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SANTA CLARA – The journey for linebacker Dre Greenlaw to arrive with the 49ers on Thursday started at 6:15 a.m.

He showed up 3 ½ hours early for his flight to the Bay Area.

“I’m just ready to get started,” Greenlaw said after reporting to the team’s headquarters. “They’re going to give me an opportunity to prove myself and that’s all I really need.”

It was a long day of travel, but the real journey started long before his arrival at the airport. Greenlaw, who describes himself as an orphan, grew up in group homes and foster care. When he began playing football, one of his first heroes was former 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, he said.

“I saw his story,” said Greenlaw, the 49ers’ fifth-round draft pick from Arkansas. “I was young at the time. I really wasn’t around a lot of TV when I was real young. In the group home, they didn’t allow us to watch TV. And even when I lived in the shelter and I lived with my foster parents, I didn’t watch a lot of TV.

“I knew the story about Patrick Willis and his brother and his life situation and what he went through.”

Willis grew up in poverty and in an abusive household in Tennessee. Willis served as the father figure for his siblings. Willis’ younger brother, Detris, drowned in 2006 at the age of 17. Willis was a seven-time Pro Bowl player in his eight-year NFL career.

Greenlaw’s own story is inspiring. He said he would not change the difficulties he faced while growing up because of how it shaped him to be the person he is today. He served as a team captain at Arkansas after being star Fayetteville (Ark.) High.

“It’s a story not a lot of people can say that they went through and made it out of,” Greenlaw said. “There’s a lot of kids in foster homes that may not have gotten the same opportunity, but if they just hear somebody else’s story and they see somebody has been through something as similar to them, maybe they get the idea and hope that they can do it, too, which they can.

“I’m grateful and thankful for what I been through. It made me who I am today.”

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