SANTA CLARA — It was a call Dre Greenlaw didn’t expect. Still in the afterglow of being picked in the fifth round of the NFL Draft, the former Arkansas linebacker couldn’t quite place the name on his caller ID On Sunday night.
The same day Greenlaw was picked 148th overall, Gerry Daly, the father of an Arkansas student, posted a Twitter thread thanking the new 49er for saving his daughter. Greenlaw hadn’t remembered who he’d saved, and didn’t want to take credit if it were a case of mistaken identity. When he saw the name on his phone, it clicked.
When he was introduced by the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium on Thursday, Greenlaw was almost apologetic. The former ward of the state of Arkansas, the former foster child, the self-described orphan, said that when Daly’s daughter was drugged and nearly raped at a fraternity party their freshman year, he didn’t intervene to earn public plaudits.
“I want my publicity to come from playing football,” said Greenlaw, who has told the story of his upbringing ad nauseum over the last four years. Instead, he spent over 12 minutes explaining why he chose to do the right thing off the football field, when he could have just protected himself. For a team that had issues with a certain talented SEC linebacker who made all the wrong choices, it was something different.
Daly tweeted on April 27 that the 49ers’ new inside linebacker, right after his 2015 Freshman All-American season for the Razorbacks, “risked everything,” to save his daughter from sexual assault, or worse.
Daly’s daughter had been a cheerleader at Fayetteville High School at the same time Greenlaw starred for the football team. When she came up to Greenlaw during a party at the Arkansas chapter of Sigma Chi, she told him she was feeling off — like someone had put something in her drink. His first instinct was to stay away from trouble. The team had just had a talk with coach Bret Bielema about being careful at parties.
“Being a freshman, I had already made a name for myself, and I didn’t really want to get [involved] too much, because I don’t want it to go nowhere,” Greenlaw said. “I don’t want to put my name in the position where I could get myself in trouble … I just didn’t want to get myself in a vulnerable position.”
Then, Greenlaw saw one partygoer try to get the young woman to leave with him. As he put it, a guy was getting “up on her.”
He knew her from high school, and knew her personality. She wasn’t acting drunk. He remembered what she had said moments earlier: She felt like someone put something in her drink.
“She was acting out of herself,” Greenlaw said. “I wasn’t sure at first, but I saw her again, and she was like, ‘I need help. I think someone put something in my drink.’ She was telling me that again.”
He saw another partygoer try to take her away. Greenlaw intervened, grabbed her and asked who she had come to the party with. Her friend Bethany, she replied, but she didn’t know where Bethany was.
Greenlaw took the young woman away from the dance floor and asked around, trying to find her friend for almost a half hour, going around the fraternity house, upstairs and down. Having no luck, he got Bethany’s phone number from another partygoer.
“Something ain’t right with her,” he told Bethany. “She said someone put something in her drink.”
Bethany returned and collected her friend, and took her to the hospital, where she had her stomach pumped. According to Daly, she’d been drugged. “Roofies,” Greenlaw said. The young woman called Greenlaw the next day to thank him, and she again expressed her thanks when she ran into Greenlaw during their sophomore year, but the two had not spoken since.
The next time he spoke with her was after he was drafted, after her father tweeted at him.
Had a fight broken out as Greenlaw intervened, Daly tweeted, the underage football star at a fraternity party could have been suspended or kicked off the team. Instead, Daly continued, “when that guy tried to steer my daughter out the front door, he stopped the guy and said ‘she’s not going anywhere.’”
Daly said that Greenlaw had earned a fan for life.
“He had my daughter’s back and for that I will always owe him,” Daly tweeted.
Greenlaw’s story reads as almost the polar opposite of that of another 49ers inside linebacker from the SEC: Reuben Foster. He, too, had a rough childhood, with his father trying to murder him and his mother and then escaping custody — eluding authorities for years — as Foster built himself into a football powerhouse and a star at Alabama. Foster, though, made all the wrong choices, from the crowd he surrounded himself with to the company he kept to his treatment of women. It all ended in a mess in a Tampa hotel last fall.
Greenlaw had lived in foster homes and group homes, sometimes only getting 10 minutes of time outside per day. He lost his biological family to drugs, prison and neglect. Greenlaw was a ward of the state for six years before Brian Early, the defensive coordinator at Fayetteville High School, took an interest in him as a 14-year old freshman, bringing him into his home, and eventually his family.
Initially, Brian only set out to help mentor Greenlaw. From the time he first entered the Early family, Greenlaw became a faithful protector to the Earlys’ two daughters. Brian would coach him on the field during the week, take Greenlaw to Arkansas games on Saturdays and church on Sundays. Eventually, when the Earlys found out that Greenlaw’s group home was shutting down, and that he’d have to move to a boys’ ranch in Alma, they offered to take him in full time. It was the right thing to do. He became a starter, and then a star on defense, finally earning a scholarship from the Razorbacks in the middle of his senior year.
Greenlaw had never told his adopted parents, Brian and Nanci, about the incident during his first year on the Arkansas campus. They came to him after they saw the story come out. When he got the call from Daly’s daughter, at 10 p.m., he ran to Nanci’s room excitedly. That’s when he told her what had happened. She was happy that he was looking out for someone, and she wasn’t surprised.
Greenlaw figured, at the time of the incident, he was just doing what was right, and that was that. It’s what the Earlys did when they took him in as a freshman at Fayetteville.
“I wasn’t doing it for attention,” he said. “I did it because I did it. A whole four years went by, and I didn’t think about it too much … It’s somebody’s daughter, so I understand why he would be so appreciative of it, but at the time, I was just looking out for a friend.”