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SANTA CLARA - Takeo Spikes cried after this season's loss to Carolina.

Last year's loss at Seattle not only killed the 49ers playoff chances, it momentarily killed his ebullient personality. No laughing. No joking. He was so devastated that he didn't talk to his teammates for four days.

Given Spikes' history — the man has never been to the playoffs after 12-plus seasons and 181 games — the tears and silence seem to make perfect sense.

After all, he long ago established himself as a premier NFL linebacker. He's made his millions. Now, with the clock ticking, all that drives the 33-year-old is an elusive trip to the playoffs.

Isn't that why the losses now hurt so much, he's asked.

Spikes frowns. His questioner doesn't know his history.

The losses don't hurt more now. They've always hurt like hell. He bawled after losses when he was a rookie in Cincinnati in 1998.

In his five seasons with the Bengals, they went 19-61, a level of incompetence that inspired offseason mocking from friends such as Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward and Ravens running back Jamal Lewis back home in Atlanta. Spikes endured the jokes and clung to the praise.

"The compliment I got was &‘Y'all was (sorry) as hell, but you played you're a-- off,'" Spikes said. "I took it personal. I was like every time I step on the field I'm going to make sure you know — what you see in the big picture isn't what it is with me."

His teammates noticed. Before his second NFL season, he was named a team captain. He was 22.

A few years later, his reputation was already cemented: a proud winner on a perpetual loser.

"The guy doesn't seem like a fourth-year player; he's got the aura of a veteran," Bengals fullback Lorenzo Neal said in 2001. "His will to win is unbelievable, and he challenges everyone to match it."

Fast forward nearly a decade and Spikes, who hopes to play two more seasons, is a two-time Pro Bowl selection whose 1,464 career tackles rank sixth among active players. But in many ways, nothing's changed since his days in Cincinnati.

In the midst of the Niners' 3-7 season, Spikes appears destined for the 12th non-winning season in his 13-year career. In his 181 games with the Bengals, Bills, Eagles and 49ers, he has endured 118 losses, a winning percentage of .348. Put it this way: Spikes has been a part of six more wins than the laughingstock Lions since 1998.

His one winning season — a 9-7 campaign with the Bills in 2004 — might qualify as his most painful. Buffalo rallied from a 3-6 start with six straight wins and needed a victory at Pittsburgh in its regular-season finale to reach the playoffs. The Steelers, who were resting many of their starters for the postseason, still won, 29-24, despite an interception by Spikes.

For any decorated NFL veteran to endure such sustained misery seems unfortunate. With Spikes, it borders on cruel.

"You can see it in his eyes," nose tackle Ricky Jean-Francois said. "He tries to keep his spirits up, but a loss — it hurts him."

Spikes, one of San Francisco's six team captains, has served as an example for countless young players such as Jean-Francois, 24. When he was named a captain in Cincinnati, he read books on leadership and went out with teammates from diverse backgrounds in an effort to connect.

His reputation gradually spread beyond the locker room and he now has league-wide, wise-sage, elder-statesman status. In 2007, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell appointed Spikes to the first-ever NFL Player Advisory Council, a six-man committee that advises the commissioner on issues that affect NFL players.

He's led so effectively that his teammates, without prompting, say they are driven to lead him to a place he's never been.

"He's reached every individual accolade, but still hasn't reached the playoffs," nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin said. "Your heart goes out to a guy like that who puts so much in the game and gives so much back to younger guys and he hasn't had a chance to taste that ... Getting him there — it gives you a little extra and makes you get out there and play even harder."

Said linebacker Patrick Willis, "I know for me, I want to get him there. I want to get there myself, but I most definitely want to get him there ASAP."

So it has come to this. The player who is all about winning is now identified with losing.

This is hardly the first story detailing Spikes' loss-filled career. He's answered enough of the same questions to know he's increasingly viewed as the great player with the great hole in his resume.

"It hurts me," he said. "It bothers me. I know how much I put into this game. On a personal level when you walk away, what's your legacy? What are you leaving behind? To me, at the end of the day, if you can't say you have the hardware — that's why I still play this game. That's why I'm always going to play the game. I want the hardware because no one can ever take that away from you ... I want the hardware. That's why I play this game, man. I want it. I want it."

And he doesn't care how he gets it.

Despite their 3-7 record, the 49ers remain just two games behind first-place Seattle in the NFC West, a division that's launched a thousand punchlines this season. It's quite possible a team will win the West and limp into the postseason without a winning record.

Again, Spikes isn't worried about style points.

"I don't care how it's done," he said. "I don't care how many yards are given up. I just want to win."

As usual, he's doing his part, even after it appeared he might be getting phased out of the starting lineup early in the season.

After a Week 3 loss to Kansas City, 49ers coach Mike Singletary told Spikes that he would begin sharing playing time with rookie NaVorro Bowman. Veteran safety Michael Lewis received a similar message and requested his release. Spikes requested that Singletary reconsider.

Singletary said he wanted to limit Spikes' wear and tear and have him healthy for the entire season, including, possibly, the playoffs.

Spikes spoke out publicly days after the 23-20 loss to Carolina dropped the Niners to 1-6 and drove him to tears.

"He wanted to save me for the rest of the season," Spikes said at the time. "But my stance on that is just the fact that if we ain't winning, ain't nobody going to be saved for the season. Period."

Spikes appears to have gotten the last word thanks to his stellar play. Bowman didn't play on defense in last week's 21-0 loss to Tampa Bay and Spikes had 12 tackles, his most since 2008.

It's tempting to say that Spikes, on pace for 112 tackles this season, is more driven than ever in his effort to finally attain his long-awaited goal.

But Spikes, as you know, says such logic is flawed. His will to win was just as great when he was crying after games as a 21-year-old rookie.

Looking back, he knows some of his teammates were much different. They had a checklist in which getting established and getting paid came well before winning.

"What (ticks) me off are the ones who just in general you look back over time and see — that guy was selfish," Spikes said. "The only thing he really cared about was getting his rocks off for the game and as long as he did what he was supposed to do, even if we lost, he was OK with that. The questions you asked me when we started this conversation, those questions belong to those guys."

Of course, Spikes, a proud winner on perpetual losers, had his own questions.

What about his legacy? What will he leave behind? He might be surprised to find those questions have already been answered.

For more on the 49ers, go to Instant 49ers at blog.pressdemocrat.com/49ers. You can reach Staff Writer Eric Branch at eric.branch@pressdemocrat.com and follow him at twitter.com/Eric_Branch.

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