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Will Fred Warner’s growth as a leader — and the hardships it took to get there — result in a Super Bowl ring?

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner celebrates after the 49ers defeated the Arizona Cardinals in an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023, in Glendale, Ariz. Warner, the former BYU star linebacker, is now a captain with the 49ers and is headed to his second Super Bowl with San Francisco, when the 49ers take on the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2024 Super Bowl on Sunday at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

LAS VEGAS — The last time Fred Warner didn’t wear the giant red and white “C” patch on his jersey near his right shoulder designating a team captain, the San Francisco 49ers came out on the losing end in the 2020 Super Bowl.

There’s good reason why the former BYU star has, especially since then, transformed into one of the top linebackers in the game, with a reputation for toughness and strong leadership.

Four more years of seasoning, filled with a fair share of heartbreak, will do that.

Now, Warner and the 49ers will have their chance to rectify that loss four years ago when they have a Super Bowl rematch with the Kansas City Chiefs this Sunday (4:30 p.m. MST, CBS) at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

As his teammates, fellow NFL players and coach describe, it’s Warner’s approach to becoming the best that’s defined his growth as a leader.

“I’ve just seen the way he carries himself. He pushes us daily,” fellow 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw told the Deseret News on Wednesday.

“He’s definitely been setting the standard of what you do after practice, what you do before practice, how to watch tape. He’s been doing all that.”

How to watch
Kansas City Chiefs
vs. San Francisco 49ers
Allegiant Stadium (Las Vegas)
Sunday, 4:30 p.m. MST
TV: CBS

San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan described Warner as someone “pretty quiet” when he was first drafted in the third round by the 49ers in 2018, but his every day consistency and work ethic while playing at the highest level of the sport brought out the leadership.

“Once those guys started playing and you play at a high level, you kind of get comfortable in your own skin. If you play that well and you work that hard and you’re that consistent, it makes it pretty easy to be a leader,” Shanahan said.

Warner donned that “C” captain’s patch when San Francisco opened its 2020 season, and he’s been in that position ever since.

Being voted a team captain is something he takes great pride in.

“I’ve been a part of some significant individual accomplishments that I’m really proud of, but nothing is bigger than just being voted a captain by my team, by my peers,” Warner said on Monday.

“It’s something that’s really special to me, that fact that it’s my teammates that voted me in.”

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That doesn’t mean everything has been smooth in Warner’s journey to respectability — far from it.

In his only other Super Bowl experience four years ago, Warner and the 49ers held a 20-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. Warner himself even had a third-quarter interception that led to a San Francisco touchdown to build that 10-point edge.

But the Chiefs, behind their own strong leadership in quarterback Patrick Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid, rallied with 21 unanswered points to win 31-20.

“The biggest thing I take away from that game is, obviously, the game is never over until the clock hits triple zeros. That’s always the biggest takeaway,” Warner said earlier this week.

“I remember guys on the sideline in the fourth quarter real happy and excited about possibly becoming Super Bowl champions and things flipped on us, on a dime, pretty quick — 21 unanswered in about six minutes. That’s scarred me to this day.

“Regular season, it doesn’t matter what game it is, I never get excited in the game until the game is over.”

Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce (87) is tackled by San Francisco 49ers’ Fred Warner (54) during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl 54 football game Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020, in Miami Gardens, Fla. | Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press
Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce (87) is tackled by San Francisco 49ers’ Fred Warner (54) during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl 54 football game Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020, in Miami Gardens, Fla. | Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press

The 49ers didn’t make the playoffs in 2020 — a season ravaged by injuries for San Francisco — and then fell one win short of another Super Bowl appearance the past two seasons when they lost in the NFC Championship.

It’s taught Warner, who’s about to become a father, to be more in the moment.

“I thought I was going to be right back to the Super Bowl after being there in 2020 playing the Kansas City Chiefs, and it took me four years,” he said.

Even this year’s path to the Super Bowl came with some unexpected hardships, as the normally disruptive San Francisco defense didn’t play up to its standards against the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions in the divisional round and NFC Championship, respectively.

