SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- After Joe Staley's mostly nondescript freshman season at Central Michigan, coach Brian Kelly had a radical idea: ask Staley to pack on the pounds and muscle necessary to move from tight end to offensive tackle.
Kelly, now the head coach at Notre Dame, got some resistance from Butch Staley, Joe's dad. But Kelly was quick to offer assurances that if Staley was able to gain the size needed to hold up at offensive tackle, his speed and athleticism would one day make him a premier NFL tackle and a wealthy man.
So when a sophomore Staley stepped on the practice field early in his transition to tackle, he found himself lined up opposite defensive end Dan Bazuin. Bazuin was one of the team's best players and would leave the school as the career leader in sacks and tackles for loss on his way to becoming a second-round NFL draft pick in 2007.
As Kelly recalls, it didn't go so well for Staley. Not that you'd have known it from his reaction.
"Dan was having his way with Joe Staley," Kelly said. "Joe had just moved to tackle and I remember Joe getting up [and] he was pulling the grass and dirt away from his face after getting knocked down for the third or fourth time and he had a big smile on his face, and he turned to me and says, 'Boy, I'm really gonna love this challenge.' That was Joe Staley."
After 13 distinguished seasons as the San Francisco 49ers' left tackle, Staley walked away from the NFL last week. Not because he wanted to. In fact, his head and heart were still all-in on the game he loved since he was a kid. It was his body that would simply no longer allow it, and Staley couldn't fathom not having the kind of future he wanted with his family.
Staley takes with him plenty of accolades as he heads into retirement. He earned six Pro Bowl nods, was a three-time second-team All Pro, won two NFC championships and landed on the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 2010s.
Staley's consistent excellence has teammates stumping for his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame already.
"I think he's a Hall of Famer, without a doubt," right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "That's a no-brainer ... But something that's really not talked about with Joe is the impact he made on the game of football ... He affected 15 years' worth of offensive linemen of when you turn on how a left tackle is supposed to play football in a complete game, it's not just the fancy pass pro, the great athlete; Joe was the most complete offensive tackle of his generation and that's something I think should without a doubt be entrenched into the Hall of Fame."
All of that is only a small part of the imprint Staley leaves on the game.
The on-field achievements speak for themselves, but it was Staley's ability to genuinely enjoy every second as a football player that made him a fan favorite. It's the reason so many took to social media to share their favorite Staley memories in the hours after he announced his retirement and the reason his former teammates and coaches offered a similar outpouring of support.
Take tight end George Kittle, for example. As a fellow aficionado of fun and football, Kittle's approach to the game mirrors Staley's. When Kittle entered the league as a rookie in 2017, Staley helped show him how to strike the balance between having the maximum amount of fun while also taking his job seriously enough to excel.
"He does such a great job of that," Kittle said. "He did it day in and day out ... Just by being himself every day is what showed me how to do it. He's just like, just don't be something you're not. If you're going to show up and be that, then show up and be that guy every single day. And I think that he said that to multiple people, but it definitely struck a chord with me."
When Staley arrived in San Francisco as a first-round pick in 2007, he was a bit apprehensive. He was a bit shy when it came to speaking publicly to the point that he says he would get nervous talking to the student reporters from the Central Michigan school newspaper.
Unwilling to let his personality shine right away, Staley earned the nickname "G.I. Joe" as a rookie because he took everything so seriously. Soon enough, it occurred to Staley that to reach his potential, he needed to cut it loose and be as authentic as possible every single day.
That manifested in multiple ways, such as the infamous "Joe Show," a humor-driven interview show Staley hosted every week with various teammates on the Niners' team website. Former teammate Patrick Willis recalls appearing on the show and Staley coercing him into saying something "so country" that Willis couldn't believe he said it on camera.
"I loved how Joe came to practice every day," Willis said. "How he was serious when he’s also loose with it. And I learned along the way, too, that you could be serious about your craft, and you could be serious about your game, but it’s also important to make sure you'd be loose and keep yourself balanced because, if not, one is just as bad as the other."
There was also the time Staley expressed faux frustration with linebacker Joey Porter because Porter refused to engage in trash talk during a game.
Last season, Staley was caught miked up with Kittle doing a bit on the sideline in which they had a conversation in heavy Canadian accents.
And, of course, Staley's passion for karaoke was never far from the surface, either.
All of it was a means to an end, as Staley developed a unique understanding of when to flip the switch between fun and serious.
"You've got to understand at the end of the day, you play in the NFL and we play football," Staley said. "As much as we all think it's the most serious thing in the world, it's a game and it's a fun game that we're privileged to play for a lot of people that enjoy what we do and bring entertainment to people. At the end of the day, it's the entertainment business and you've got to have fun with what you're doing. You can take things very serious while you're doing that, but you're also enjoying it. Enjoying what you do, bringing in a spirit of laughter, and you can bring all that to the table every single day when you come to work."
The old saying goes that if you find a job you enjoy doing, you never have to work a day in your life. Staley's body might argue to the contrary, but his body of work says his ultimate legacy was that there was never a day he didn't have an absolute blast doing his job.
And that, more than anything, is why he did it so well for so long.