Two weeks before the 49ers open one of the final seasons of the
Steve Young-Jerry Rice era, you would think San Francisco would
be kicking itself for not having devoted enough high draft picks
or free-agent money to shore up an aging and depleted offensive
line. You would think the Niners would be fatally flawed after
failing to plan for the retirement of their most reliable
blocker, right tackle Kirk Scrafford, and adding head-case tackle
Jamie Brown, in a trade with the Broncos.
Fiore was up to the task against Daniels and the
Seahawks' pricey front seven.
But what happened in the Niners' first three preseason games,
particularly in Vancouver last Saturday night, showed that San
Francisco's line may be in fine shape after all. In bolting to a
21-0 second-quarter lead over the Seahawks, the 49ers got
flawless play from the lowest-paid pair of starting tackles in
the NFL, Dave Fiore (1998 salary: $204,000) and Derrick Deese
($360,000), against a Seattle front seven featuring five players
who have multimilllion-dollar contracts. In particular Fiore, who
has never started a regular-season NFL game, played superbly. On
four series encompassing 14 pass plays, the man Fiore was
responsible for blockingvariously, linemen Cortez Kennedy and
Phillip Daniels and linebackers Chad Brown and Darrin Smithnever
got a sniff of Young or backup quarterback Ty Detmer. The Niners
are getting used to this. In their preseason opener Fiore never
allowed Willie McGinest, the Patriots' $5 million-a-year pass
rusher, to get a hand on the quarterback. Ditto for the Chargers'
$3.3 million man, Marco Coleman, in week two. Fiore appears to
have quick enough feet and the arm strength to be a competent, if
not outstanding, tackle.
The 36-year-old Young hasn't been thrilled about San Francisco's
neglect of the line in recent years. Now, with premier outside
pass rushers like the Redskins' Ken Harvey and the Bills' Bruce
Smith lining up against the Niners in the first five weeks of the
season, Young must rely on a pair of tackles who were free agents
coming out of college. Still, he's starting to believe in the
Fiore-Deese tandem. "I'm not a Pollyanna about it," Young said
after the 24-21 win over Seattle. "I'm a little concerned about
the experience factor. But in football not enough is made of
playing with passion. These are two guys who love playing, and I
don't know how many guys in this league you can say that about.
We're going to win with these guys."
After Scrafford retired in April because of a neck injury, the
Niners dealt a second-round 1999 draft pick for Brown. In three
seasons he had played unspectacularly in Denver under relentless
line coach Alex Gibbs, but no one has taken on that babysitting
role with the 49ers. Longtime line coach Bobb McKittrick believes
it is the players' responsibility to get motivated. Brown was
slowed by a hamstring injury early in camp, and he was ostracized
by teammates when he didn't attend the exhibition opener against
the Patriots. In an unusual move the Niners then excused Brown
from camp so he could rest the hamstring and soothe his fragile
psyche. Brown was expected to return to the team this week in a
Enter Fiore. Recommended to San Francisco as a rookie free agent
in 1996 by New Jersey workout buddy and former Niner Jim Burt
after a nondescript career as a nonscholarship player at Hofstra,
Fiore spent the first half of his rookie season with the Niners
before being released and picked up by the Jets. He hurt his left
knee during training camp in '97, reached an injury settlement
with the Jets and after re-signing with the Niners, spent the
season on injured reserve. He entered camp this year as a
288-pound insurance policy.
However, winning the starting left-tackle job this summer
wouldn't be the biggest upset of Fiore's career. Just getting to
the NFL was. A high school quarterback and tight end from
Waldwick, N.J., Fiore worked his way through Hofstra; he played
football as a sideline. "I worked security at a bar," he says. "I
was a bartender. I was an R.A. [resident assistant] in a dorm. I
took out loans that I'm still paying back."
No wonder Fiore plays every snap as if it's his last. On pass
plays, after the ball is out of the quarterback's hand, he
sprints upfield like a Frisbee dog, looking for someone to block.
On Saturday night, he tangled with Brown, the prize of the 1997
free-agent crop. "What a great player," Fiore said of Brown.
"Lightning quick. But those are the guys I have to stop. I just
To the surprise of everyone but himself, Fiore is doing just
that. "The only expectations I've exceeded are everyone else's,"
Fiore says. Welcome, perhaps, to the underdog story of 1998.
Issue date: August 24, 1998