His right hand, flattened into the shape of a fin, glides slowly over the table, bobbing up and down as it moves.
Up. Down. Up. Down.
He remembers the haunting sight. Raheem Mostert was 16 years old then, sitting with one leg dangling off each side of his surfboard, waiting to catch another wave off the coast of New Smyrna Beach, Florida. And there it was, three feet away. A shark. Lurking. He had lived in the "Shark Attack Capital of the World" long enough to differentiate a shark's fin (pointy) from a dolphin's fin (round). Nearby, his surfing pals saw the situation unfolding and implored him to stay calm. The slightest bit of panic—any movement whatsoever—could make Mostert seem like prey, dinner, to that shark, and he'd be an amputee. Or worse.
The fin disappeared.
Seconds passed that felt like hours. He stayed frozen.
Was it near his feet? Did it swim away? He wasn't sure, but he stayed still—very still—before ever…so…carefully…lifting his legs out of the water and onto the top of his board. A few moments passed, and when it felt like the coast was clear, he paddled back to shore, took a break and, why the hell not?, kept on surfing.
A couple of years later, Mostert was at that same beach with his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Devon, on spring break, and the scene was straight out of Jaws. Three people got bit that day. There was screaming and hysteria and an ambulance and someone holding up a bloody leg. And when the madness had dissipated—you guessed it—he headed right back into the water.
"I literally just grabbed my board and was like, 'All right, babe, I'll be right back,'" he remembers. "I already had been out there. I came back to shore to get a break and to hang out. I'm like, 'There's another shark bite. OK.'"
His wife told him he's crazy.
He views that ocean differently.
"I find the tranquility, man," he says.
Such is his temperament. He is calm when he should be freaking out. Not that he can surf anytime soon. It's prohibited in that three-year, $8.7 million contract he signed back in March. But here at Fleming's Restaurant, 72 hours after wrecking the NFC Championship Game, Mostert finds his ocean, his peace. This was a ridiculously busy day. He woke up at 5:30 a.m. to start a marathon run of phone interviews, stepping outside of his apartment so he wouldn't wake up his sleeping baby. By the time baby Gunnar was up, Dad had ripped through six phoners.
Which explains his voice. It's raspy. It uncontrollably (and hilariously) spikes to a soprano's pitch throughout this conversation. Moments after sitting down, he asks the waiter for hot tea and sips the Numi organic "jasmine green" to gradually soothe that frog in his throat.
The restaurant, his choice for dinner, didn't have any availability around 6:30 p.m. That is, until it was informed that Raheem Mostert was visiting.
A year ago—heck, a week ago—we all would've been jammed like sardines in the adjacent bar section waiting for stools. Today? He and Devon are guided to the back, to a half moon-shaped luxury couch overlooking the restaurant. And, no, his money's no good here. Everything is on the house for this instant hero.
But how, truly, did he get to this point?
How does a 27-year-old who has been cut again…and again…and again—six times in all—have maybe the best game a running back has ever had in the playoffs?
Back when the 49ers were predicting this type of season, there's zero chance even they could've expected the part Mostert would play in it. And yet there he was Sunday, a mic in his face, holding his son Gunnar in one hand and the Halas Trophy in the other as confetti rained.
So how? Ask him this question, and you half-expect him to play all the hits.
To espouse the virtues of lifting and training and believing in himself. And yes, this 5'10", 210-pounder with 4.32 speed, veins snaking down his forearms and biceps popping out of a maroon shirt is clearly committed.
Or to launch into an attack on the teams that didn't believe in him. And yes, he keeps the dates of those six cuts in the Notes app on his phone.
Or to stress the power of positivity. Mostert has extremely distinctive facial features—thick eyebrows, round and innocent eyes, blinding-white teeth, a bushy goatee with frayed scruff on his cheeks—that, when smiling in concert, suggest he is eternally…happy.
But it runs deeper. Much deeper.
"I've always been a person with that drive to succeed," he begins. "I never really had much when I was younger. It was a hunger to succeed and make it out. Me and my wife talk about it all the time. I didn't have the best childhood. I didn't have that ideal childhood. I have to show everyone what I can do."
He sips his tea, clears his throat and glances to this left, to Devon, as if asking if she thinks it'd be a good idea to really explain what led to this point.
Then, he does.
Sharks that have been circling him forever.
His rise to Super Bowl LIV is no accident.
He has no childhood photos. None. That's what pops into Mostert's mind first, and that sounds pretty damn depressing. As his family moved from apartment to apartment in Daytona Beach because of costs and gang violence, then onto New Smyrna Beach, whatever photos did exist slipped through the cracks.
That's why he constantly snaps photos of Gunnar, and why he'll forever cherish that shot of them together at the NFC Championship Game. He wants his son's childhood preserved forever.
Not that he really wants to think about, let alone preserve, his own childhood.
"I don't want my fami, fami…" says Mostert, his voice skipping into that high pitch again. "I don't want my family to live how I lived."
Honestly, he doesn't need a photo to bring that life to mind. All he needs to do is remove his left sock off and look at his big left toe, err, lack thereof.
It's cut short. When he was three years old, maybe four, he shot himself.
After a gang invaded their home, "Dad" thought it'd be smart to buy a gun, and that gun was then put in the laundry, beneath a heap of clothes on top of a couch. Young Raheem inevitably got his hands on it, horsed around and nearly killed himself. The blast to his toe stunted his growth and, today, it often catches teammates off-guard. "Oh my God!" they yell. Mostert always chuckles, calls it his "good luck charm" and, hey, maybe that's why he's so fast.
