The analogy came to Jim Harbaugh one day out of the blue … or perhaps the gray: Dan Skuta as a Civil War soldier.
“I was just looking at him and I just got a vision of him in the gray of the South, or he could have been in the blue of the North,” the 49ers coach said last week. “I just had a vision of him.”
As might be expected, the description left Skuta, a 49ers outside linebacker, a bit puzzled. Being sent back in time 150 years is peculiar enough, but a Confederate soldier? Skuta, after all, is from Flint, Mich.
“I don’t even know what to say about that,” he said with a laugh.
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Suffice it to say, it was meant as a compliment by Harbaugh, a lover of military history and a dedicated Civil War buff.
“He’s very much to me like a young captain in the military would be,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a leader. He’s a strong person. Got a very strong will and very disciplined. Just everything that you’d want.”
Skuta will help lead his troops against the Dallas Cowboys today.
While plenty of attention was paid this offseason to young, upstart outside linebackers Corey Lemonier and Aaron Lynch, it’s the unassuming Skuta, 28, who likely will start in place of Aldon Smith, who is suspended for the first nine games of the season.
He did so last season, essentially splitting snaps with Lemonier while Smith was in an alcohol rehabilitation facility. The 49ers went 5-0 in that stretch, and Skuta came away with a career highlight, a 47-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Jacksonville, the first of his six-year NFL career.
No one else who knows Skuta used a Civil War analogy on him. But their descriptions pointed to the same qualities that caught Harbaugh’s eye.
Jan Koop taught more than 1,000 first-graders in the Flint area before she retired four years ago. “Darling little Danny Skuta,” as she called him, stood out, and Koop has remained close to him and his family in the 22 years since.
“He really is the same person that he was,” she said. “He was definitely all boy. But I don’t remember one incident where he misbehaved. He had a focus and a calmness about him. He had a quiet determination. I remember kids looking up to him. He stuck out for all the right reasons.”
At the time, the Skutas – Dan has a younger sister named Caroline – lived in a small house in the Flint area. His father, Tim, worked for General Motors. His mother, Joanie, was studying to become a nurse.
Having a son reach the NFL often is a cue for parents to stop working. But not in Flint, where work is ingrained in the ethos.
“We enjoy working,” Joanie said before sending a motherly dig to her unmarried son. “Plus, we want Dan to use his money on our grandkids.”
The Skutas passed their work-ethic genes on to Dan.
Both he and high school teammate Brandon Carr, who will start at cornerback for the Cowboys today, were lightly recruited by college programs, and both went on to play at Division II Grand Valley State.
“He was upset, as was Brandon, that the schools weren’t looking at them,” Joanie said. “He was bummed that he was going to a Division II school. But he learned real fast that a chip makes him play better. He’s never been handed anything.”
Carr was taken in the fifth round of the 2008 NFL draft. Skuta went undrafted a year later. He was signed by the Cincinnati Bengals, then carved out a roster spot with his hustle, hard work and prowess on special teams.
He played special teams last year in San Francisco, too, despite starting on defense for half the season and despite tearing his plantar fascia at midseason.
Skuta got around with a walking boot in the run-up to Sundays. But he never missed a game, which won over Harbaugh.
He also didn’t skip out on an invitation to meet his former first-grade teacher, which further won over Koop. She and her husband visited San Francisco last September, the same weekend the 49ers were playing the Indianapolis Colts.
Skuta had a former teammate from Grand Valley State in town, and it was clear to Koop he had plenty of social options. But when she called to see if he wanted to have dinner, he didn’t hesitate.
“He had time for his first-grade teacher,” she said. “And I think that shows so much respect and great character. Because it’s not what I picture with a lot of football players.”