Trent Dilfer is the real hero on this team

Trent Dilfer takes the big-picture perspective of his role with the 49ers, a team for which he's yet to play a single snap. And that's what makes the 13th-year veteran such a special guy and instrumental leader. "The best thing you can do as a quarterback is make those around you better," Dilfer said Thursday. "When you're not doing it as a player on Sundays, you need to find other ways to do it."

Dilfer has found other ways to do it, all right.

Not only has he taken Alex Smith under his wing and both nurtured and mentored San Francisco's young starting quarterback this year, but Dilfer also has become a commanding presence in the locker room and along the sideline.

Though he has watched Smith take every offensive snap this season, Dilfer has been perhaps San Francisco's most influential free-agent addition this year, and everybody both within and outside the team has noticed.

So it was no surprise Thursday when the 49ers announced they've named Dilfer as the team's 2006 Walter Payton Man of the Year. The prestigious award, unique among NFL honors, recognizes a player for his community service activities as well as his play on the field.

Of course, Dilfer's impact this season hardly has been judged by his play on the field. And, typifying what he has meant to the team this year, Dilfer said the last thing he wants to do is get on the field for some playing time in Sunday's regular-season finale against the Denver Broncos.

"I hope not, because we don't want anything to happen to Alex," Dilfer responded when asked if he'd like to get a few snaps in a game that now has no postseason ramifications for the playoff-eliminated 49ers. "I think it's semi-heroic to be a guy that's young in this league and to play every snap and to endure the things that he's endured."

That's pure Dilfer - talking about others as heroes when he's the one that's looked up to as a hero by many on this team.

So, even though he still has a burning desire to play - after all, he has started for four different NFL teams in his career, and won a Super Bowl as a starter for the Baltimore Ravens in 2000 - Dilfer has been more than happy to step back in his first season with the 49ers and play Big Brother to Smith and several others on the team.

"Hopefully, I've been able to (find other ways to help the team)," Dilfer said. "Hopefully, we're a better football team because of the commitment I made to it, and the way I've approached this thing, and the experience and the wisdom that hopefully I bring."

Dilfer is a big believer that the 49ers have something special going on under coach Mike Nolan and his plan to take the team back to the top. And - like Nolan - Dilfer understands the importance of each individual within the team structure. That's one reason he was self-effacing when talking about receiving the Payton Award.

"I'm humbled by it," Dilfer said. "It's really special any time you receive an honor that's voted on by your teammates and those around you. … You may have a bigger role on Sundays than others, but when you realize you're one of 53, and your ultimate purpose here is to help us win football games, that humbles you. And some guys have to learn that the hard way. But eventually, when you get humbled is really when you become really influential in this league, when as a good player you become influential."

Though he plans to return next season and perhaps more seasons after that, Dilfer reiterates that he hopes to never play another important down with the 49ers.

When fans and media types wondered whether the 49ers' late-season playoff push might be easier with the experienced Dilfer in Smith's spot, Dilfer was the first to shoot down that notion and back Smith. Smith then went out a few days later and produced the best game of his career in an upset victory at Seattle over the defending NFC champion Seahawks.

Dilfer had a more difficult time playing the mentor role to Matt Hasselbeck during his four-year tenure in Seattle, but the native of nearby Santa Cruz County has never seemed happier now that he's in the background in San Francisco. He steadfastly asserts he's completely committed to Smith's development into a top-flight NFL quarterback, and there is no doubt in his mind that Smith will get there.

But that means Smith must play every snap possible, while Dilfer watches from the sidelines while he still possesses the skills to start at the game's most important position. And, at age 34, those skills don't figure to stick around a whole lot longer.

The mentor/team leader role is nice and all, but doesn't he still want to play?

"Oh, yeah, absolutely," Dilfer responded. "I think as soon as I don't is when I'll retire. There's nothing wrong with itching to play and having the desire to play if you know how to channel that and not let it become distracting to your football team. It's why I compete so much in practice each day.

"Hopefully my itching to play and my wanting to get better pushes Alex and helps him become a better player. And then, what it does is it sharpens you, so when I do have to play, whenever that is, then I'll be more prepared."

