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ROONEY AWARD FINALISTS

The eight finalists for the 2017 Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award, four from each conference.

Antonio Gates, TE, Los Angeles Chargers (AFC)

Alex Smith, QB, Kansas City Chiefs * (AFC)

Josh McCown, QB, New York Jets (AFC)

Joe Thomas, OT, Cleveland Browns (AFC)

Vernon Davis, TE, Washington Redskins (NFC)

Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers * (NFC)

Haloti Ngata, DT, Detroit Lions (NFC)

Joe Staley, OT, San Francisco 49ers ** (NFC)

* - previous finalist

** - two-time previous finalist

Grant Cohn's Inside the 49ers blog

SANTA CLARA

Just what kind of a good sport is offensive lineman Joe Staley?

The day after the 49ers announced Staley was a finalist for the NFL’s Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award, to be announced Feb. 3, Staley met with reporters in the locker room to discuss the honor of the nomination and his good sportsmanship.

Reporters were looking for a serious story, a humorous anecdote, any example they could use in their articles of Staley being a good sport and a swell guy.

“Didn’t you try to break up a fight a few years ago when you guys were in Tennessee playing the Titans?” a reporter asked.

“No, I started it,” Staley said with a sly grin. “Yeah, what a good sport. Great sport. Just making sure everybody’s energy levels were up during the game. Felt like there was a lull. Fans weren’t getting a show. So yeah, started a fight. Forgot about that. Bernard Pollard. That was when Jim Harbaugh jumped in the middle of it.”

That was 2013. Staley was 29. Still developing his sportsmanship.

In 2014, the NFL created the Art Rooney Award, which annually honors the “player who best demonstrates the qualities of on-field sportsmanship, including fair play, respect for the game and opponents, and integrity in competition.” The award was named for the late founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a man who spent much of his youth as a brawling amateur boxer and later purchased his football franchise with winnings from a racetrack.

Staley has been one of eight finalists for this award each of the past three seasons.

What would it mean to him to win the award?

“It’s nice to be recognized,” Staley said. “It’s about playing the game the right way. People recognize that, just being professional and carrying yourself the right way on and off the field.

“I know it’s entertainment for fans and everybody, but it’s also a job for us. I approach it every single day as a professional. You’re supposed to live up to a certain standard, whether that be Wednesday in the meeting rooms and on the practice field or on game day. There’s a certain way to play the game. I don’t know if it’s something I consciously try to do, but I always try to put my head down and do the right thing.”

How did Staley learn these values?

“Definitely started at home,” Staley said. “And then, I had a great high school football coach — Ralph Munger. He was pretty instrumental in terms of teaching me work ethic. Because I was really crappy when I started playing football.

“I started when I was 9, and I was always crappy. I was third string all the way until I was a junior in high school. But I loved playing football. Coach Munger ingrained that work ethic in me, that if I wanted to be good at something, I have to work for it. That stayed with me throughout my whole career.”

Munger coached Staley at Rockford High School in Rockford, Michigan, back when Staley allegedly was a “crappy” player. Munger laughed at that.

“Joe was very good,” Munger said on the phone. “He was blessed with size and speed. And he’s got all those personal traits that you appreciate, because he was always a team guy, always unselfish.

“For us, he played tight end, but we also split him out. He could play wide receiver. He could do a lot of different things. You could see that his best years were yet to come.

“He was a fun-loving young man. Very inwardly competitive. Well respected by his peers and by our faculty. Joe is special. High integrity. Great character. Has a great smile. I think his father and him could do a comedy act anywhere, any place for anyone and be well received. Joe is just a guy who’s full of life. A fun guy to be around. And yet at the same time, he’s an intense competitor, a talented athlete that takes his role extremely seriously.”

Munger and Staley still text each other. And when Staley visits home, he goes to Rockford High School to use the weight room and jog around the track.

“The thing I’m most proud of is he’s still the same guy,” Munger said. “He has never, ever forgotten his roots. He hasn’t been spoiled by his status. He continues to represent himself and his family in an extremely positive manner.”

Sunday, Staley faced the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose head coach, Doug Marrone, is a former offensive lineman and offensive line coach. Marrone doesn’t know Staley personally but observes him professionally.

“He plays with great tenacity, great grit,” Marrone said of Staley. “To be able to go out there for as long as he has and play at the level that he’s been playing and the consistency in his performance is something that all young players should look up to.”

Staley, the role model, said he occasionally encounters bad behavior from opponents during games.

“I’ve been cursed at a lot,” Staley said. “And I’ve cursed back. I’m competitive. I’m not Mr. Choirboy out there.

“I used to talk more when I was younger. I don’t really talk much anymore. And if I do talk to an opponent, I’m usually like, ‘Man that was a good move!’ That’s my little anecdote of being a good sport.”

Does Staley congratulate opponents if they beat him?

“Yeah,” Staley said. “I had a really rough game in Chicago two years ago against Willie Young. He beat me for one and a half sacks. I sought him out after the game and told him, ‘Hey man, great game. I didn’t know what to do against you.’ Because some days you’re not going to have a good game. That’s part of respecting the game. You’re not just going to be on top of it every single time.”

Staley’s lowest moment may have come in 2014. The 49ers had just lost in the NFC championship game to the Seattle Seahawks, and Staley was angry. Former Press Democrat sports columnist Lowell Cohn asked Staley a series of questions at his locker and Staley gave terse answers. He wasn’t rude, but he wasn’t his typical expansive, helpful, fun-loving self.

Cohn left and walked into the interview room waiting for Coach Jim Harbaugh. While Cohn waited, Staley did something professional athletes almost never do. He walked into the interview room, sought out Cohn, and apologized.

“I remember that,” Staley said.

“Why did you do that?” a reporter asked.

“In the moment, I was upset and had a lot of emotions going,” Staley said. “He didn’t deserve cruel treatment.”

“Lowell didn’t think you did anything wrong,” the reporter said.

“I did,” Staley said.

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