“The journey has been crazy,” Mostert said Sunday evening. “Not everybody can deal with that type of stress and pain and agony that I went through. I kept the faith in not only myself, but whoever gave me the opportunity.”
Opportunity is relative. Mostert received a certain kind Sunday. He entered the NFC championship game prepared for his usual role: to be a special teams demon and receive a share of the 49ers’ carries. Early in the second quarter, starter Tevin Coleman suffered a dislocated right shoulder. (Coach Kyle Shanahan said he expects Coleman will have a “good chance” to return for Super Bowl LIV.) Mostert became a featured back, and he used the opportunity to both spearhead San Francisco’s 37-20 victory over the Green Bay Packers and make a lasting mark on the franchise.
In San Francisco’s storied history, no running back had ever produced a day like Mostert’s on Sunday. He rushed for 220 yards — second-most in NFL playoff history — on 29 carries and scored four touchdowns. While Jimmy Garoppolo passed only eight times, Mostert exploded through holes, sprinted away from defensive backs and bowled over defenders.
Teammates admire his style — “Fearless,” left tackle Joe Staley said — and his story.
“There’s nothing deceptive about him,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “He hits the hole, and sometimes it looks like a blur is going by you. He runs with such fire, runs so hard, is so strong and quick. There’s not enough great things you can say about Raheem Mostert.”
For Sunday to happen, Mostert had to wait for a broader opportunity, one that salvaged his career. Mostert entered the league out of Purdue after every team passed on him in the draft, signing as a free agent with the Eagles in 2015. The Philadelphia Eagles cut him after training camp — the date in Mostert’s phone is Sept. 7, 2015 — and signed him to their practice squad. The Miami Dolphins signed him, only to cut him a month later. He spent two months with the Baltimore Ravens and finished the season with the Cleveland Browns, who would cut him a week before the start of the 2016 season.
After his rookie year, Mostert was unsure he could withstand the psychic toll of getting cut again. He talked with his wife about leaving football behind.
“She told me, ‘If you truly love this game, you’re going to do what you need to do,’ ” Mostert said. “That’s what I needed.”
But his second season unfolded like his first. The New York Jets picked him up, only to cut him a week later. The Chicago Bears signed him, and Mostert lasted about two months before Chicago released him.
“Just getting cut so many times, I became immune to it,” Mostert said. “It was one of those things where, no matter what, just play my game to the best of my abilities, and when I get my opportunity, just let it shine.”
Mostert signed with the 49ers four days after the Bears cut him, and soon they elevated him from the practice squad to the 53-man roster. Mostert had played for six teams and never recorded a single carry, but he had shown signs he belonged. San Francisco fullback Kyle Juszczyk overlapped with Mostert during his brief Ravens tenure, and he believed then that Mostert could thrive in the right spot.
“He was doing phenomenal on special teams,” Juszczyk said. “It didn’t matter where we punted. He was making the tackle or he’s forcing a fair catch every single time.”
By happenstance, in the 49ers Mostert finally found the perfect team for his talent. Shortly after he arrived, the 49ers fired Chip Kelly and hired Shanahan to be their head coach. Shanahan predicates his offense on running backs who run without flash, who see a hole, take one cut and blaze through it. Mostert’s speed and fearlessness made him an ideal fit.
“Defenses, they underestimate his speed,” tight end George Kittle said. “You can just see it. He’ll hit a hole and the guy will take what he thinks is a good angle, and the next thing you know, he’s by him. Doesn’t even touch him. His zero-to-60 is literally two steps.”
It still took Mostert time to establish himself in San Francisco’s backfield. He earned his roster spot through covering kicks and punts — “he’s arguably the best special teams player in the league,” McGlinchey said. But the 49ers acquired a gaggle of running backs, in both free agency and the draft, without plans for Mostert. He received six carries in an injury-shortened 2017 and only 34 last season. He carved a larger role this season, running for 772 yards on 137 carries.
“A lot of guys say this is a special team, special group. It’s because of guys like him,” Staley said. “He never complains about his role. He’s a special teams ace. Never complained once. He’s continued to work as hard as he could and try to be the best player he could be for this team. He was never a guy [that] if he wasn’t getting carries after he had success, he wasn’t like, ‘Why aren’t I getting the ball?’ ”
“He’s just earned everything,” Shanahan said Sunday evening. “He earned today. He’s such a good person. I can’t say enough good about Raheem.”
Mostert is reminiscent of the running backs Shanahan’s father, Mike, leaned on during his two-Super Bowl run as Denver’s head coach in the 1990s. Terrell Davis was a sixth-round draft pick who became a Hall of Famer, and Mike Anderson (another sixth-round pick) and Olandis Gary (fourth round) both produced 1,000-yard seasons. Mostert raved about learning from 49ers running backs coach Bobby Turner, who held the same role for Mike Shanahan.
“What he’s going to do is get you that extra yardage,” Mike Shanahan said.
This year, Mostert added two more important dates in his life. On March 19, the 49ers signed him to a three-year, $8.7 million contract. His first child, Gunnar Grey Mostert, was born June 22. Sunday evening, Mostert stood on a stage on the Levi’s Stadium field and held Gunnar in his arms, wearing an NFC champions T-shirt and taking questions from an interviewer.
“That’s a moment I’m going to cherish forever,” Mostert said. “For him to be able to have that opportunity, be onstage with me after what I accomplished, after what I done been through, I can’t put it into words how it feels.”
Mostert called Sunday the happiest day of his life behind his wedding and the birth of his son. He will remember Jan. 19, even if he never has to write it down.