SANTA CLARA — Two weeks before wide receiver Marquise Goodwin won the 49ers’ Garry Niver Award for cooperation and professionalism with the media, I got the feeling he wanted to punch me.
This was during a one-on-one interview at Goodwin’s locker.
“You’re having a big growth season,” I said to him. “Some people feel you stepped up after Pierre Garcon went down, and you have a good relationship with Jimmy Garoppolo. Would you consider those contributing factors to your emergence recently?”
Goodwin stared at the floor.
Did I say something wrong?
“What else has played into your emergence?” I asked, trying to modify my question.
“Uh, throwing me the ball,” Goodwin said. “That’s it. It ain’t got nothing to do with Pierre. It ain’t got nothing to do with Jimmy.”
I definitely said something wrong.
“You don’t think you’ve grown as a player?” I asked
“No,” he said. “I’m the same player. It’s not like I changed overnight and became this person who can catch or run a route. I won’t elaborate.”
He was staring at me now. Sizing me up. Visualizing the ass-kicking he could give me, I thought.
I needed to make him less defensive.
“What does it feel like when you catch the ball in stride and you break away?” I asked. “Is it a good feeling?”
“It’s not a bad feeling,” Goodwin said, still staring. Hardly blinking.
Oh for one.
“Which feeling do you prefer,” I asked, “scoring a touchdown or winning a race?”
“Both,” Goodwin said.
Oh for two. Goodwin squinted his eyes and shook his head like he had just heard the dumbest question of his life.
“What did you take pride in as a sprinter and as a jumper?” I asked.
“Winning,” Goodwin said. Another head shake.
Oh for three. I was ready to give up.
“Everyone likes to win,” I said. “Everyone likes results. What about the process?”
Goodwin’s face softened.
“The type of working hours you put in sometimes is overlooked,” he said. “The diet. The little sacrifices that you take from your family, people don’t take that into account.
“When they go and judge a professional player over social media, they don’t realize what a young 21-year-old is going through being away from his family, the first time in his life having some money and having opportunities. And then he goes to social media where it’s supposed to be his platform to communicate himself or show a little bit of his life or his story to everybody else in the world, and they go and put him down.
“I don’t think anybody in any sport ever sucks. You’re an athlete. You’re a professional.”
Goodwin was talking about himself — that’s my interpretation. He must have taken a ton of criticism earlier in his career. He probably felt I was another critic trying to diminish him.
I thought the interview could work if I asked him philosophical questions instead of questions about him.
“A lot of good sprinters haven’t been good at football,” I said. “What are the differences in the skill sets?”
“A lot of sprinters aren’t football players,” Goodwin said. “I’m a football player. That’s the difference between me and a sprinter. My knowledge of the game. I’m totally different than any other track guy.”
“It’s interesting you bring up knowledge,” I said. “That’s a big difference between track and football. You don’t have to be smart to run track, but you do have to be smart and conceptual to play football.”
Goodwin corrected me. “You have to be smart to run track.”
Now, we were talking.
“A lot of people think track, you just run, that’s all you do,” Goodwin said. “No. There’s a lot of technical aspects to it as well. A sprinter is not just going to get out of the blocks and start running. You do that, you’re going to get embarrassed every time. There are different techniques. Different breathing techniques. I’ve got to know when I’ve got to exert this amount of energy, when I need to kick.”
Goodwin interrupted himself.
“If I would have known you were going to ask those type of questions, I would have elaborated a lot more. I thought it was going to be like…” Goodwin trailed off.
“It’s OK,” I said.
“If you want to re-ask a few of those, that’s fine. I wasn’t trying to blow you off. I didn’t understand where you were going.”
Goodwin has to be the first player in NFL history to ask a reporter to restart an interview. First athlete in sports history. Athletes don’t do things like that, at least no athletes I’ve ever covered.
I always will respect Goodwin.
“What’s it feel like when you catch the ball in stride and break away?” I asked again.
“When the ball is in the air and I catch it in front of somebody, it’s a wrap,” Goodwin said. “In my mind, it’s over with. The amount of time I put into being fast and explosive, the type of energy I dedicate toward that, when I get past somebody, I can see the panic in a person when I run past him. And so when I’m looking back for the ball, I get goosebumps.”
“Which feeling do you prefer, scoring a touchdown or winning a race? They must feel different — breaking away from an entire defense compared to breaking away from other sprinters.
“Now that you describe it like that, it is different. I competed in college, and that feeling, winning a race, it was great. But I got so accustomed to it, it became like habit. And when something becomes like habit, you don’t really appreciate that feeling. Whereas football, I’ve always been so fast that I would outrun a lot of the quarterbacks’ arms.
“And so, when they did give me the ball in stride, it was like, ‘Ooh, I am about to score. I already know. And I’m about to help my team have a chance to win.’ That feeling is, it’s hard to explain, really.”
Track star becomes football star. What an answer.
Thank you, Marquise. It’s a pleasure working with you.
Grant Cohn covers the 49ers for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Pressdemocrat.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.