SANTA CLARA -- The search for the champion among champions in the 49ers’ locker room Sunday night ended in what many NFL personnel experts surely considered the unlikeliest of places, at the cubicle of a man they never knew and barely saw.
Raheem Mostert spent two years sliding past their eyes and through their fingers before finally being dropped into the gift bag former 49ers coach Chip Kelly would leave behind for the new regime.
Three years and change later, Mostert has etched his name in the NFL record book and become the toast of the 49er Faithful.
With Mostert amassing 220 yards on 29 carries, accounting for 226 of the team’s 358 total yards – and all four of their touchdowns – the 49ers sprinted past the Green Bay Packers and into Super Bowl LIV with a 37-20 victory in the NFC Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium.
Mostert’s brilliance allowed coach Kyle Shanahan to bet on a game plan that would not have dared enter the fertile mind of his father, Mike Shanahan, and most certainly not the most revered coach in 75 seasons of 49ers history. Bill Walsh would have frowned at the mention of throwing eight passes in 60 minutes of action.
Shanahan and his quarterback, Jimmy Garappolo, got away with it because Mostert spent the day piercing and dashing through Green Bay’s defense, culminating in the game of his life – and, given his perilous path, one he so richly deserved.
“It’s crazy that I’ve been on seven different teams,” he said. “I actually still have the cut dates and I look at that before every game. I look at the cut dates. When I got cut.”
The list of NFL transactions attached on Mostert’s page on the pro-football-reference.com website reads like a 25-chapter book, beginning in May 2015 when the undrafted running back signed with the Eagles, followed by the Dolphins, the Ravens, the Browns, the Jets and the Bears, who dismissed him on Nov. 24, 2016.
Six teams, six heartbreaks, over 18 months. Maybe it was time for Mostert to give up. Go back to Florida, where he was a two-star recruit as a prep wide receiver. Maybe stay home in Cleveland, where his wife has family.
“Not everybody can deal with that type of stress and pain and agony that I went through,” Mostert said. “But I kept the faith in not only myself but whoever gave me the opportunity. This organization has done a great job of that.”
Four days after he was bumped from Chicago, Kelly, who released Mostert when he was the head coach in Philly, signed him in San Francisco. Six weeks later, Kelly was fired and Mostert was, um, deeply concerned.
New 49ers general manager John Lynch and Shanahan met with Mostert and promised he’d get a fair chance. He jumped all over that bet.
“They basically told me they believe in me,” Mostert said.
As a special-teams player, yes. As a starting running back, no.
Lynch and Shanahan signed free-agent tailback Matt Breida in May. One year later, they lavishly spent (a reported $30 million over four years) to add free agent Jerick McKinnon. They then signed Tevin Coleman last summer to a two-year contract worth a reported $10 million.
When Mostert arrived for training camp six months ago, he was the owner of a three-year contract worth $8.7 million, a valuable special teams player – and the No. 4 running back on the depth chart.
Over the course of the season, as McKinnon, Coleman and Breida all dealt with varying degrees of injury-forced inactivity, Shanahan started taking longer looks at Mostert. He still had the 4.4 speed he flashed as a track star back at Purdue, and he made a habit of racing past defenders. He finished with 10 touchdowns and a 5.6 yards-per-carry average that was No. 1 among all NFL running backs.
“We do our job, and he turns five-yard runs into house calls,” left tackle Mike McGlinchey said.
Demoralizing Green Bay’s defense with 160 yards on 14 first-half carries, Mostert averaged 7.6 yards per carry in the game. Coleman totaled 21 yards on six carries before leaving with a shoulder injury. Breida carried once, for two yards.
The Packers kept getting Mostert, Mostert and more Mostert.
“I can’t believe I’m in this position right now and that I did the things that I did tonight,” he said.
Guess who is No. 1 now? The guy who sent Aaron Rodgers into the offseason with a performance for the ages.
“That’s an unbelievable thing,” McGlinchey said. “That’s like movie stuff. To be the MVP of the NFC Championship Game and get four touchdowns and put your team in the Super Bowl, that’s pretty cool.”
It’s not as if Mostert is the star who materialized out of nowhere. Rather, he came from just about everywhere.
Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (5:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; 8:00 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 6:00 p.m. Friday)