Commentary

This nutcracker isn't a ballet

Mike Singletary's back-to-basics preaching has turned the 49ers around

Originally Published: September 24, 2009
By Chris Jones | Special to ESPN The Magazine
Getty ImagesMike Singletary was one of the most respected players in the NFL. He remains as passionate as a coach.

This story appears in the October 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Mike Singletary stands alone in the middle of two fields of action, a still life amid the chaos. A wooden cross rests on his chest, sunglasses hide his eyes and he holds his notebook in his hands, always. These are his tools, the instruments of his new profession.

The notebook is a Moleskine, with a black leather cover and rounded corners and a collection of crisp, white, acid-free pages inside. It has the same texture as a football, which gives him something to do with his hands. Vincent van Gogh used a similar notebook; so did Hemingway and Picasso. It's an artist's notebook, not for someone who scribbles. A man who uses a Moleskine tucks in his shirts.

Nearly every day of training camp, held under a blue California sky, Singletary has worn the same outfit: white cap, white windbreaker, red shorts, white socks, black shoes -- all of it looking fresh out of the box. The wooden cross, hanging from a simple black cord, is put on last, so it's the first thing you see when you look at him. He wears his clothes like a uniform, his cross like a medal. He looks precise. Knife-sharp. Ready to work.

There's something disarmingly serene about him, this 50-year-old man with the notebook. Here's a football coach who has commanded his San Francisco 49ers to throw their shoulders as hard as they ever have -- and yet he stands among them nearly still. Watching him now, with his arms folded, his pen in his mouth, he looks like an architect or poet, a man dreaming in the sun.

"I love this notebook," Singletary says later. "I keep a library of them. I write down things that strike me. I'll see a player do something I want him to do, I might write down, Today, he got it. It's like raising kids: You never know when you're going to get a special moment. It's easy to forget them. I want to keep track of the moments that make us who we are."

To keep reading this Mike Singletary feature -- including thoughts from the boyfriend of one of his daughters, who happens to play for a division rival -- you must be an ESPN Insider. Insider
Chris Jones is the back-page columnist for ESPN The Magazine. He is also a Writer at Large for Esquire. Follow him on Twitter @MySecondEmpire.