Josh Harper never watched his father, Willie, play for the San Francisco 49ers.
He never had the chance. You see, Harper wasn’t born before his dad finished an 11-year NFL career, all with the 49ers, in 1983.
“I don’t know when I actually figured out my dad played in the NFL,” Harper says, adding, “I was always around football and I’ve always been a Niners fan.”
This week, son hopes to join dad as a pro football player. Former Fresno State wide receiver Josh Harper is projected as a possible late-round pick in the NFL Draft that runs Thursday-Saturday in Chicago.
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While son never saw dad play in person, he’s watched plenty of tape on NFL Network. And Josh says he knows how valuable Willie’s wisdom is: “I just took a lot of knowledge from him. Pretty cool to have a coach/dad that played in the NFL.”
Willie was an All-American defensive end at Nebraska who was picked in the second round of the 1973 draft by the 49ers. He spent 11 seasons at linebacker for the 49ers including their first Super Bowl win in 1982, then played two more years in the USFL before retiring.
Willie returned to the Bay Area, where Josh was born in 1991.
“Josh has always been the kind of kid who enjoys sports,” Willie says. “When he realized dad was a professional athlete, he got it.”
Josh says he first looked up his six brothers. He remembers wearing one of his brother’s high school jersey and acting like he was playing a game while running through the house.
He was “excited to play and participate,” Willie says. “He didn’t realize how great of an athlete he already was and how much faster he matured.”
It took awhile for Josh to start playing, on the Union City Colts youth team in seventh and eighth grades. Willie was his son’s first coach.
“Josh has been a kind of kid that absorbed everything,” Willie says. “He didn’t have to wait until he grew up to understand. ... (and) he was a complete team player.”
Josh says it wasn’t easy having his dad as coach, but he learned a lot.
“He was always hard on me. That’s why I believe I learned to be good and learned most fundamentals of the game. It helped in a big way with my dad being my coach.”
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter says Harper, who spent five years with the Bulldogs, has NFL promise because of his combination of talent and consistent performance: “He’s got real competitive speed. He’s as fast as he needs to be. Really crisp route runner, really good getting in and out of breaks, and excellent hands.”
Harper says he’s “done everything in my power to persuade the owners, GMs and coaches where I should go in the draft. Now everything is just wait. Everything is in God’s hands.”