Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles has no recollection of past playoff battles between the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys.
That’s because he hadn’t been born the last time they met in the postseason.
Flannigan-Fowles, 25, is about to participate in one of the NFL’s most storied rivalries. The Tucsonan and University of Arizona product is in his third season as a linebacker and special-teams standout for the 49ers, who visit the Cowboys on Sunday in the most anticipated matchup of wild-card weekend.
Don’t expect Flannigan-Fowles to get caught up in the hype, though. His rise from undrafted free agent to key contributor has required constant, intense focus.
“That’s what you gotta do on a week-to-week basis,” Flannigan-Fowles said. “You gotta be where your feet are at. You can’t let the lights get too bright.”
Flannigan-Fowles never has been one to seek the spotlight. Polite and humble off the field, he regularly has exceeded expectations on it.
Flannigan-Fowles’ UA career began amid uncertainty. He was ruled ineligible for his senior year of high school after transferring from Tucson High to Mountain View.
Despite being one of the lowest-ranked recruits in the Wildcats’ 2015 class, Flannigan-Fowles became an immediate contributor. By his sophomore season, he was a starting safety.
Flannigan-Fowles ended up starting 36 of 50 games from 2015-18. He recorded 243 tackles, 22 passes defensed and six interceptions.
Flannigan-Fowles didn’t get selected in the 2019 NFL draft, but he made a positive impression on 49ers scouts attending Arizona’s pro day. Flannigan-Fowles signed with the 49ers, who envisioned him as a linebacker-safety hybrid who also could contribute on special teams.
Flannigan-Fowles spent his rookie year on San Francisco’s practice squad. When the 2020 season began, he was the only undrafted player with no NFL game experience to make the 49ers’ opening-week roster.
Heading into that season, 49ers general manager John Lynch said of Flannigan-Fowles: “He is a top-rate person and human being, and the way he works is as good as it gets. So we’re real proud of him. We think he’ll be able to contribute in a big way on special teams and will always keep improving because he’s relentless to be the best that he can be.”
Flannigan-Fowles appeared in 11 games that year and recorded nine tackles. About 76% of his snaps came on special teams.
His role expanded this season. Flannigan-Fowles played in all 17 regular-season games. He registered a career-high 29 tackles while playing 163 defensive snaps and continuing to be a core special-teamer.
Flannigan-Fowles took a break from his playoff prep to speak with the Star about life in the NFL, his career path and the current state of the UA program. The conversation has been lightly edited.
How did you go from an undrafted free agent to a fixture in the 49ers’ lineup?
A: “First and foremost, by the grace of God and the ability he blessed me with. And then I think I just came to the right organization. ... I cannot take the credit.”
Who have been your biggest advocates in the organization?
A: “I can name off a list of guys. (Flannigan-Fowles proceeded to name several current and former 49ers coaches and linebackers, including Robert Saleh, DeMeco Ryans, Richard Hightower, Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander.) A lot of guys that really went to bat for me and were in my corner and are still in my corner to this day.”
Did it surprise you that your teammates were so helpful and supportive given how competitive pro football can be?
A: “No. The front office here has done a good job of getting guys who are obviously really good at football but also have high character and want to see everybody succeed. I don’t think us wishing success on one another is a surprising thing.”
In what areas have you developed the most over the past few seasons?
A: “I played safety in college. Coming up here and playing close to the line has been a huge transition for me. But watching a lot of film and getting a lot of reps calmed my mind down (and got me) to the point to where now I’m not as sporadic. I understand what I’m seeing.”
When you were playing in high school and college, did you ever envision becoming a linebacker?
A: “In high school, I was a cornerback. Then I got to Arizona and ended up being a safety. I thought safety was gonna be it. God works in mysterious ways. Now I’m at linebacker.”
When did you first start believing that something like an NFL career was possible?
A: “My sophomore year of college. I thought it could be a possibility. Shoutout (to former UA safeties) coach (Jahmile) Addae, who just won a national championship at Georgia. He brought me up and taught me a lot of things. (He) boosted my confidence and my skill set to get me to that mindset (of), ‘I do have a chance in the NFL.’”
Did you expect to be drafted? And when you weren’t, how did you respond to that?
A: “I wasn’t really erring on the side of being drafted or undrafted. Wherever I was going to be, I was gonna put my best foot forward. When I went undrafted, the mindset I had was the same that I had all throughout training ... make the roster and contribute in any way I can.”
How important is it for an undrafted free agent to embrace special teams?
A: “It’s extremely important. Sometimes you come to a team that already has their guys on the defensive end. Special teams could be the only way that you can have a job. So I think getting real tight with your special-teams coach and really learning how to be elite on special teams is very vital if you want to stick around the league.”
What did you get out of being on the practice squad as a rookie?
A: “I learned a lot. I was around a great group of guys. Even though I was a practice-squad guy, I didn’t feel like a practice-squad guy. I didn’t feel alienated. I felt part of the group. I just went to work like they went to work, and I tried to help them any way I (could).”
How would you describe what the overall NFL experience has been like for you so far?
A: “It’s a complete blessing. There’s always highs and lows when it comes to football. I’m just extremely grateful to be this far. I’m at a loss of words. It’s still so surreal to me. ... It’s just crazy. It’s something that you just can’t take for granted.”
Do you have to have that mentality at all times as an undrafted free agent?
A: “Definitely. I’m probably gonna carry that for the rest of my career. Just always looking for areas to make myself better. You can’t get complacent in this business, or you’ll be on the way out.”
To what degree are you able to follow the Wildcats during the NFL season?
A: “I was always scrolling through Twitter and Instagram. I like what Jedd Fisch and them are doing. They’re bringing a certain type of energy to Tucson that Tucson needs.
“Obviously, the season didn’t go as planned last year. But ... you can’t expect him to come in here and go crazy immediately. You’ve got to let him get the guys that he wants and build and create something special – which I really think that’s what they’re going to do.”