SANTA CLARA -- Finally, after all these years, Glenn Winston was running down the field on Sunday -- completely in the clear.
A day later, Winston survived the first round of cuts with the 49ers and he appears to have a good chance of at least winning a job on the 49ers’ practice squad for the upcoming season.
He has beaten the odds to just get to this point -- to resuscitate a career that five years ago appeared to be over after serving jail time for two arrests for assault and getting dismissed from the Michigan State football team for “violation of team rules.” His dismissal was announced two days after Winston was involved in a fight at a campus dormitory.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” Winston said. “At the time, I was an 18-year-old child. Now, I’m 25. I’m a better man, better decision-maker. I’m here now.”
On Sunday, he wore a San Francisco 49ers uniform. He squeezed through a hole on the right side and maneuvered his 6-foot-1, 220-pound frame into the end zone on a 27-yard touchdown at Levi’s Stadium. He finished with a game-high 58 yards on eight rushing attempts against the San Diego Chargers.
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“It means the world to me,” Winston said. “It’s the things I stand for. I want everybody to know that the underdog is not truly the underdog. We’re going to keep working.”
Winston made his first college start as a sophomore in 2009 and scored a touchdown in a 26-20 victory over rival Michigan in October. A week later, he tore the ACL in his right knee. He never played another snap of major-college football. In November, he was involved in a brawl and kicked out of the football program.
In the past five years, Winston did not want to burden his mother and two younger siblings, so he reportedly lived with friends from high school and even slept on occasion in a former teammate’s car. Winston’s father is in Illinois state prison serving a 25-year sentence for murder, according to the Detroit Free Press.
“I always prayed to God to help me go out there with a clean conscious and believe,” Winston said.
Last fall, Winston made it back onto the football field. He rushed for 717 yards and nine touchdowns in eight games for Northwood, an NCAA Division II program in Midland, Michigan.
Winston demonstrated NFL-caliber skills at his pro day at Eastern Michigan in March. But he did not get drafted, and no teams signed him as a free agent.
The 49ers gave him a chance when they brought him out for a workout on Aug. 4 after Kendall Hunter sustained a season-ending knee injury.
When asked why he believed the 49ers would take the gamble of signing him, Winston answered, “Maybe they saw a good athlete. And maybe they saw a guy that would stand up and not run away from the situation. Maybe they saw a guy who didn’t run away from what he did and owned up to it.”
Winston’s commitment to continuing to work out and remain in football playing shape paid off. The 49ers signed him to a contract on the day he visited.
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“I got a good family back home,” Winston said. “My mom, my girlfriend helped me stay positive and motivate me to stay in shape and work out and get better every day. That opportunity came. The 49ers had a need and they called me. I came out here and showed up.”
The 49ers have been willing in recent seasons to give chances to players who are considered character risks. In Winston, they saw a talented player who has seemingly matured greatly and learned from his previous mistakes.
“It’s the land of opportunity,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I’ve always thought that about California and the National Football League. He’s been good here since the day he got here, as a teammate, as a person and acquitted himself well on the field.
“We’ll see where it goes. But he’s done some very good things in the game, scored a touchdown. He was very excited about that after the ballgame and some of his other runs. So I was happy for him.”
Winston broke out in a big smile when asked what it’s been like to be on the same team as Frank Gore, the leading rusher in 49ers history and one of the NFL’s best all-around running backs of this generation.
“Oh, man, it’s kind of surreal,” he said. “I feel like a kid.”
When reminded that he’s no longer a kid, Winston said, “Not at all.”
He’s a young man whose dream is still alive.
“I want to be one of the best running backs in the league,” Winston said. “I want to make the 53-man roster. But it’s all steps. I want to make the team. I want to play, and eventually one day I want to start.”