San Francisco safety Donte Whitner was selected to the Pro Bowl this season. (Chris Graythen / Getty Images )
NEW ORLEANS — If all goes well for safety Donte Whitner, Sunday night will go the way his first night with the San Francisco 49ers did.
Meaning he won't get a wink of sleep.
Traditionally, the team that wins the Super Bowl has an all-night party after the game.
Whitner pulled an all-nighter on his first day with the 49ers last season, but it was far from a party. In an effort to retool the secondary, then-rookie Coach Jim Harbaugh signed Whitner in August 2011 and expected him to get up to speed right away.
"They told me, 'You're starting the next game. You've got to be very vocal,'" recalled Whitner, who spent his first five seasons with Buffalo. "So I stayed up all night. At training camp the next day, I was exhausted, but it just showed them I was willing to work and come in and lead this team. That's the first thing Coach Harbaugh said to me was 'I want you to come in and lead the secondary.'"
Whitner, who made his first Pro Bowl this season, is a fixture on a 49ers defense that has been among the league's best over the last two seasons. He has three interceptions the last two seasons, with 15 pass breakups, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries.
Last season, the 49ers and Green Bay Packers tied with an NFL-high 38 takeaways. The 49ers were closer to the middle of the pack in that statistic this season with 25 — miles behind the Chicago Bears' 44 — but San Francisco did a good job throughout the season of not giving up big plays (with the win over the Falcons at Atlanta being the exception).
"I didn't know him, but he came in with a quality we were missing," linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. "He added such athleticism, and such a smart, student-of-the-game aspect to our defense."
Whitner was largely a disappointment in Buffalo, where he was an entertaining quote, but not the playmaker the Bills expected when they made him a first-round pick from Ohio State. His numbers over five seasons were modest: five interceptions, 19 pass breakups, 11/2 sacks, three forced fumbles and one recovery.
"I went through some tough years in Buffalo," he said. "I spent five years up there, I learned from a lot of good guys. I went through a lot of tough defeats. Went through a time when I was actually second-guessing myself and if I could play this game."
Still, he figured there would be plenty of teams lining up for his services when he became a free agent after the 2010 season. But he figured wrong.
The free-agency period came, and the phone didn't ring.
"I thought I was going to have teams calling the first week," he said. "The second week, the Rams called and they said they wanted to sign me instead of [Quintin] Mikell from Philly. Never heard from them again. After that, it just went silent."
Mikell, in fact, did sign with the Rams. Whitner waited and waited … and waited.
"It was a tough time," he said. "Throughout that time, I was calling my agent and talking to him and he was like 'No, I haven't heard from anybody.' I just told myself that whatever training camp I got into and whatever team I was on, I was going to give it my all.
"That was my first taste of rejection. Coming out of high school, being a top guy at my position, having a thousand scholarship offers. Being a starter as a freshman at Ohio State. Being a first-round pick. First time being rejected, first time feeling like maybe I'm not as good as I thought I am and everybody else is right."
Finally, the 49ers called, signing him to a three-year, $11.5-million contract.
"The biggest thing for me was getting in training camp with these guys, wanting to go out there and prove that I was a good player, prove that people made a mistake when I did hit the free-agency market," Whitner said. "And it turned out like this."