© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
On Sunday, the 49ers clinched their first Super Bowl berth since 2013, and second since 1995. While there was a unity in the immediate joy of winning an NFC Championship, but with a few minutes of perspective, the unique perspectives of each player and their journey to this point came into clearer focus.
Here is a look at how some of the 49ers felt reaching most of their first Super Bowls:
The story of Raheem Mostert is one of those classic cases where teams misidentifying talent, and a player with talent, and with the commitment to competing, gets eschewed one too many times.
A special teams oriented guy who finally got his chance to be used as a traditional running back with the 49ers, Mostert is suddenly an elite back in the NFL, and rushed for a historic total on Sunday.
His 220 yards are the second-most in a postseason game in NFL history, trailing only Eric Dickerson’s 248. His four touchdowns tied him for the second-most rushing touchdowns in a postseason game with LeGarrette Blount, trailing only the 49ers’ Ricky Watters with five in a game.
At one point, Mostert had considered retiring from the NFL to pursue life as a pro surfer, and had been offered a contract by Billabong. Now, he’s returning to his home state of Florida to play in a Super Bowl as the man who’s carried the 49ers to back-to-back playoff wins.
“Still surreal,” Mostert said. “I can’t believe that I’m in this position right now and I did the things that I tonight… I can’t believe it, still being able to play in my home state. This is so surreal right now.
I did have a lot of doubters and naysayers and now I get to actually tell them, ‘Look at where I’m at now.’ And I never gave up on the opportunities when it presented itself. And I always worked hard no matter what. And it’s crazy that I’ve been on seven different teams. I actually still have the cut dates. And I look at that before every game. I look at the dates when I got cut….
Not everybody can deal with that type of stress and pain and agony that I went through. But like I said, I kept the faith in not only myself, but whoever gave me the opportunity. And this organization has done a great job with that.”
Sherman was told he was foolish for negotiating his own, heavily-incentivized contract. He was panned as being washed up after his Achilles tear and having lost his status as an elite corner. He was criticized by former NFL corner Darrelle Revis on Twitter for playing zone coverage and being beaten by Davante Adams for a 65-yard gain.
It was only right that Sherman, who has consistently shown that he’s still elite having worked his way back from that Achilles injury, finished the game with an interception.
“It’s a long road,” Sherman said. “And there’s a lot of work that goes into it. A lot of things that you don’t see, a lot of unspoken things, a lot of work away from the cameras. You guys see the games. You don’t see the hours and hours and hours of work. The hours and hours of study. The hours and hours of treatment, pain, overcoming pain. The nights at home you don’t even get to spend with your kids because you’re trying to get your knee back or hamstring back. And your kids are sitting there rubbing on you trying to make you feel better.
People don’t understand the sacrifice that goes into being great at this game. They see the games and they’re like they won or lost, but regardless, guys sacrifice. Those guys in Green Bay, they put a lot of sacrifice into it throughout the season. They deserve to be there. They earned their right to be there. And not matter what, win, lose, draw, you sacrifice.
You give up your body and your time and your health and your mind. You’re usually somewhere between going psychotic and you’re locked in, you know what I mean? Because it’s such a crazy edge you’ve got to be on. That’s why it’s a little emotional. You get to appreciate it a little more.”
There’s no way Alexander should be playing. His pectoral tear (muscle torn off his sternum) is normally a six-month endeavor to recover from. But Alexander isn’t a normal guy. He’s “legendary” at every moment of every day, and that positivity is infectious.
Despite the norm, he returned from an injury that should have ended career. And now, as the source of energy for much of the defense, and veteran of the “Hot Boyzz” linebacker group he named, he’s heading to a well-deserved first Super Bowl.
“A lot of people counted me out, said I wouldn’t be back,” Alexander said. “I had this thing in my head I was coming back, nothing could stop me… and now I’m here.”
Alexander has been referred to as the “big brother” of that linebacker group, with rookie linebackers Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair crediting him for taking them under his wing and providing guidance. He was arguably more happy to be able to celebrate the win with them.
“It’s amazing man. They work hard, they put a lot of work in, a lot of study in and it’s paying off,” Alexander said. “They’re my young boys, my young rooks and I’m happy for them and proud of them.”
For the second-straight game, Azeez Al-Shaair was inactive after playing in all six of the 49ers final six regular season games, along with 15 games total and four starts. But there was no sour mood for the rookie. He’ll be heading home to Florida, just a few hours from where he grew up, in Tampa, and will see his family.
More importantly, he’ll get to play in front of his mom, Naadhirah, for the first time since his NFL debut in Week 1 against the Buccaneers. This week, Al-Shaair’s mother had an arrest warrant dismissed after seven years, which prevented her from leaving the state. It came too late in the week for the result to clear and her to fly to California, but that won’t matter now.
Al-Shaair’s “huge goal,” of getting back to her is complete, and now he’ll be chasing the monumental goal of a Super Bowl with her in attendance.
