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From surfer to Super Bowl, Raheem Mostert has come a long way

NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. — The idea is not to get bitten by bull sharks, who are aggressive in nature and always lurking in shallow waters along coasts.

Such was the menace that Raheem Mostert tried avoiding as a boy.

I’m guessing NFL defenses pale in comparison.

The player whose mission is to disprove the notion he’s a one-hit playoff wonder hails from this surf and sand town some 250 miles from where Mostert and the 49ers face the Chiefs on Sunday in Super Bowl LIV.

But the road to Miami and Hard Rock Stadium for the running back who was told more often than not that he wasn’t good enough was filled with challenges more difficult than merely avoiding treacherous fish.

Don’t misunderstand. Sharks are no pushovers. They feel no empathy. They trust nothing.

Their only instinct is to survive.

So here in a place known as, “The Shark Bite Capital of the World,” a five-year NFL veteran who a few weeks ago introduced himself to the football world with an historic effort in the NFC Championship game learned to do that and prosper.

Life of risk

To the right of an adjacent parking lot in the center of town is a lifeguard tower, which on Thursday flew a red flag so as to warn folks about high surf and menacing currents.

There are also days when a purple one flies.

“That,” said one local, “is to warn them that there are a lot more sharks than usual and some Portuguese Man O’ War.”

How lovely.

Life for Mostert was a scene straight from a “Jaws” screenplay, him sitting on a surfboard as adversity and the potential for violence circled him for years, his arms and legs dangling from a fiberglass platform filled with risk.

But like strong winds that transfer energy to the water and form giant swells, all of it helped define the player who rushed for 220 yards and four touchdowns against the Packers, leading San Francisco to its first Super Bowl since 2013.

So who is this 27-year-old, fast enough that many once pegged him as a future Olympic sprinter?

Is he more like Kevin Dyson and Ron Sellers and Vernon Perry and Don Strock and others who enjoyed playoff moments of elevated significance?

Or something much more?

Perhaps something special.

“Football was a way for him to get away from some of the things that happened when he was growing up,” said Snap Wood, who helped coach Mostert in high school. “He’s the guy who played against Green Bay and not the one who got cut all those times. Humble. Hard working. He’s going to be in the league as long as he’s running as fast as he’s running now. He’s not going anywhere.”

Six. That’s how many times NFL teams waived Mostert, undrafted out of Purdue and who until this season competed primarily on special teams and whose career-high in season carries was 34 last year.

He never knew his biological father. When he was 4, Mostert found a gun belonging to his stepdad, began playing with it and shot himself in the foot.

That same stepfather is in prison for shooting Mostert’s stepbrother four times.

Afterward, Mostert stopped talking to his mother.

He eventually found surrogates in a youth football coach and his family, and the beach town with a main drag filled with the customary bars and snack shacks and surf shops suddenly began to promise a brighter future.

Ocean of skill

Cole Holcomb is a linebacker for the Redskins. He’s from here. So is D’Cota Dixon, a safety for the Buccaneers. Maybe there’s something in the water besides sharks, because the town of 26,000 just south of Daytona Beach sure has produced some football talent.

And now one is in the Super Bowl.

Mostert tells the story of, when 16 and surfing one day, he was waiting to catch a wave when he saw a large fin circling his board just feet away. His friends, paddling nearby, implored him to remain absolutely still.

One move could mean the loss of a limb or worse.

Time stopped. It seemed like forever.

The fin, however, eventually disappeared and Mostert allowed himself to breathe.

Something tells me he won’t be as fearful against Kansas City.

“(Mostert) was a very inspirational guy,” said Zachary Hillier, a former professional surfer who attended high school with the running back. “Very uplifting. I’d say he was a pretty good surfer for a guy who focused on football. You’re either surfing, fishing or playing football here.

“It’s just him growing up, man. Being from New Smyrna, a small town, you have to work with what you’ve got to make a name for yourself and do something.”

Mostert will try to continue doing so Sunday.

He’s no doubt hoping it isn’t a purple flag day.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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