“As Fred continued to grow and learn, you could see his ceiling just take off — the way he was running, the way he was hitting, the way he understood the defense, that he was going to be a really good player.” — 49ers linebacker Drew Greenlaw, on Fred Warner

The 49ers found ways to win both contests — even rallying from a 24-7 halftime deficit against the Lions — but it was far from a complete game either time.

“It was always bittersweet for both those games. Obviously you’re so happy and excited you won the game, you’re able to advance and do the things necessary to win the game, but also knowing that’s not our standard for defensive play ever since I’ve been here,” Warner said.

“That’s been a point of emphasis. Obviously we have to play our best game to have a chance to win it all. We’ve been trying to shore things up and making sure we’re preparing as hard as we can.”

Come Sunday, the 49ers will try to recapture what has made this defense so tough, with guys like Greenlaw, defensive end Nick Bosa and cornerback Charvarius Ward also helping anchor that side of the ball.

They’ll do so with Warner having that “C” emblazoned on his jersey, a sign of who will lead them.

His teammates have his back.

San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (23), tight end George Kittle (85), wide receiver Deebo Samuel (19), offensive tackle Trent Williams (71), linebacker Fred Warner (54) and quarterback Brock Purdy (13) on the stage after the NFC Championship NFL football game against the Detroit Lions in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024. | Scot Tucker, Associated Press

“As Fred continued to grow and learn, you could see his ceiling just take off — the way he was running, the way he was hitting, the way he understood the defense, that he was going to be a really good player,” said Greenlaw, who’s been his teammate the past five years.

“He just continues to grow and get better. That’s why he is who he is.”

Bosa, who has been Warner’s teammate for five years as well, added, “He has grown a lot. He has always been a leader since he’s been the starting middle linebacker, but he’s grown, been through a lot of experiences, has a wife and a kid coming. He’s been growing up a lot.”

The 49ers know it’s a different team they’ll be facing under the Vegas lights compared to that Chiefs squad four years ago, but two constants in Kansas City — Mahomes and Reid — are in their prime.

“As you go in your career, you develop these scars, different things you had to go through in your career ... All those adversities make you who you are as a team and as an individual. They harden you for moments like this.” — 49ers linebacker Fred Warner

There’s a healthy level of respect on both sides of this year’s Super Bowl ledger.

Mahomes understands just how disruptive Warner — who finished the regular season with 82 tackles, 2.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and four interceptions — can be for San Francisco.

“You’ve got to know where he’s at on every single play,” Mahomes said of Warner. “I think the best thing about Fred is he has the physical ability, he can do everything.

“He’s tall, he’s fast, he can do whatever you want him to do, but mentally, you can tell how much he studies the film and how he’s able to adjust his coverage based off the team he plays. You have to know where he’s at on every single play. If you don’t, he’ll make a play happen.”

Warner knows that with Reid, another BYU product and one of football’s most creative offensive minds, you’ve got to expect the unexpected and roll with it.

“I can speak to Coach Reid, a fellow BYU Cougar — he’s obviously been really great in this league for a long time. He creates such unique plays with the players that he has on his team,” Warner said.

“There’s going to be times in the game where we see looks we haven’t seen before and we’ve just got to play throughout the down.”

If Warner and San Francisco can do that, they could reverse the fortunes from their painful loss four years ago.

“As you go in your career, you develop these scars, different things you had to go through in your career — the (previous) Super Bowl, those NFC Championship games. The thing I think about is, I’m so blessed to be a part of this organization where I’ve had that opportunity to be a part of those games,” Warner said.

“All those adversities make you who you are as a team and as an individual. They harden you for moments like this.”

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner (54) and linebacker Dre Greenlaw (57) react after a play during an NFL divisional round playoff football game against the Green Bay Packers Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, in Santa Clara. | Scot Tucker, Associated Press
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner (54) and linebacker Dre Greenlaw (57) react after a play during an NFL divisional round playoff football game against the Green Bay Packers Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, in Santa Clara. | Scot Tucker, Associated Press