Thursday, November 23, 2017

Undrafted ex-Nature Coast Tech RB Matt Breida gets free agent deal with 49ers



Thirteen hours into the biggest event of his life, Matt Breida began to accept what seemed inevitable.

He probably wasn't going to be drafted into the NFL. The former star running back at Brooksville's Nature Coast Tech High wasn't going to see his name on ESPN. The NFL Network wasn't going to play his highlights from Georgia Southern.

Breida had braced himself for this, and he didn't have time to dwell on it. The NFL was about to begin the free agent flurry that follows the draft. All 32 teams would rush to sign undrafted players and give them a chance to earn a spot on their roster. Seventeen had expressed interest in him.

"It was just a matter of what team," Breida said.

All it took to figure that out was 17 phone calls, a string of text messages and a long talk with his fiancee, all crammed into two hectic hours Saturday evening that would decide the future he has been working for his whole life.

Day 3 confidence

"Feeling good," Breida said as the third day of the draft began at noon Saturday.

The Jets had been calling four or five times a day. The Bears and Cowboys were interested, too.

Breida plopped down in the middle of the couch in front of the TV and propped his phone on the coffee table. For the next five hours, he hardly moved.

He clutched the hand of his fiancee, Silvana Paonessa. Her mother, Angela; father, Frank, and two siblings drifted in and out of their living room.

Two and a half hours in, San Francisco's running backs coach called. The 49ers hadn't seemed interested until Friday, when they grilled Breida about everything from his birth date to his injury history.

The Paonessas moved to the edge of the couch, and Frank whipped out his cellphone to catch the moment on video, just in case he was getting drafted.

He wasn't.

San Francisco just wanted more information about his production at Georgia Southern, how a back who ranked in the top five nationally in yards per carry in 2014 and 2015 rushed for only 646 yards and three touchdowns as a senior.

Breida didn't hide from the numbers or make up excuses. The 49ers appreciated that.

"Hopefully," they said, "we'll be calling you back in a little bit."

'I'm your man, Coach'

Eight minutes later, the Ravens texted him.

They had only one pick left, in the sixth round. If they didn't use it on him, they wanted him as a free agent.

"I don't know what to say," Breida said to the room. "What should I say?"

Angela answered: "I'm your man!"

"Hell, yeah!" Breida replied.

Breida texted back: "I'm your man, Coach. I'll get the job done."

The draft ticker rolled on until it was Baltimore's turn. The Ravens drafted Chuck Clark, a defensive back from Virginia Tech.

The wait continued.

Calls keep coming

The picks kept coming, and Breida's phone kept ringing. He nervously shoved chips in his mouth as he spoke.

A New York City number popped up. It was the 49ers. He paused that call to take another, from an Atlanta number. It was someone else from the 49ers.

"Are you guys not sitting in the same room?" Breida asked.

When Breida's agent called, Silvana had to call him back from her phone with an update.

Midway through the sixth round, San Francisco called again. Over 13 minutes — the longest call of the day — the 49ers made their pitch.

They told Breida about the two-back system the coaching staff previously used in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Even though they drafted Utah's Joe Williams in the fourth round, he's a bigger back. They needed a speedy one. They needed Breida. If another team offered a better signing bonus, they'd match it.

"I'm right there with you," Breida said. "I just want to go play."

But the draft wasn't over. The Ravens and Titans were still interested, too.

Information exchange

As the final picks came in, Breida went to the back patio and fielded a dozen more calls over an hour. His future father-in-law fired up the grill.

"Money is secondary to me," Breida told Baltimore. "What's the best situation for me long term?"

Breida and Silvana went back inside to talk privately. Fourteen minutes later — and 31 minutes after the final pick — they emerged with the answer.

"So I'm a 49er," Breida told his future in-laws. "I'm speechless."

He was beaming. He was relieved. He was in the NFL.

In 48 hours, San Francisco went from off his radar to his ultimate destination. He appreciated how six team officials called him Saturday. The 49ers offered a $30,000 signing bonus, the best chance to make the final roster (and earn the rookie minimum $465,000) and a familiar face. Breida grew up watching running back DuJuan Harris star at Central High. Now they'll be teammates, potentially fighting for the same roster spot.

As Breida and the Paonessas called friends and family, the uncertainty of the draft turned into the uncertainty of what comes next.

They didn't know when Breida would leave for San Francisco or how long he would stay once he got there. Silvana skimmed the 49ers' schedule online and noticed that they don't play anywhere close to Florida this year. Not all of his family members fly; how will they watch him play? No one mentioned the fear: What if he didn't make the team?

But those worries could wait. Saturday was about celebrating.

The six of them gathered around the table. Someone popped the champagne. And as the sun began to set, they toasted — not to the future, but to the moment.

"I'm happy," Breida said. "We made it."

Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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