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.