For Kyle Shanahan, leading 49ers to Super Bowl is childhood 'dream come true'

MIAMI -- Kyle Shanahan was a fan of the San Francisco 49ers long before he coached the franchise to Super Bowl LIV.

Perhaps no story illustrates that better than the Christmas gift he received in 1994.

Shanahan was 15 at the time and a ball boy for the 49ers. His dad, Mike, was the team's offensive coordinator. Kyle was enamored of football but especially the coolness of cornerback Deion Sanders, observing every accessory and style choice the future Hall of Famer made on the field.

So when Kyle received a jersey signed by Sanders on Christmas morning, it was perhaps the best gift of his life. Kyle loved it so much that when someone offered him $200 for it, he turned it down. A day later, Sanders would tell Kyle he made a bad business decision because he could have gotten another jersey and made a little money.

"Deion gave him his jersey, he signed it," Mike Shanahan said. "I think when I look back that was the funniest thing with that jersey. He wouldn't take it off. It was so important to him."

Indeed, Kyle was so fired up for the 49ers playoff run that followed, he says he wore the jersey every day until the Niners had won Super Bowl XXIX and continued to wear it as the Shanahan family relocated to Denver, where Mike had taken the Broncos' head-coaching job.

"I wore it for however many days that is, a month and 10 days," Kyle said. "I changed my undershirt, though, I promise. I was dedicated. I felt like I couldn't do school for that month because I had to get a good night's sleep to get ready for the games and things like that. I was 100% the Niners and the playoffs at that time. I can remember it like it was yesterday."

Now, 25 years later, Kyle is preparing the 49ers for Sunday's Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs. That Kyle is the head coach of his favorite childhood team is mostly a happy coincidence. But that doesn't mean the kid who was consumed all things Niners doesn't still exist.

"If you had told me this when I was in middle school, I would have said that's a dream come true," Kyle said. "The way it worked out and the way everything lined up, it is pretty special to sit and think about."

'You just never know'

To those who have spent time around Kyle and seen him work, it's no surprise he has the Niners back on the precipice of the NFL's top prize.

Kyle jokes that as a ball boy he spent more time worried about looking cool like Sanders than he did soaking up knowledge from the players. Those who were there remember it differently.

Kyle was a wide receiver and quarterback at nearby Saratoga High School. When he wasn't working out, running routes or throwing passes, he was studying the game. Former Niners remember being able to have high-level conversations with Kyle about football well before he was old enough to drive.

"Here's Kyle, he's looked at every route Jerry Rice has run, or John Taylor, he had broken it all down, play by play," Mike said.

At the time, Kyle was preparing for what he hoped would be a long playing career. Little did he know, he was also picking up all the cues that would someday make him a successful head coach. He watched his father win two Super Bowls with the Broncos and still likes to point out he was the last "cord holder" for a Super Bowl-winning team, fulfilling those duties for his father in Super Bowl XXXII before the league went wireless the following year.

Rice remembers Kyle as an ambitious youngster who was unafraid to ask questions.

"You just never know what your future is going to hold for you," Rice said. "And to watch him grow and develop and excel, and then for him to come here and be the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, is so refreshing."

'He's football-obsessed'

When Kyle interviewed with the 49ers in 2017, he already had 13 years of NFL coaching experience. Although his name had popped up in searches, he hadn't gotten a head-coaching job.

Within the first 10 minutes of sitting down with 49ers CEO Jed York, Kyle made a connection. That it happened to be with his favorite team from childhood made sense in retrospect. The interview lasted four hours, with Kyle giving his usual blunt assessment of where the Niners were and what they needed to succeed.

York already knew Kyle had the offensive acumen but was struck by his ideas on building culture, which he traced to his father, who picked them up from Bill Walsh. Kyle checked every box.

"Going into it, I don't know that when either side looked at that meeting, it was like, 'OK, this is destined to be,'" York said. "It was more of, 'OK, this is part of the search.'"

York knew he wanted to bring Kyle back to where his football obsession blossomed.

"He's pretty good about being direct, and that's what I want from a coach," York said. "I'm trying to do things the right way, but just because I want to do it doesn't mean it's the right way to do it. And it's great to have somebody who is like, 'Nah, we need this, this is what's going to be the problem and this is how we're going to try to fix it.' And that's what I have with Kyle."

Nostalgia wasn't going to drive Kyle's decision. He had other interviews and more would be sure to come. Specifically, he didn't want to go to a team looking for a quick fix that wouldn't be sustainable.

"Everyone says that they're trying to win every single year, but I don't think all teams truly mean it," Kyle said. "And you don't want to go to a team that's just a marketing firm. You want to go to a team that truly the most important thing is to win a Super Bowl."

When York officially hired Kyle in February 2017, the only question remaining was whether he could lead and not just focus on playcalling and scheme design.

As it turned out, that wasn't a problem. Kyle won over players with his youthful swagger, relentless honesty and deep understanding of the game. Upon arriving in a midseason trade, the first thing receiver Emmanuel Sanders noticed was Kyle was wearing a pair of Yeezys. Kyle is well-versed in hip-hop, with a particular affection for Lil Wayne.

Known for being as hard on his coaches as his players, Kyle solicits advice from veterans, takes what he hears and factors it into his decision-making. They know any criticism he levies against them publicly will first be said to their face.

And when Kyle starts breaking down film, players are instantly mesmerized.

"He eats, breathes, sleeps football," left tackle Joe Staley said. "He's football-obsessed. He's been football-obsessed since he was born. That's just the kind of person he is."

'Something he would never forget'

Just three years into his tenure as head coach, Kyle has the Niners knocking on the door of a world championship. He and general manager John Lynch have engineered one of the most dramatic turnarounds in league history, taking a team that won 12 games in the past three years to 15 victories (including the playoffs) this season.

The reasons for that turnaround are plentiful, but Kyle's players all point the finger directly at him.

"We're a reflection of our head coach," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "I think he does an incredible job of keeping things loose but focused. So, I think that builds a culture where guys can be themselves and it's embraced, but we also embrace hard work."

Indeed, of the many tenets Kyle has used as the foundation for rebuilding the Niners, it's an emphasis on remaining authentic that stands above the rest.

"If people can't be their true self, it's going to be hard for them to be their best self," Kyle said. "So, you try to let people be who they are. But you better like who they are also."

As Kyle ascended up the coaching ranks, he never gave much thought to the idea that he could be the guy to lead the Niners to their first championship since he was a ball boy. Now that he's here, though, it's hard to ignore the idea Kyle was the right man for the job long before he knew it was possible.

"If he could pull this off and win a Super Bowl here, it'd be something that he would never forget," Rice said. "It'll be written in stone."