SANTA CLARA — The common expression is “born leader” but in reality, those traits are instilled rather than innate.
Fred Warner wasn’t born to lead the 49ers, even if it seems that way since he stepped in as a rookie starter at inside linebacker in 2018. His leadership training ground came in the San Diego County suburb of San Marcos, where Warner grew up with a single mother, a younger brother and a sister in a mobile home park with his grandmother living next door.
Whether it was youth sports, football at Mission Hills High, Brigham Young or as a rookie starter with the 49ers, Warner was wise beyond his years. A special skill set was in evidence by high school, but it was matched and perhaps exceeded by integrity and character molded by Laura Warner.
“He’s my oldest son and I think he takes on that role and he doesn’t wilt under the pressure of being responsible,” Laura said in a recent phone interview. “He took it on at home as well, being the good example, the role model for his younger siblings, and it translates to the field.
“I tried to teach them the example of wanting others to do what you’re doing, not what you’re saying. Put in the hard work and others will do the same because they want the same result.”
For that, the 49ers can thank her as they host the Detroit Lions on Sunday in Levi’s Stadium (3:30 p.m., FOX) in their third consecutive NFC Championship Game and fourth in five years.
Warner, at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, is the epitome of the modern NFL linebacker, able to defend the pass against spread offenses and fill a gap to stuff the run. Any conversation of the top players at his position stops with Warner and Roquan Smith of the Baltimore Ravens. At age 27, Warner has been a first-team All-Pro three of the last four years and this year was selected unanimously.
The 49ers may be the most star-studded team in the NFL, with nine Pro Bowl selections, but Warner is their conscience and their modern-day Ronnie Lott, the consummate, relentless pro whose sole focus is finding a way to help the 49ers win.
“He’s the neck and the backbone on this team in everything he does, and it’s not just the defense,” said Dre Greenlaw, a starting linebacker and one of Warner’s closest friends. “Everybody feeds off him. He does it all.”
Leading by example
Laura Warner was more of a doer than a talker. She worked long hours at a law office as a secretary. Fred and his younger siblings Troy and Mya took notice.
Fred Warner as a baby. (Courtesy of Laura Warner)
“My mom had such a huge task of raising not only me but my two younger siblings,” Fred said in an exclusive interview this week. “We watched her wake up, drive an hour to work and stay late to provide for us. She worked hard, and the way she cared about other people — sometimes to a fault — was something I realized was important at an early age.”
What seemed like a complicated existence from the outside wasn’t complicated at all to the Warners. For all the talk of the 49ers’ diversity on offense, it’s nowhere close to the diversity inside Fred Warner. Warner’s mother is of Mexican descent, his father half African-American and half Panamanian.
Fred’s father was not in his daily life at a young age, although the two talk and there are no hard feelings.
“He is very supportive, from when we were little even to this day,” Warner said. “It’s just that he wasn’t present because of the dynamic between him and my mom. They’d gotten divorced when I was little, so that’s all I really knew.”
What Warner knew was that his retired grandmother, who they called Mémère, would look after the kids when their mother was at work and until she returned home. She’d feed them egg burritos and get the kids off to school across the street from the mobile home park where they lived.
Other extended family and friends were also in the area. The Warner kids were challenged to perform academically and placed in sports at a young age so long as their grades were maintained. Laura Warner would do her best around the holidays to provide an Xbox or big-ticket item but said they seldom complained.
“We never felt like we didn’t have enough,” Fred said.
The ethnic mix, Fred said, wasn’t discussed or ever an issue.
“I grew up in a melting pot in San Marcos,” he said. “A lot of ethnicities — white, Black, Mexican, Polynesian, Asian, it didn’t matter. There were so many different types where I grew up so it was never really a thing. I think that helped me to go out in the world, everywhere I’ve been. I’ve been able to learn and grow.”
Teachers as well as students from all backgrounds gravitated toward him.
“It wasn’t really a big deal what culture was around him,” Laura said. “He was a part of everything.”
