SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Coming into the NFL Draft, Eli Harold expected to hear his name called before the end of the second round. Getting taken in the third round Friday by the San Francisco 49ers added on to the massive chip he already carried on his shoulder.
"I’ve had a chip on my shoulder ever since I lost my brother and my mother a month apart," Harold said in a conference call. "This is just adding fuel to my fire. Not having teams believe in me, not believing that I was a late 1 or early 2, or even a late 2. Dropping to the third, I just feel like I’m going to use that as my motivation and really help me push through my NFL career."
Harold's nephew, Forrest, who was Harold's age and considered a brother, unexpectedly passed away while playing basketball on a court at Old Dominion University due to an enlarged heart. Just over a month later, Harold lost his mother, Sheila Korvette, in a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Harold was a junior in high school at the time in 2011.
Harold's brother, Walter, was Forrest's father - who Walter considers a father figure given their age difference. He has been a pillar in Eli's life, as they help each other cope with the immense level of loss.
"I’ll never forget this moment, like I’ll never forget the day my mother passed away," Harold said.
Friday the two were given something to celebrate, with Harold coming to San Francisco to join a group of linebackers he learned about during his collegiate career at Virginia.
"We really like the person. It’s starts there," general manager Trent Baalke said Friday. "Everybody we spoke to about Eli said nothing but positive things. And that’s going back to his high school coaching - and everybody that’s worked with him at the University of Virginia. We really felt good about him as a person.
"And then you put on the tape, and the guy’s had 15.5 sacks the last two years. He went up against Miami this past year, and (Ereck) Flowers on that team, and performed quite well. I think he had two sacks against him. He’s played big in some big games. There are a lot of things to like."
Even as a true freshmen, Harold said he was often outspoken in the locker room and took on a leadership role early in collegiate career. Virginia finished 4-8 in his first season, and he felt that he had do his part to help out his coaching staff by making his voice heard by his teammates.
"From my freshman year when I first came in I was playing right away and guys listened to me. Growing up my teachers would always tell my mother, ‘Eli has, he’s just such a leader. Everybody always rallies to him.’ I could tell a guy to do anything," Harold said.
"I feel like that’s something God blessed me with. To have that leadership ability as a kid and now, I feel like I’ve grown being older, being a 21-year-old, leading in a positive way.
"I remember my sophomore year at UVA when the teams would score on us, I’d be down on the sideline, I’d be pissed and moaning around. But, this year I really felt myself grow. When we would be down in games I’d be picking everyone else up. So, I feel like my leadership capabilities have grown over the years."
Harold will join fellow Cavalier Ahmad Brooks, a man he might end up replacing down the road. Brooks, 31, has two years and nearly $19 million remaining on his contract.
The former defensive end also team up with Aldon Smith, who starred on the background of Harold's iPad during his freshman year of college. Harold said he watched videos of Smith, along with pass rushers Bruce Irvin and Von Miller, before games to get fired up.
"I just feel like it’s the best situation for me," Harold said of joining the 49ers. "Not having played linebacker at the college level, having my hand down a lot. I really think I can cover but I didn’t have that responsibility when I was at college. Coming into a role, being not high on the depth the chart … learning from the veterans, guys that will really help me out a lot."
Smith's also facing an uncertain future with the 49ers. The team picked up his fifth-year option last May but since renegotiated the financial terms of the deal to take away some of his guaranteed money. Given Smith missed 14 games combined over the last two seasons for off-the-field reasons, San Francisco wanted to give themselves security should he run into any more issues away from football.
That made finding another long and talented pass rusher like Harold a key for this year's draft. Harold holds Virginia's school record for tackles for loss, when he notched 15 in 2013 as a true sophomore.
The 49ers drafted three defensive players with their first three picks. They enter the final day of the draft with seven selections remaining, including four picks in the fourth round, one in the fifth, one in the sixth, and two in the seventh.