SANTA CLARA -- The last time the 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl, their 2011 draft class played a key role in the club’s success.
Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick are no longer around, but the 49ers still have one starter remaining from that draft class of nearly nine years ago.
Seventh-round draft pick Mike Person will be starting at right guard when the 49ers’ offense takes the field in Super Bowl LIV against the Kansas City Chiefs in Miami on Sunday, Feb. 2.
“I’ve come full circle,” Person said in the victorious 49ers’ locker room after their win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday. “How about that? It’s been quite the journey. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything right now.”
Person, 31, was then asked to retrace his path since entering the NFL with the 49ers. He never made it to the regular season with the 49ers as a rookie. He was released at the end of training camp, and that began his football odyssey.
“All right,” Person said, taking a deep breath, “49ers; [Indianapolis] Colts for 10 days; [Seattle] Seahawks; [Los Angeles] Rams; [Atlanta] Falcons; Chiefs; Colts; back here.”
Lining up next to Person is another unlikely NFL success story.
Ben Garland, 31, comes from a military family, and that is the path he figured his life would take as he entered the Air Force Academy.
But in his sixth NFL season, Garland’s opportunity to be a starter came on Dec. 8 when center Weston Richburg sustained a season-ending knee injury.
“Coming from the Air Force Academy, I thought I was going to be a pilot right now,” Garland said. “It’s definitely unexpected.”
Not only are Person and Garland starters, but they also form part of a 49ers offensive line that helped dominate the Minnesota Vikings and Packers with a relentless running attack during the playoffs.
In those two games, the 49ers gained 471 yards and six touchdowns rushing on 89 attempts. Meanwhile, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was asked to drop back to throw just 30 times.
The 49ers’ offensive line helped Raheem Mostert to a career day in the 49ers’ win over the Packers. Mostert set the club record with 220 yards on 29 rushing attempts.
And Garland get in on the fun when Mostert presented him with the football to celebrate one of his four touchdown runs.
“I was surprised Raheem gave me the ball,” Garland said. “I’d never done something like that before: My first spike.”
Garland had seven career starts before this season. He was a backup on the 2016 Atlanta Falcons that went to Super Bowl LI with Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator. He played one snap on offense and eight on special teams in loss to the New England Patriots.
He was the 49ers’ primary backup at both guard positions and center for most of the season. Garland remained ready to enter at a moment’s notice at any of those three spots until Richburg’s injury forced him into action and onto the path to becoming a Super Bowl starter.
“It’s part of my military training,” Garland said. “Coming from the Air Force, you’re ready to adapt. So I’d always been ready every game to take on a role, whether it was left guard, right guard or center. So when he went down, I was ready to step in as a starter.
“There’s always pressure, especially with how well Weston did over the year. I’m filling big shoes.”
Person said he also owes a lot to his background, growing up in a small town in northeast Montana.
“There have obviously been some downs. And this is pretty damn high,” Person said. “Who’d ever thought a kid from Glendive, Montana, 5,000 people, would be playing in the Super Bowl? It means a lot because I carry my hometown with me and I know they’re always backing me, and I always got my family behind him. It’s pretty cool. It really is.
“It’s the work ethic that comes from being from a town like that. It’s a very rural town, but we got the railroad. We got oil fields and a bunch of ranchers. So that work ethic rubs off on everybody.”
Person had just 18 career starts before signing with the 49ers in 2018. Fourteen of his starts came in 2015 with the Falcons during Shanahan’s first season there as offensive coordinator. He started all 16 games last year to earn a three-year contract. And after missing two games late in the season with a neck condition, he started both playoff games.
Garland and Person are part of this team’s story of first-round picks, castoffs and everything in between who have formed to win 15 of 18 games this season. They all serve significant roles as the 49ers aim for the organization's sixth Lombardi Trophy.
“We have great team chemistry. Incredible coaches and we work so well together,” Garland said. “It’s not a selfish team, so every guy is helping the guy below them, beside of them, next to them.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re practice squad or Jimmy Garoppolo, everyone is getting an equal opportunity to grow.”