SANTA CLARA — A year after witnessing his grandfather’s fatal heart attack, 12-year old Ronald Blair and his mother were staying with his widowed grandmother, Annie Peek, who was suffering from colon cancer.
As her illness progressed, Blair would dutifully bring Peek a plastic monkey doll, to make her feel peaceful. As Blair tended to Peek, one day, she gestured towards it. She wasn’t speaking much at that point in her illness, but when she pointed at the doll, Blair brought it over. He then left the room for a moment, and by the time he got back, she, too, was gone.
Peek used to tell her grandson, “Even if somebody tells you something 100 times, keep listening, because that 101st time that you heard it, it might be something different than you heard the first time.”
Now 25, Blair is one of just nine San Francisco 49ers draft picks made by former general manager Trent Baalke that remain on the current roster. It’s the former fifth-round draft pick’s versatility, attention to detail and most importantly, his fanatical, obsessive film study that’s kept him there.
“To be honest, as long as I’ve known him — we were roommates our rookie year — and he’s always on the iPad, watching film in his off time,” fellow defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said. “He really watches film a lot, and really gets familiar with the playbook — not just his position, but every position on the D-line. Sometimes, he knows what coverages we should be in.”
Despite lacking the athleticism of teammates like Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas and Buckner, Blair has survived a change in administration, a thumb injury that cost him most of his second season in the NFL and a change in defense from an odd front to an even front.
“I’m always looking to soak in as much information as possible,” Blair said.
“I always say, ‘If you like winning, then you like Ronnie,’” said defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
Blair’s late grandfather Johnny Peek worked at an aluminum can recycling company, hauling cans and melting them down, until diabetes took his lower leg. He would shuttle his grandson from youth football practice to after-school programs, sitting in his sky-blue 1960s Ford pickup for hours in the parking lot before Blair was finished.
Annie worked for a made socks for a small company in Union Point, Georgia. Annie, Blair said, “would give the shirt off her back” to make sure he was well-fed. Her daughter — Blair’s mother Jennifer Goss — is a paraprofessional working with special education students at a middle school.
“We just really came from nothing,” Blair said. “I wanted my family to have better. I just wanted everything to be better. I wanted my family to get out of the neighborhood I grew up in, do bigger and better things. I just really want to attribute [my work ethic] to my late grandparents. They worked so hard for what they had.”
Blair briefly took up tuba in middle school, but when the band director — who also worked with the local high school — told him he wouldn’t make the varsity football team as a freshman and instead go out for marching band, Blair used it as motivation.
Not only did he play on varsity, but he started at offensive tackle. In the opening game against Glenn Hill Academy, he blocked a defender out of bounds. Standing on the sideline was that same band director.
“I got up and saw him right there. I pointed at him,” Blair said. “He looked at me and turned around, and the band was playing.”
Blair started on both sides of the ball for Greene County, with a “sprinkling” of tight end mixed in. It wasn’t until his senior year, though, after he returned an interception 62 yards for a touchdown against Putnam County, that he realized football could be his way out.
“My coach came up to me and said, ‘How you ran is probably going to get you a chance to get a college scholarship,’ which I had never even fathomed,” he said.
Blair chose Appalachian State over several other small schools. With 6-foot-6 Gordy Witte ahead of him, he figured he would redshirt. Halfway through training camp, though, defensive line coach Jason Blalock told Blair he was going to start. In his first game at Virginia Tech, though, he committed a costly blunder.
On a misdirection play, running back David Wilson — who wound up playing for the New York Giants — took the handoff behind his fullback. Blair went for the fullback, and Wilson went for 40 yards.
“It was kind of a wake-up call to me,” Blair said. “I try not to let that happen ever again.”
He started all 51 games in which he appeared, piling up 221 tackles, 21 sacks and 53 1/2 tackles for loss. After his senior year in 2015, he was named Sun Belt Conference Defensive Student-Athlete of the Year and First-Team All-Sun Belt.
When he was drafted by the 49ers, the first thing Blair did was move his mother into a bigger, nicer apartment. Then he played in 16 games, recording three sacks and 11 solo tackles, with five assists. Last season, a groin injury in the preseason and a nagging thumb separation that kept him out of all but six games. He still managed 10 solo tackles, five assists and two sacks.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Ronald,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “First of all, he plays at a high level. He wins a lot and he can play all of the positions. When you have that versatility on a D-lineman, that’s a guy that’s very tough to replace.”
Blair has played all across the line in both even and odd fronts in the NFL, and played linebacker in college, all of which made him extremely valuable.
“It’s critical to have a guy like that,” Buckner said. “Anybody can go down throughout the year … he knows all of it. He’s a key part of our D-line for sure.”
At 6-foot-4, 270, Blair has more savvy than size when he plays inside, but he’s made it work.
“He is mainly on the outside from his size and stuff, but when we put him on the inside, he’s tough enough and scrappy enough that he gets it done,” Shanahan said.
“He just always wins,” Saleh said. “He always finishes on the block. He does what he’s supposed to do. He’s got great versatility. We love Ronnie. We love his work ethic. He stands for everything we believe in. He gets the job done.”