SANTA CLARA — During his long and often rocky road to a starting NFL position, 49ers guard Tony Wragge has learned some valuable life lessons.
Such as, you are the only person who can pick yourself up after you've been knocked down. Enjoy the journey, even if it can look as if you're hurtling toward a dead end.
Oh, and always make sure you get professional advice before beginning a home flooring project.
He picked up that last one while working at Home Depot between football jobs.
Wragge, 29, is a testament to determination, resiliency and plain hard work. Yes, J.T. O'Sullivan has gotten lots of attention for his vagabond route to the role of 49ers starting quarterback. But Wragge's path — including repeated rejections, banishment to practice squads, and stints in NFL Europe and the Arena League — is no less unlikely.
And Wragge insists he wouldn't change a thing and is a better person for all the challenges he has endured.
"You can't say that anything I've ever done has been the easy way," he said. "But this also is something that I've come to cherish. My wife and I know what perseverance really is."
Then he quickly adds: "Everyone in the NFL has a story. I'm not that much different."
Maybe, but how many 6-foot-4, 310-pound NFL linemen can help you weigh the options between wood floors and tile?
Wragge grew up on a 600-acre farm in a part of Nebraska that's so rural that the closest McDonald's is about 30 miles away. He had to get up before dawn each day because the cows wouldn't milk themselves. Farm life helped make him a high school all-state lineman who also set weightlifting records.
"Lifting weights was easy," he said. "Lifting hay bales and farm machinery was hard."
But the University of Nebraska crushed his dreams of becoming a Cornhusker by never getting around to offering him a scholarship.
"That's pretty much the way my football career has rolled ever since," he said of being overlooked.
Wragge chose New Mexico State, where he was a three-year starter and met his wife, Nicole, who played volleyball.
Ignored in the 2002 draft, he started his pro football odyssey as a free agent at the Arizona Cardinals training camp. He got cut, was added to the practice squad and eventually played three games. He ended up back on the practice squad the next season, too.
Released by Arizona for good in 2004, he went to play for the Arena League's Los Angeles Avengers in 2005.
"I had a great experience," he said. "It's not the NFL, but it's not a bad rap."
In the summer of 2005, the 49ers invited him to training camp. He made it through the final cuts ... only to get axed the day before the first game. Wragge, who is relentlessly positive, comes close to saying that was his low point.
"It was a hard pill to swallow," Wragge said. "That was going to be my last training camp, and I felt like I gave everything I had. So I thought I was done with the NFL."
He returned to his home in Phoenix and went to work at Home Depot because the flexible hours allowed him to train for the next Arena League season. His co-workers often were curious about "the big dude selling carpet and tile."
That fall, the 49ers called back and added him to the practice roster. Then they sent him to the Rhein Fire in the Europe league — a time when Nicole was pregnant with their daughter, Addison.
His foot, however, was finally in the door. In 2006, Wragge played 14 games with the 49ers. He saw action in only five games last season, mostly on special teams. But this season, with David Baas slowed by a torn pectoral muscle, Wragge has been the starting right guard.
"He's improved," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "He's also a good example of a guy who got an opportunity because of an injury to somebody else, and he took advantage of it."
Wragge takes nothing for granted. He knows that the NFL can stand for, in Jerry Glanville's famous words, Not For Long. The 49ers gave up eight sacks Sunday in Seattle — which won't earn any offensive lineman a gold star.
"Obviously when we give up sacks, it's not good," Wragge said. "We all have to work harder."
That's something he understands better than most.
"He is beyond driven," said Nicole of her husband, who this offseason finished his degree and did an internship at a Harley-Davidson dealership. "He is the most dedicated person I've ever met. When he wasn't with a team, he would never be just sitting on the couch waiting for a phone call. He's always doing something. Nothing gets him down."
Notes: Cornerback Shawntae Spencer said his knee injury won't require surgery and that his status is day to day. He is listed as out for Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions. ... Nolan said Takeo Spikes and Jeff Ulbrich will continue to share time at the strong inside linebacker spot. He said Spikes got about two-thirds of the snaps against Seattle.