Smith can feel Dilfer's itch. That's part of what has pushed him to improve by leaps and bounds this year after a rocky rookie season which followed Smith's selection as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft.

"I couldn't have created a better scenario for myself," Smith said, "as far as (Dilfer being there) to reach and give advice and help me. He really impacts my playing. He'd be the first guy to tell you that competition is the best thing to drive and push and get the best out of someone."

Not knowing Dilfer previously, Smith was a bit unsure what to expect when the 49ers traded quarterback Ken Dorsey and a seventh-round draft pick to the Cleveland Browns to acquire Dilfer in May. Smith was told point-blank by coach Mike Nolan that Dilfer wasn't coming to San Francisco to compete for Smith's starting job, but that didn't necessarily make the situation any easier.

"I knew he was experienced, obviously," Smith said, "and I was looking forward to trying to pick his brain. But I didn't know how open he was going to be. I'd heard different stories about some veteran guys, how they were kind of cranky and don't really help young guys out. So I didn't really know. But it just speaks to the type of guy he is. He's going to do anything he can to help the team win."

And Dilfer - a guy who has been around the NFL - has no doubt in his mind that the 49ers are going to be winners.

He plans to be around when that happens.

"We've got a good thing going here," Dilfer said. "There's a lot of good things about being a 49er right now. I know it's a disappointing time, I'm as disappointed as anybody (about not making the playoffs). But this is an exciting time to be a 49er. The sky is the limit for this football team, this organization.

"You've got an unbelievable head coach that has a plan, knows what he's doing, that treats us with a great deal of respect, takes care of us. (Nolan) has a great staff around him and a lot of good, young players. We have systems in place where guys can flourish. You have offensive systems that have been proven, in fact, we've gone from the worse offense ever last year to a very good offense this year. You have a defensive system that's been tested and proven and has had success wherever coach Nolan has been."

Dilfer went on: "You have the best weather, in my opinion, in the world. You have a wonderful fan base. You have an owner that's proven in the last couple of years he's going to do the things it takes to help us win. You have management - Scot McLoughan, and guys like that to evaluate talent, bring in the good rookie classes, so you know you're going to be good for a long time. I mean, what else do you want?"

Dilfer said he already has taken calls from other veterans around the league, asking about the turnaround in San Francisco this year. The 49ers will have a league-high $41.2 million underneath the NFL's 2007 salary cap to spend on free agents during the offseason.

"I've already been asked by some guys," Dilfer said. "This is a very attractive place to be. There's a lot of reasons you would want to be a 49er if you're a free agent, and I can see us making some really nice additions."

Dilfer just made a nice addition to his trophy case. It's the first Man of the Year honor of his career, and it also is indicative of what Dilfer has done and is doing outside the white lines.

Off the field, Dilfer has served as a role model of a different kind. In 2003, he established TD4HIM, a Foundation in memory of his late son Trevin, who passed away from a heart ailment at the age of five. TD4HIM contributes and supports the growth of community organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs, cancer research groups and religious organizations.

"It's a foundation set up in the memory of our son we lost," Dilfer said. "We want to partner with things that make him smile. That sounds very simple, but if you knew him in his five years, he loved seeing others enjoy sports, he loved youth groups and he loved community. He loved seeing other kids smile. We want to partner with organizations that do things to help our young people and bring a smile to young people faces."

Dilfer and his wife Cassandra have been recognized for numerous contributions. Most recently, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District board unanimously approved the name "Trevin Dilfer Memorial Field" at Aptos High School - Trent Dilfer's alma mater - for the Dilfers' financial contributions to a campaign to raise funds to cover the cost of replacing the football field. In September 2006, the Aptos Chamber of Commerce also recognized Trent with the Community Hero Award for 2006.

As the 49ers' Walter Payton Man of the Year winner, Dilfer - who was selected from a group of team finalists that included Smith, defensive lineman Marques Douglas and fullback Moran Norris - will receive $1,000 to donate to the TD4HIM Foundation and is eligible for the league-wide NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year honor, which will be selected by a panel of judges including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Payton's wife Connie and a selection of luminary former players.

The Man of the Year winner will receive $25,000 to donate to a charity of his choice. The award has been given annually since 1970, and was renamed in 1999 to honor the legendary Hall of Fame running back.

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