When Donte Whitner signed with the San Francisco 49ers in August 2011, head coach Jim Harbaugh had someone he wanted his new strong safety to meet.
His name is Frederick P. Soft, and he’s just a little guy -- just 4 inches tall, says Harbaugh -- but his mouth is big, his message is loud and he’s as welcome in the Niners' locker room as a pulled hamstring.
On Whitner’s first day of training camp, Harbaugh told him to say hello to his little friend -- and to chase him off if he ever saw him again.
“He explained who Freddy P. Soft is,” said Whitner of his first day in a 49ers uniform. “Freddy P. Soft is a little guy on your shoulder that tries to persuade you from doing the right things each and every day.
“He’ll say, ‘It’s OK to take a rep off. It’s OK, don’t go as hard as you can. It’s OK, we’ll get it next time.’ And that’s who Freddy P. Soft is to us. It’s the guy who wants us to be complacent and wants us to be overconfident, and we won’t allow that to happen.”
Since Harbaugh took over as San Francisco’s head coach last season, the Niners certainly have been anything but complacent. After going 6-10 in 2010 and missing the playoffs for an eighth straight season, the 49ers did a complete turnaround by going 13-3 and advancing to the NFC Championship Game.
Now the 49ers are 4-1, playing a rugged brand of football on offense and defense and coming off two lopsided victories as they get ready to host the New York Giants on Sunday -- the team that beat them in the NFC title game in January.
Since Harbaugh arrived, the Niners have fed off his enthusiasm and positive vibe, which includes his now-famous line, “Who’s got it better than us?”
But also, there has been Freddy -- or Freddie, depending on the speller -- P. Soft.
Harbaugh has constantly preached to his players to tune out praise, deflect accolades and focus on the next game. He wants them on edge, and the Softman is his messenger.
Harbaugh introduced his imaginary friend to the media last October in a news conference when he was asked about his 4-1 team’s mindset as it was preparing to play the Lions.
Question: “You’ve said winning makes you soft or can make you soft. Have you seen any evidence of that? Have you had to jump in and cut that off?”
Answer: “No, we’ve seen no evidence of that. We will be quick and on alert for any signs of evidence of the guy that walks around by the name of Frederick P. Soft. Freddy Soft’s about a 4-inch guy, he sits on your shoulder and talks right into your ear. We see or hear any evidence of him being in the premises, we’ll act quickly and decisively to get him out of there.”
Last season, Freddy become a topic for Bay Area fans and writers -- the Sacramento Bee ran a Q&A with him in which he claimed he was misunderstood -- and a Twitter account was born (@FreddiePSoft).
Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio told a reporter, “It’s just a fun way to remind everybody that just because we won a couple ballgames, it’s not time to rest on the laurels or gloat on the past.”
Whitner says one of the 49ers’ three regular-season losses last season might have been attributable to letting their guard down -- “Freddy P. Soft snuck up on us that week,” he said -- but so far this season the little guy has been absent. He’s not giving FPS any credit for their lone loss to the Vikings in Week 3.
“He hasn’t made any appearances,” he said. “Maybe during photo week. But I don’t have anything to report.”
Harbaugh, though, told the San Francisco Chronicle recently that Freddy P. (no word on what the middle initial stands for) had shown up for a Wednesday practice early in the season but was shooed away.
“It was just noticed pre-practice, before we got out there, that he might be lurking,” Harbaugh told the paper.
Whitner, who signed with the 49ers after five seasons in Buffalo, admits that having Harbaugh tell him about Mr. Soft was “kinda funny” at first.
“But when you think of it, that’s what happens in the National Football League,” he said. “That’s what happens in professional sports. You don’t want to get complacent.”
So, he says, Harbaugh’s message is a good one: put in the additional work, run hard, hit the weights a little extra, take notes diligently in meetings and always take the hardest road. It’s a way of doing things, and plenty of Niners are willing to speak up if they see a teammate not working hard, says Whitner.
“We understand Freddy P. Soft wants to creep into this room, he wants to creep into the mind of each one of us, and we won’t allow that to happen,” Whitner said.
Though he’s never actually seen Freddy up close, Whitner says he can imagine what he’d look like this week.
“I think he’d be wearing a Giants helmet right now,” he said, laughing. “Shoulder pads, a little man it’s on a week-to-week basis. You can change the helmet on Freddy P. Soft each week. You put him in the gear of the opposing team.”