“Now I’m going back to the same state where I’m from, had so much adversity in,” Al-Shaair told KNBR. “But the biggest thing is since you’ve been playing football since you were a kid, it was all about making the Super Bowl… My wife is here, I got to celebrate with her on the field. My family, my mom and them are blowing my phone up, so I just took a shower to get the heck out of here so I can go talk to them.”
Greenlaw, like Al-Shaair, came into training camp as an unheralded rookie linebacker. While he was at least drafted in the fifth round, the expectations were only slightly higher than they were for Al-Shaair. But he immediately carved out a role for himself, beating out veterans like Malcolm Smith, LaRoy Reynolds and David Mayo soundly, winning the strong side SAM linebacker spot.
Once you hear Greenlaw’s story, it’s less surprising that he’s been so impressive. The rookie was abandoned by his birth family and adopted as a 14-year-old, and went on to be an Arkansas standout before being drafted. He said he’s been so focused on his dream of making the NFL that he didn’t even think about the possibility of making the Super Bowl.
“This is unbelievable to describe man,” Greenlaw told KNBR. “I didn’t look at myself as a fifth-round rookie. I looked at it as opportunity. Everybody’s got kind of the same opportunity. A lot of guys in the first or second round might have a little better chance of making the team but when I was coming in, that was my job. That’s what I wanted to do, it was, ‘Hey I got to make the team.’ I wasn’t even thinking about a Super Bowl but now that it’s here, just blessed to be a part of it.”
Both Buckner and Arik Armstead have had a lack of success since they left the University of Oregon in 2016 and 2015, respectively. After three seasons of losing for Buckner, the payoff has been monumental
“It means a lot. It’s a slim amount of us that’s been here since my rookie year, but obviously you see the new coaching staff, they trusted us in our abilities moving forward,” Buckner said. “And just to see the team that they brought together, we knew it wasn’t going to be overnight, it was going to take time. And we had a lot of injuries the past couple of years that set us back. And just to see the grit in the team even when we were losing, guys came out every day ready to work. Nobody was pointing fingers… You could see it throughout the entire course of the season. It’s been unbelievable.
Person was drafted by the 49ers in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL Draft, only to wait a year for his first chance at an NFL game. In his journey back to the 49ers, where he beat out two former first-round draft picks for the starting right guard spot, he bounced around to six different NFL teams.
That came after Person had unofficially retired in April of 2018, only to win that starting job and a three-year, $9 million extension from the 49ers.
And after starting 30-straight games for the 49ers dating back to last season, the Glendive, Montana native, who prides himself on fighting through pain, found himself on the sidelines for the final two games of the season with a neck injury. As Person said then, “It’s frustrating for me, because I always try and be the tough guy.”
Joe Staley described Person as, “A perfect example of what this team is. Guys that don’t complain about roles, don’t complain about what their journey was to get to this point and just take advantage of every opportunity they have.”
Sufficed to say, a Super Bowl appearance did not go unappreciated by the 31-year-old out of Montana State, who told KNBR he was “ecstatic.”
“You can’t really put it into words. I mean obviously we got one more to go, but, it’s a great feeling, personally, after the road that I’ve had for nine years,” Person said. “It means the world. Who would have thought a kid from Glendive, Montana, a town of 5,000 people, would be playing in the Super Bowl? There’s a lot of emotions going through me right now and it’s pretty amazing.”
For Staley, it wasn’t his first time winning an NFC Championship game. But it was his first time winning one at home, and it came after a long period of doubt about the state of the franchise. That doubt was cleared from his mind, he said, when he met Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch in 2017 when both were hired, and they laid out their plan in detail: from cap expectations, to the types of players they were interested in, and how they wanted to build the roster.
“It really played out exactly like they spelled it out in 2017, so once they were here, I knew it was a special, special group,” Staley said. “Kyle’s a special coach and the staff that he’s brought here has been unbelievable. Top to bottom it’s a special team.”
To experience an NFC Championship win at home, with his daughters, Staley said, was uniquely special. But he hopes there’s more to celebrate in two weeks time.
“Yeah, it was really cool. I mean that’s the first time we won one, 2-2 in NFC Championship games in my career,” Staley said. “The one time we won was on the road, so it was really cool having my family here on the field and sharing that with my daughters and my wife and it’ll be a moment that I’ll cherish for a long time, but hopefully I’ll have another moment couple weeks here down in Miami.”
Mitchell shouldn’t even be here. He knows that. He was “retired” after being unable to find a team to play for at the start of the season, but continued to work out. He declined offers to play for both his hometown Houston Texans and New England Patriots, saying the only opportunity he would have, and did consider, was to play for the 49ers.
His failure at retirement has played out about as well as could have ever been expected, with Mitchell heading to the first Super Bowl of his nine-year, and briefly dead career.
Mitchell told KNBR his phone was understandably being blown up from friends and family and that he “couldn’t wait” to bring his family to Miami.
“Amazing, man. Just to be able to come back and be able to go to the Super Bowl, it’s an amazing way to go through the season that I’ve been through personally. So it’s really great to share it with these guys,” Mitchell said. “I’m ecstatic man. I’m a man of faith, and I just think that everything worked out the way it was supposed to. And I’m honored to be here.”