How 49ers' Dre Greenlaw's roots fostered strong appreciation for women


Long before making the game-winning tackle in the 49ers’ Week 17 win over the Seattle Seahawks, rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw was just a 14-year-old kid living in a group home in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Greenlaw entered the foster care program when he was just eight years old, moving from place to place without a permanent home. That is, until a chance encounter at Fayetteville High School altered the course of Greenlaw’s life forever.

“I was really impressed with the way that he carried himself,” then-Fayetteville High School football coach Brian Early said. “Just the type of kid that he was, I thought there was something special about him."

The Early family took Dre under their wing, hoping to mentor and help Greenlaw in any way they could.

After his foster home in Fayetteville was set to close, Greenlaw’s foster mother asked the family if they were willing to adopt him.

“We probably would have been fine just mentoring him, and picking him up on Sundays,” Nanci Early said. “When that foster home closed down, it was a real message to us from God that said what you’re doing is great, but it’s not enough. 

“He needs a family, he needs a home, so we just kind of made that decision.”

Brian and Nanci, along with their daughters Camryn and Aivery, brought teenage Dre into their family, eventually legally adopting him shortly after his 21st birthday.

Despite joining the family much later than a typical adoption, the impact his newfound sisters have had on Greenlaw’s life was exceptional.

“They made me realize what it means to be a brother,” Greenlaw said. “The examples that I gotta set for them, and how I gotta treat other people, girls or whatever it may be.

“They definitely won my heart.”

“He’s amazing with them,” Nanci said. “That’s probably the coolest part of the whole situation, is we got to give them a big brother.”

Greenlaw’s appreciation for women perhaps never was more evident than the night he visited a fraternity party while attending the University of Arkansas.

A female friend from high school who was attending the party saw Greenlaw and told him she suspected someone had slipped something into her drink. When some men appeared to try and make a move on her, Greenlaw intervened.

“I saw a couple guys trying to talk to her,” Greenlaw said. “So I stopped what I was doing, and when I grabbed her, she was like ‘Hey, I really need help, I don’t know here my friends are at.’”

Greenlaw eventually got in contact with the girl’s friends and stayed with her until they got her. After a visit to the hospital, she confirmed that her drink had Rohypnol in it, otherwise known as “roofies.”

The linebacker made the choice to do the right thing in spite of the potential consequences given his status as a prominent student-athlete on campus.

Greenlaw has never forgotten his roots, and was honored to be asked to speak at the Santa Clara County Foster Youth Graduation Ceremony at Levi’s Stadium, held to celebrate more than 70 kids who obtained a GED, associates, bachelors, or master’s degree during the 2018-19 academic year.

No matter how high Greenlaw might climb as a football player, he’ll never forget the indelible influence his adopted family had on him.

“It’s really no words that can tell them how much that means to me,” Greenlaw said. 

“I’m humbled and overwhelmed by the fact that, I feel like God chose us for him,” Nanci said. “We get to be a part of this amazing story, this kid who has just gone on to do and will do amazing things. It’s just pretty cool to be a part of that.”

You also can see the full feature on Greenlaw during “49ers Central” at 11:30 a.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area.

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