How the 49ers’ Raheem Mostert went from undrafted to unstoppable
They already knew about him 250 miles north of Super Bowl LIV, knew about the speed, the elusiveness, the eye-arresting skill set.
But for everyone else, the explosiveness of his game was symbolized best by the way Raheem Mostert seemed to burst into the NFL last week — on a stage as large as the NFC title game, no less — impossibly still unknown in a league that otherwise is fully mic’d up, backstage-accessed and Instagram-driven.
“The world finally got to see how talented he really is,” Lance Jenkins said. “I’m proud of him. The entire city is proud of him. We’re all proud of Raheem around here.”
Jenkins coached Mostert in high school in New Smyrna Beach, a town that sits on Florida’s central east coast and is known mostly for its surfing and shark bites.
On Sunday, Mostert and his San Francisco teammates will play Kansas City in Miami, not quite four hours down Interstate 95, for the NFL championship.
Patrick Mahomes was a high school star in Whitehouse, Texas, a town nestled in Cowboys and Texans country that has transformed into Chiefs supporters.
The 49ers flew into South Florida this weekend. But they traveled there on Mostert’s legs.
He rushed 29 times for 220 yards and four touchdowns in a 37-20 NFC championship game victory over Green Bay on Jan. 19.
Along the way, Mostert set numerous franchise and NFL records and, even more impressively and unlikely, established himself as a legitimate sudden sensation.
Before trampling the Packers, he had one career 100-yard rushing performance — on Dec. 1 in a Week 13 loss at Baltimore.
Mostert had one carry after two NFL seasons and then only six more in his third year in the league.
During four seasons at Purdue, he rushed for 759 yards and six touchdowns.
Athletes, celebrities, fans and political leaders mourned Lakers legend Kobe Bryant on social media after he died in a Calabasas helicopter crash.
“Everyone in this room roots for Raheem,” 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “He just needed someone to believe in him, and he found that here.”
Mostert, 27, has been with the 49ers since November of 2016, playing mostly special teams while patiently awaiting the shot he finally received this season.
But then, patience has been as much a part of Mostert’s story as the blurring swiftness with which he’s blessed.
Before joining San Francisco, he spent time with Philadelphia, Miami, Baltimore, Cleveland, the New York Jets and Chicago. Each of those teams cut him, some more than once.
Mostert is a veteran of five practice squads, a player who bloomed so late in high school that he had no scholarship offers until after Thanksgiving of his senior year and who began this season as the 49ers’ fourth-string running back.
But it’s not like he lacked believers. Chip Kelly, for one, acquired Mostert twice.
“I would love to say that I saw this coming, but no one saw this coming,” said Kelly, now the coach at UCLA. “To go for 220 yards in the NFC championship game … he gets all the credit because he persevered through everything. These are the cool stories in sports, you know?”
Coming out of Purdue and with limited college production, Mostert went undrafted in 2015 despite possessing the sort of sprinter speed that made him a Big Ten champion in track.
Kelly was coaching the Eagles at the time, and one of his assistants, Duce Staley, recommended Mostert as a free-agent option.
Philadelphia had a crowded backfield and attempted to stash Mostert on its practice squad at the end of the preseason. A week later, the Dolphins signed him away.
Kelly eventually became the 49ers coach and, three months into his only season with the team in 2016, was approached on the practice field by then-assistant general manager Tom Gamble with the news that Mostert had been cut by the Bears and was available.
“I said, ‘Grab him,’ ” Kelly recalled. “I loved him so much. I knew he had huge upside. He just needed a chance.”
Though Kelly didn’t last with San Francisco, Mostert was re-signed and began to establish himself on special teams.
It would take another year and a season-ending knee injury to running back Jerick McKinnon in August to open more opportunity on offense for Mostert, who led San Francisco in rushing in 2019 with 772 yards.
Joe Montana played for the 49ers and Chiefs, foes in Super Bowl LIV. He won four titles with San Francisco but also has an affinity for Kansas City.
“He’s got a gift from God in terms of his speed,” Kelly said. “But it’s his mindset that I love the most. He wasn’t going to be defeated. He always worked hard and stayed positive.
“A lot of guys, they get cut two or three times and they’re done. They say, ‘You know, I’m going to try something else.’ They don’t have the persistence. This is a story about believing in yourself, sometimes when no one else believes in you.”
The 49ers have employed three primary running back this season, with Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida also topping 500 yards.
A shoulder injury knocked Coleman out of the NFC championship game, prompting coach Kyle Shanahan to turn to Mostert in the team’s biggest game yet.
In response, Mostert produced the franchise’s biggest game ever for a running back — in the regular season or playoffs.
Afterward, he talked about remembering the dates of each time he was cut and using those dates as motivation. He explained how he ignored the doubters and the doubts. He confirmed, “The journey’s been crazy.”
Teammate Mike McGlinchey, San Francisco’s right tackle, called the whole scene “movie stuff.”
Back in New Smyrna Beach, Mostert’s former coach recalled the kid who returned nine kickoffs for touchdowns as a senior, could bench press 300 pounds and had an attitude just as impressive.
“It’s an inspiration to not only athletes but all people, guys who are in business struggling and everything else you can think of,” Jenkins said. “We’ve all had our setbacks. But not everyone can overcome everything like Raheem has. He’s an amazing story.”
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