Last chance: Bakhtiari works without a safety net

August 16, 2012, 8:59 pm
Share This Post

SANTA CLARA -- Outside linebacker Eric Bakhtiari has made a living bouncing around the NFL since 2008. But what worked for him in the past is no longer an option this season.
This is a make-or-break training camp for a guy who attracted interest from one NFL team in the offseason.And it just so happened when the phone rang, the person on the other end was the first one who gave him hope he could play at the highest level of the sport.Bakhtiari was prepared to enroll at the University of Arizona after being a one-year high school starter at Burlingame. He was not going to play football. But when he visited a friend at the University of San Diego in March before his freshman season, he saw an opportunity to continue to play college football at a lower level of competition.
After red-shirting his first year at San Diego, he was among eight players chosen to interview coaching candidates. There was one candidate who stood out among the others.Jim Harbaugh.After spring drills that first year, Harbaugh met with all 90 players. What he said to Bakhtiari that day in 2004 changed the youngster's commitment to the game."He told me -- I vividly remember this -- I walked in and we were talking and he said, 'We don't think you can be a good player here; we think you can be a great one.' And I've always remembered that," Bakhtiari said.What was his initial reaction?"I thought somebody else was in the room and he wasn't talking to me," Bakhtiari said.Bakhtiari became a three-time all-conference selection. In 2006 and '07, he was selected as the conference's Defensive Player of the Year."It gave me confidence and made me put more pressure on myself instead of being just a guy," Bakhtiari said. "Knowing the expectations were set for me, it kind of curbed my social activities on the weekends. Everything I did was geared toward football, in terms of my diet, when I went to bed, my workouts and what time I went out on weekends and what time I came back home."After going undrafted, Bakhtiari set forth on a remarkable NFL journey. He mostly lived a week-to-week existence on practice squads throughout the league, earning approximately 5,000 a week.From 2008 to 2011, he made stops with San Diego, the 49ers, back to San Diego, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, back to the 49ers, Miami, Kansas City, Cleveland, and back to Kansas City.Through it all, he has suited up for only three regular-season games. The Titans promoted him from the practice squad in 2009 for three games. He did not play any defense, but he was on the field for 47 plays on special teams.And don't bother asking him what he remembers from his first game: Nov. 13, 2009, vs. the St. Louis Rams. He sustained a concussion on kickoff coverage and he has only a hazy recollection of his NFL debut.Bakhtiari, 27, has a chance this summer to create new memories. The 49ers have a shortage of outside linebackers with injuries sidelining rookies Darius Fleming and Cam Johnson, both of whom were draft picks.Harbaugh personally invited Bakhtiari this spring to take part in a mass workout for veteran players prior to the draft at the 49ers' practice facility. Bakhtiari was brought back for a follow-up before the club signed him."I think a lot of him as a football player, as a person, and a guy," Harbaugh said. "Very talented, hard working guy, who you can count on. He's a count-on-me guy."The 49ers hope to count on Bakhtiari for more the same after an impressive opener to the exhibition season. He recorded two sacks Friday night against the Minnesota Vikings to keep himself in the conversation for a spot on the 53-man roster."For a guy that's only got one year in the league or whatever it is, credited, he's got a lot of experience because he's been in a bunch of camps," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "He's a smart player. He's experienced and it showed in that game there. He took advantage of his opportunities."But if he does not make the 49ers' roster, he can forget about getting a call to the team's practice squad. He no longer has practice-squad eligibility. And there's no way to spin that as good news for Bakhtiari with each team required to trim 37 players from Aug. 27 to Aug. 31."I think any time you eliminate yourself from having a job in the NFL, it's never a good thing," Bakhtiari said. "It's a special place to be. It's an honor and I've appreciated the years of service I've had here. I don't have that safety net of the practice squad."