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Barber: 49ers, Chiefs reflect on Kobe Bryant

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MIAMI - They received the news at 30,000 feet. The Chiefs and 49ers both were en route to Miami for Super Bowl LIV when word began to circulate that Kobe Bryant (and eight other people, we’d come to learn) had died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas.

I, too, was in the air when I found out. It was, in a word, unbelievable. I stood up and tried to find the eyes of another Bay Area sportswriter — several were on my flight — but couldn’t find them.

As shocking as Bryant’s death was, though, it did not hit me on a personal level. I didn’t know the man. He wasn’t a big deal for me, culturally. I respected Bryant and admired his talent and passion, but I never idolized him.

It was different for so many athletes. I’ve spent a lot of time in locker rooms and clubhouses over the past 16 years, and I’d say the only person who might have rivaled Kobe as an object of fellow-athlete adoration is Tiger Woods. Bryant captivated his peers with his intensity, his drive and his ice-cold unflappability in big moments.

At Super Bowl Opening Night, the Big Game’s first real media event on Monday, excitement for the coming contest was tempered by remembrances of Bryant. Many members of the 49ers and Chiefs talked about hearing the tragic news, about what Bryant meant to them personally (especially in Richard Sherman’s case) and professionally, about what they absorbed from his example, about how to move on.

Here are the recollections of some of the men I listened to Monday night.

49ers cornerback Richard Sherman: “John (Lynch, San Francisco’s general manager) came up and told me on the plane. I was sleeping and he tapped me and said, ‘I’m sorry. It’s unconfirmed right now, but there’s rumors that Kobe has passed.’ I want to say probably an hour into the flight.”

49ers wide receiver Dante Pettis: “I was sleeping and heard Deebo (Samuel) was like, ‘Hey, Dante, Kobe died.’ I was asleep and heard that and immediately woke up and was like, ‘What did you say?’ He said it again, and I said ‘no way.’ I went on Twitter. I had like 30 texts from people, because they knew how important he was in my life.”

Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark: “I heard something from one of my close friends, he was in LA, actually. And he had tweeted ‘Rest in peace, Kobe.’ I seen the tweet, and I got off of Twitter. ... And my boy (defensive tackle) Chris Jones, he came up to me and said, ‘You know, Kobe Bryant just died in a helicopter crash.’ That’s when I knew the news. And it was some of the worst news you could hear. Some of the worst news I’ve ever heard.”

Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu: “It was shocking, really, to say the least. Really so sad for his family, and his wife and their daughters. I never thought in my lifetime that Kobe Bryant — I thought guys like him would last forever.”

Sherman: “I’m sure this kind of shock takes a few days to process it. This man was gone way before he was supposed to. And you never pick your time, you never know when you’re supposed to go. But I can’t remember any generational talent like this being gone before his time.”

Clark: “You know, growing up in Los Angeles, growing up in South Central, you don’t got a lot to look forward to. There’s gangs. That’s it, really, gangs and drugs. And the one person I looked to for all my strength growing up when I was going through the things I was going through was Kobe Bryant. ... We talk about the early 2000s, LA was on fire, dude.”

Clark: “It feel like Michael Jackson died. Again. It’s a hard day in LA, man.”

Pettis: “(Bryant as a sports hero) might have even been before my dad (former MLB player Gary Pettis) because I didn’t see my dad play, so I never really knew what my dad did. But I was 2 years old watching Kobe. I couldn’t really comprehend what my dad did till I was 7 or 8.”

Pettis: “For me, Kobe wasn’t just a basketball player. He was how I wanted live my life. Everything he did, he attacked it without hesitation. Didn’t matter if it was playing basketball, being a father, being a creator, making short films. He attacked everything he could.”

49ers wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who met Bryant at a motivational talk: “He said I’m gonna be the best basketball player in the world when I’m at the game. When I get home, I’m gonna be the best jungle gym in the world. Because his daughters like to climb on him. Here’s a guy, he had played 18 years, so I’m guessing he was pretty sore when he got home. That’s a servant heart right there.”

Sherman: “I think that’s what’s sad, because he was gonna do so much more than just basketball. I think basketball was gonna end up being a small part of what he was. Being an amazing father, an outstanding person, a businessman, an entrepreneur. It’s just sad the world never got to see his full capability.”

Matthews: “After a long talk (by Bryant), I went up to him: ‘Kobe, my wife (Cheyna Matthews), like you’re her favorite athlete ever. … She wore these purple Kobes for every single one of her soccer games at Vanderbilt. I said, ‘She’s pregnant right now, but she’s gonna start training for the World Cup after she has our son. Can you please just say, like, congratulations on the pregnancy, and good luck on the season? I gave him like a long prompt. And Kobe’s like, ‘OK, I got you.’ And we do it, and that video, I’m like somebody needs to see this. Because that was the purest form of somebody saying, ‘I’m gonna do this for you.’ He called my wife by her name, like, ‘Hi, Cheyna.’ You don’t know how good that made my wife feel at that moment. … My wife ended up going to the World Cup (with Jamaica), and a lot of that was probably because of that motivation. And the crazy part was my son ended up being born August 24 — 8/24 (Bryant’s jersey numbers with the Lakers).”

Clark: “Of course I got (Bryant’s autobiography) ‘Mamba Mentality.’ It’s on my desk right now. I read that book every day.”

Clark: “Winning first in your preparation. Like when you go on the court, you gotta prepare just as much as I prepare for an opponent. And going in an interview, knowing the subject you’re gonna talk about, and studying it the night before. Same thing I gotta do. And that’s the Mamba mentality. It’s winning through your preparation first. When you get to the event, to the show, it should be easy.”

Sherman: “I guess the biggest Mamba-mentality moment in my career was getting up on a torn Achilles’ (tendon) and walking off the field. I saw him do it. I saw him make two free throws and walk off with a torn Achilles’. And once I tore mine, I knew I had to walk off. Like he said before, we’re two animals but the same beast.”

Sherman: “I was really sad yesterday, and I was sad this morning. I was kind of down, I was in the dumps. But I just thought about what he would tell me. And he’d tell me, ‘Stop being a baby. Man up. And play it.’ And do it in his honor, and win this game for him. And that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna go out and try and play some dominating ball, just like he wanted.”

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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