Michael Wilhoite was selling sneakers at a mall in Topeka, Kan., nearly three years ago when the 49ers called: Hey Michael, we’ve got a spot on our practice squad. You interested in trying out?
He was on the next flight to the West Coast.
Wilhoite nailed the audition, which has become a recurring theme. Of course, he had to. When you play at Division II Washburn in Topeka, go undrafted and start your career with the now-defunct Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League, you don’t get second chances.
“Guys like us – our backs have always been against the wall from Day One,” said former 49ers wide receiver Joe Hastings, Wilhoite’s best friend and a fellow Washburn alum. “For us, it’s do or die.”
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Wilhoite methodically worked his way up from the 49ers’ practice squad in 2011 to special teams in 2012 and, this season, to the starting defense.
On Sunday, he has a chance to further solidify what opposing offensive coordinators are quickly discovering: Wilhoite isn’t merely a Band-Aid fix for injured linebacker NaVorro Bowman; he has the skills to be a full-time starter in the league.
With Patrick Willis and Wilhoite roving the middle of the defense, the 49ers rank second in rushing defense. Last week, they helped limit Philadelphia’s talented running back duo of LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles to 21 rushing yards and 2 yards on receptions.
Now Wilhoite will face a Kansas City offense – ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing – that likes to throw to its running backs and tight ends and may do so even more today with top wide receiver Donnie Avery out with a groin injury.
“He can cover,” Bowman said of Wilhoite. “A lot of people don’t know that. But we as linebackers, as teammates, we see that in practice each week. The coverage part is very good as far as having a feel on when he can take chances and when he can’t.”
NFL scouts didn’t know a lot about Wilhoite coming out of Washburn. In fact, they weren’t even sure what position he played.
He was a quarterback in high school and played six positions at Washburn. He played three spots – linebacker, defensive end and safety – in one game during his final college season.
When he and Hastings arrived for a predraft workout at Kansas State in 2011, that school’s head coach, Bill Snyder, walked up to Wilhoite and said he was the biggest free safety he had ever seen.
Wilhoite had committed himself to linebacker by bulking up to 240 pounds for the session. He and the rest of the small-school invitees, dressed in the same bargain-bin attire in which they’d go the gym during the week, performed after the Kansas State players, who were nattily decked out in matching gear with their names and numbers on the back. Because his surname begins with “W,” Wilhoite was the final player of the final group to work out.
The scouts were smart to have stuck around. Wilhoite outperformed the other linebackers with a vertical leap of 37 inches, a broad jump of 10 feet, 9 inches and a 4.7-second 40-yard dash.
“I was glad I went at the end,” he said. “I just watched what everybody did, and I tried to beat it. And I felt like I did.”
Afterward, Snyder returned and asked Wilhoite where he was from.
“Right here in Manhattan (Kan.),” the linebacker replied.
Said Snyder after a pause: “Holy (smokes), we missed on that one.”
The workout didn’t land Wilhoite an NFL job during or after the draft, but it did put him on the radar.
When Willis pulled his hamstring and couldn’t practice later that year, the 49ers held a tryout for young, aspiring linebackers. Hastings, who now works in the Eagles’ front office, was on the 49ers’ roster at the time and watched his buddy during the session.
“You’ve got 15 minutes to impress those guys,” Hastings said. “And you don’t get another chance.”
After the workout, Wilhoite disappeared upstairs, and Hastings said he was dying to know the outcome. When they passed in a hallway later that day, the mystery was solved.
“He had a smile from ear to ear on his face,” Hastings said. “We ended up next to each other in the locker room. It was wild.”