SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- When 33-year-old Brandon Lloyd retired last year, he didn't just stop playing football. He escaped from the NFL, and all that he was for a decade as a wide receiver for the 49ers, Redskins, Bears, Broncos, Rams and Patriots.
He could have been catching passes from Tom Brady last fall. The year before, Lloyd had 911 receiving yards for the Patriots. Instead of selling moves on cornerbacks, Lloyd began selling steel parts for airplanes. He gave up being cheered by thousands and having his accomplishments replayed on giant scoreboards, televisions, laptops and mobile devices in order to be a regular guy, with a regular job and regular kids in a regular suburb of Denver.
A lot of us wanted to be Brandon Lloyd. Brandon Lloyd wanted to be us.
He never watched a game or even checked a score. He kept in contact with no one from his football life. He turned down overtures from at least six teams, including the Patriots, according to Pro Football Talk. He even denied that he was who he was. "When I was working in the aerospace industry, people sometimes would make a comment," Lloyd said. "They'd say, 'You know there is a football player who has the same name.'" Lloyd laughs. He didn't want them to know. One time, he admitted it, he said. And it helped him make a sale.
Lloyd sought complete separation from his former life, and it was not difficult to attain. "I didn't have time to distract myself with sports or gossip or whatever," he said. "I don't watch much TV. I had a lot on my plate. I was doing a lot of reading. Lot of studying. Even reading sales books, figure out how to make sales, maintain clients, keep the clients I had happy. I had to submerge myself into their lives so they could understand who I was beyond football."
He wore a collared shirt when he worked in an office at Re-Steel in Commerce City, Colo. When he traveled, he wore a tie. He took business trips to Japan, Detroit, Southern California, Great Britain and Seattle, where he studied under a metallurgist. He made decent money. And he worked hard. He said football ingrained a discipline in him that helped prepare him for the corporate world. Getting up early, being on time and staying late had been second nature.
Lloyd found his new job rewarding, just like football had been. "I got the same gratification out of solving problems with my mind that I did physically out on the football field for so many years," he said. "That's what I liked about the challenge."
In his free time, Lloyd did things like driving his two boys to school and watching their athletic events. He played in a men's tennis league and went golfing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Those sports were a lot easier on his body. The aches and stiffness in his shoulders, back and legs dissipated.
But he had to yearn for the game, right? He had to miss the competition, the locker room, the adulation, the money, didn't he? "There was not an overwhelming desire or need or urge to play," he said. "I wasn't missing anything in my life by not playing… There was a peace of mind and anonymity that I really appreciated in that time off."
So how can we explain the sight of Lloyd at 49ers camp this week, putting a move on a 22-year-old cornerback, creating separation and scoring a touchdown in a seven-on-seven drill?
After last season, when the NFL was Lloyd's ex-wife, his agent David Dunn called. He asked if Lloyd would be interested in reconciliation. The answer was no, unless…
It once was Lloyd's dream to play for the 49ers, the team he grew up cheering for. And he was chosen by San Francisco in the fourth round of the 2003 draft. But the 49ers that drafted him were no longer the team of his dreams. The Bill Walsh magic was gone, and Lloyd's experience was disappointing. He lasted three years in San Francisco before being traded to the Redskins. But now, Jim Harbaugh's 49ers are more like the 49ers that Lloyd dreamed of playing for. "An opportunity presented itself for me to play for the team I was in love with when I was a child when they were back in the winning mode," Lloyd said. "The conclusion we came to is the ability to bring closure to my career was worth it."
Initially, the thought was Lloyd would go through OTAs and see how his body felt, and if he had any misgivings. That went well, and now he is playing well in camp. Many around the team believe he could give the 49ers passing game a dimension it lacked one year ago.
It only was four years ago when Lloyd led the NFL in receiving and played in the Pro Bowl, so it came back quickly to him. He said he feels just like he did in 2012 when he was catching all those passes from Brady. Harbaugh told reporters Lloyd looks "young and spry." Rookie cornerback Dontae Johnson said Lloyd is the most difficult receiver on the team to cover, and praised him for his ability to disguise his routes. Lloyd's re-ignited flame for football has burned brightly. Harbaugh has gushed about how Lloyd gets animated when he watches tape, even rising from his seat to mimic moves on the screen.
The best part for Lloyd is he didn't have to give up his new life. His employers were pleased to give him a leave of absence, in part because they were excited to watch someone they knew so well do what they never could.
So one day Lloyd will slip back into a phone booth, and when he emerges, hardly anyone will know who he used to be.