keep it light.
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Those similarities have been clear to many, for a lot longer than McGlinchey and Staley have been teammates.
Then Notre Dame strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo noticed it back in the summer of 2011, when McGlinchey was a prized recruit there for junior day. Longo had been with Irish head coach Brian Kelly forever, dating back to his tenure as Central Michigan. Joe Staley was a Chippewa back then, so Longo knew what he was talking about. He saw Staley earn a first-round draft slot despite playing at a smaller school and saw similar potential in McGlinchey.
Turns out Longo was dead right. McGlinchey also was a first-round pick who made an instant impact and, barring injury, should have a career characterized by sustained success.
McGlinchey, then a 250-pound multi-sport prep star when the association was first made, wanted to see if Longo’s comparison fit. He went back home and devoured Staley’s game tape and postgame interviews. He even watched 49ers in-house productions of “The Joe Show,” short segments with the star tackle conducting ridiculous interviews on camera.
McGlinchey had played lots of tight end to that point but understood tackle was his football future and, after all that film study, decided to follow Staley’s path. He even asked the William Penn Charter High equipment manager to give him No. 74 his senior season as inspiration.
“Every interview, every game, everything that I saw was that this guy Joe Staley was the best in the world at what he did, but he was an even better leader and teammate on his team,” McGlinchey said. “That was always someone I wanted to model my game after and, now knowing him, model my life after.”
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Background should give Staley’s pep talk after the J.J. Watt embarrassment greater power. That wasn’t just a veteran giving a young buck advice. This was McGlinchey’s athletic role model standing a few feet away, helping him improve. It was a passive relationship before, with McGlinchey drawing inspiration from afar. Not anymore, with he and Staley bookending the 49ers offensive line.
Staley was open and available to someone originally expected to replace him in time, and he built a lasting friendship with someone almost a decade younger now based on mutual respect. Moving forward without Staley will be difficult and at times unwelcome, but the 49ers locker room might feel the absence just a little bit less with McGlinchey there to carry the torch and soften the blow.
McGlinchey will represent Staley with actions, but he doesn’t need to cement Staley’s legacy. The man did that himself over 13 excellent seasons.
“To be the guy that generations of guys look to on film to see it done the right way, that’s someone to me who is a Hall of Famer,” McGlinchey said. “He affected 15 years of offensive lineman. When you show an example of how a left tackle’s supposed to play football, you should watch him. Joe was the most complete offensive tackle of his generation. That should be entrenched into the Hall of Fame.”