Mostert ran for a whopping 220 yards and four touchdowns to lead the 49ers past the Packers and into a Super Bowl date with the Kansas City Chiefs. For a playoff game, his rushing total was second to Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson (248 yards for the Los Angeles Rams in January 1986), and he became the first player to exceed 200 yards and score at least four touchdowns in a postseason matchup.
Not bad for a fifth-year player who could barely stay on an NFL team, let alone get on the field, during his first couple of seasons after going undrafted in 2015 out of Purdue. Mostert used his fearlessness, determination and track-star speed to become a special-teams ace before submitting a truly special performance in the biggest game of his career.
“You know, honestly, I just woke up like it was any other game,” Mostert, 27, said after San Francisco’s 37-20 manhandling of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. “It was one of those things where hey, once we all get in a groove, we’re just going to keep it riding, keep it going, and that’s what we did.”
Mostert knows all about riding, whether it be skateboards and surfboards in his hometown of New Smyrna Beach, Fla., or riding the pine in the NFL. Over 2017 and 2018, his first two full seasons with the 49ers, he had a total of 40 carries for 291 yards and a touchdown, plus six catches for 25 yards, after posting two offensive touches combined over his first two NFL seasons.
One notable number did emerge from 2015 and 2016, though: seven. That was the amount of times he was picked up and cut by, in order, the Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, New York Jets and Chicago Bears (twice).
“It’s crazy that I’ve been on seven different teams,” Mostert said at a postgame news conference Sunday, claiming that before every game, he looks at his many “cut dates” for motivation. “Not everybody can deal with the type of stress, pain and agony that I went through, but I kept the faith in myself, and this organization has done a great job.”
In fairness, Mostert didn’t enjoy the kind of college career that tends to have NFL teams clamoring for a player’s services. A 2014 Big Ten champion in the 60 and 200 meters, his greatest impact for the Boilermakers came as a kick returner, and he had just 230 rushing yards over his first three seasons before picking up 529 as a senior.
By that point, however, Mostert had already attained a major goal by using his football prowess to become the first person in his family (per the Athletic) to attend a four-year university. He chose that path over an offer from the surf company Billabong, while he was still in high school, to compete on a surfing circuit.
If turning down that offer represented a risky move for Mostert, it may not have been any more so than simply getting into the water in New Smyrna Beach, which has been described as the “shark bite capital of the world.”
During one outing, Mostert saw a telltale fin heading straight for the board he was on, and as he told the Athletic, “I just sat there, calm.”
“My friends were telling me not to move. So I just stayed still,” Mostert added. “Sharks sense two things: They sense blood, and they sense panic.”
The shark passed “right in front of me,” he said, and while Mostert avoided becoming the wrong kind of statistic, the episode helped him develop the mentality that would eventually produce impressive numbers on the gridiron.
“It’s the same thing in football — you try not to think about it,” Mostert said last year of confronting danger (via the Athletic). “We get concussions, injuries. I mean, you just go out there and play. And that’s kind of like the same mentality you have to have with surfing. You have to go out there and have fun.”
“If I just saw him on the football field, I would be surprised, because I just don’t think of many running backs being big surfers,” 49ers Coach Kyle Shanahan said this week (via CBS Bay Area). “I’m with him every day and I talk to him, so it doesn’t surprise me at all, the way he talks and just hanging out with him.”
Noting the “Billabong sponsorship” Mostert was once offered, Shanahan added, “He’s from Florida, which surprises me because usually the surfers are from California. I know there are some waves down there, too. I think it’s been cool.”
“He’s one of those guys, a chill guy, gets along with everyone,” 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said last week. “I can definitely see the surfer, skateboard mentality. He’s an awesome guy to be around. A great guy in the locker room.”
Mostert has proved to be great on the field as well, and not just as a superb gunner on punt-coverage units. According to ESPN, he became the first player since at least 2001 to lead his team in special teams tackles (14) and rushing yardage (772) in the same season. He also led all qualified NFL running backs in yards per rushing attempt (5.6), finishing second overall to Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (6.9).
By retaining his speed while adding approximately 15 pounds of bulk during his NFL career, Mostert has become a hard player to tackle, as the Packers learned Sunday. Over the course of a season in which he started as San Francisco’s fourth-string running back but took advantage of injuries to Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman, the 49ers also learned he was a difficult player to bench.
After Coleman left Sunday’s game with an elbow injury, Mostert was used in a workhorse capacity. He racked up 29 carries, compared with just one for Breida, and added two catches for six yards.
When Mostert sprinted past a would-be tackler at the line of scrimmage and outran everyone else on a 36-yard scoring play in the first quarter, he paid homage to his youthful pursuit by mimicking a surfer paddling out to a wave and hopping onto his board.
He has made that his signature touchdown celebration, telling NFL Network earlier this season: “It just brings me back to being a kid, and enjoying life when I was younger. I still enjoy life, to this day — you’ve got to enjoy what you do, and I never take it for granted.”