From left, brother Troy Warner, mom Laura Warner, sister Mya Warner and Fred Warner in a family snapshot. (Courtesy of Laura Warner)
Faith on display
Laura, 51, converted from Catholicism to the Mormon Church of Latter-day Saints, which provided a foundation Fred believes helped keep him and his siblings on the right track.
“It helped having the church as a tool to keep our head on straight and remain on the straight and narrow, and not get involved in other things that maybe some of my peers were getting involved in that they shouldn’t have,” Fred Warner said. “It helped lead us to the paths we were able to go on.”
Laura Warner said LDS is “a little bit of a stricter lifestyle. I did raise my kids that way and not everybody always agreed and it wasn’t always easy, but I wanted to raise them that way and when they got on their own they could choose what they wanted. I think it helped with self-discipline and where to put your priorities.”
Fred’s brother Troy, 25, was a star player and his teammate at Mission Hills and BYU. He played in the USFL last season and was in some NFL camps but is now concentrating on a career in health care. Mya, 21, is graduating from UCLA in the spring and going on to graduate school.
Fred Warner came to Mission Hills as a 5-foot-10, 140-pound freshman with good skills but got bigger and stronger, and combined with his work ethic, improved quickly.
Mission Hills coach Chris Hauser had a daughter Fred’s age who attended the same elementary school, and his wife would volunteer as a tutor for reading and vocabulary.
“My wife said Fred was sweet and cooperative,” Hauser said. “He was all boy, but when it came time to do school work and learn he was dialed in and focused. He didn’t complain. He gave his best. He was all-in, even then, when it came to getting better and learning.”
Hauser remembers Laura Warner attending booster club meetings after work for her children simply to be present and lend support rather than exert any influence.
At Mission Hills, Warner led the Grizzlies to a 36-14 win over Oceanside for the 2013 San Diego Section Open Division title at Qualcomm Stadium, a game in which he starred on defense and caught a touchdown pass as a tight end.
Warner’s jersey No. 43 was retired by the school in a ceremony a little over a year ago that had Warner tearing up.
Signs of stardom
KUSI-TV anchor Brendon Stone, a careful observer of the San Diego County high school sports scene, has known Warner since he was 16 and could see he was something special beyond athletic skill.
“You saw him, and you’re conditioning yourself to hear from the classic BMOC — Big Man on Campus,” Stone said. “Then he talks with a classy and humble tone, with a voice that’s deep and understanding. It’s one thing if you’re a classic ‘Yes sir, no sir’ kid, but he isn’t doing it because someone told him to.”
Troy Warner, being the younger brother, was a little edgier on the field and willing to speak his mind, but instilled with the same core values.
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“He’s always had the intangibles and the work ethic and I knew how good of an athlete he was, so what he’s done isn’t a surprise to me,” Troy Warner said. “If you put the work in, put your head down and grind, there is no ceiling for you. And there’s no ceiling for Fred.”
After playing a hybrid safety-linebacker position at BYU, Warner was immediately thrust into the 49ers’ starting lineup as a third-round rookie in 2018. Coach Kyle Shanahan has watched him grow as a player and a leader. It’s the production that allows Warner to get his message across.
“There’s not really good leaders who aren’t really good players,” Shanahan said. “He can speak to guys, hold them accountable. He got better and better. When you do that, people want to listen to you regardless (of whether) you talk well. But Fred does speak well, and guys know what he does all year. When Fred says something, you’ve got to listen.”
Warner signed a $95.25 million extension in 2021 that temporarily made him the NFL’s highest-paid linebacker. In 2022, he married Sydney Hightower, a former contestant on the TV show “The Bachelor.” The two host a podcast called “The Warner House.” Something even bigger than the Super Bowl will arrive in March when their son is born. He looks forward to teaching him all about his background.
“He’ll be starting his life out here, an area with a ton of different cultures,” Warner said. “It should be something in which he’s able to thrive.”
San Francisco 49ers’ Fred Warner (54) celebrates with his teammates after forcing a fumble against the Dallas Cowboys in the first quarter of their NFL game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group