Not that he endorses this.
"I don't want people thinking: 'Oh! You have to shoot your foot!' I'm not encouraging that."
That memory is hazy. Others are seared into him.
Like the violence. He'd walk past the projects as a kid and see two guys beating each other to a bloody pulp. He'd hear gunshots near, gunshots far. He'd sprint inside his home the second those streetlights came on, because that's when gangs started to loiter. Along the way, Mostert lost friends—one was just gunned down two years ago.
As so many NFL tales go, football served as an escape. An outlet. "My chance," Mostert says, "to get away from life." In 2002, he attended his first NFL game. He fondly recalls seeing his favorite player ever, Ricky Williams, tear through the Patriots defense in Miami just as he fondly recalls tailgating with his grandfather.
He branched out, too. He surfed and skateboarded and hung around the "nerdy kids" all the time, because it seemed like nobody else wanted to. The result was a motley crew of close friends that has stayed strong to this day.
Yet that "life" always tried pulling him back.
He thinks long and hard about which other details to share with the world. A war is clearly waging within. He never knew his biological father, and if whoever abandoned him is thinking about showing up Super Bowl Week, please do not. "You better off where you at," Mostert warns. And then he admits he no longer speaks to the parents he did have. The "Dad" who was around?
He's in jail.
He shot his biological son, Mostert's half-brother, four times: in the abdomen, the hip, the forearm and the back. On Father's Day.
Reliving this isn't fun for Mostert. He mostly lets his wife explain. Devon heard the news first, from Mostert's best friend. Devon knew Mostert, a junior at Purdue at the time, was on a plane traveling back from the NCAA Track and Field Championships. She knew he'd soon see all the messages on his phone and the people tweeting "RIP" and feel the need to take action. To fly down to Florida immediately. To find "Dad," who was on the run. To fight.
So Devon called one of Purdue's football coaches to get the track coach's number so she could tell him to make sure Mostert did not redirect to Florida.
And it worked. When he did see the mayhem blowing up his phone, he called Devon with one question: "Is my brother breathing?" She said, "I don't know," and they both prayed. (Devon right there on her kitchen floor.) Somehow, his brother survived. Somehow, his brother mustered enough energy to call him that same day from the emergency room, fresh out of surgery. In what Mostert calls the weakest voice imaginable, he told him: "Don't worry about me. I'll be all right."
He didn't want his brother to fly south, either.
If not for Devon's calls and his brother's words, he knows he would've, too. Just that morning, he had called "Dad" to wish him a Happy Father's Day. Then sprinted in nationals. Then this?
"I was really about to buy a plane ticket," Mostert says, "and head down there and ruin everything I worked for. Just to find him."
His wife chimes in.
"That," she says, "and to see his brother. His brother didn't want him around anything."
So…why? Why did "Dad" shoot his son? That's where Mostert draws a line.
"I don't want to talk about that," he says.
He doesn't want to exhaust any more energy on his past than he needs to. "Dad" did turn himself in and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He still has two to go. Mostert stopped talking to his mother after the shooting. He says his brother is doing fine. They still talk. And he also stays in touch with his grandfather, his mother's father. Just this week, he called to invite him to the Super Bowl. And right there on his left arm is a tattoo of his deceased grandmother, too.
He remains connected to his past. But he has always wanted to create a new legacy.
That's why he ended up at Purdue, 1,100 miles from home, in the first place. He had plenty of offers from instate schools, but he wanted to become the first person from his family to graduate from college and knew the only way he'd be able to do that was by leaving Florida. Entirely.
He did graduate, and the shooting was the definitive proof he needed to stay away. He only heads back now if it's for something 100 percent "positive," like speaking to kids or starting up a football camp this coming summer.
"He wanted to make it out," Devon says, "because he knew if he didn't, his life would result in all of that."
Echoes Mostert, "My brother getting shot like that, it just showed and proved to me why I don't want to go back."
He goes silent. It's time to move off this subject. He transitions to what did make him happy growing up—a man named "Chop"—and a different scar.
A scar forged June 14, 2019, that may never go away.
When he isn't reading those cut dates on his phone, Mostert is glued to old pictures of "Chop." He can't stop scrolling and staring. He thinks it helps keep Chop's spirit alive. Even if it also brings him to tears.
"I still break down," he says, "when I think about Chop."
This was the rock in his life, the father figure, the mentor, the type of man he aspired to be one day.
So forget a severed toe and gunfire. These are the memories he replays in his mind. Chop, aka Porkchop, aka Michael Stokes, was Mostert's first Pop Warner coach and remained a major presence in his life through middle school, high school, college and into the pros.
A smile returns as he thinks back.
To the campouts.
Packed into tents with Chop's son, Trevor, and the other neighborhood kids, Mostert listened closely as Chop explained that if they heard noises, any noises at all, deep in this wilderness, it was probably those "swamp apes." (Scared to the bone, Mostert's little bro would then sleep inside.) To the log home. Chop built it with wood from his own property. To the voice. It was rough and thickly southern and loving. "C'mon, Bubba!" he'd yell in that drawl. To the teeth. They were mangled and disorganized and the reason Chop never, ever smiled…until Mostert returned to New Smyrna one summer after he'd gone pro. He was training in Miami and made the three-and-a-half-hour drive north to have dinner with Chop and "Mama Chop." When he pulled up to the house, there Chop was, grinning the biggest grin imaginable, because he finally got those teeth fixed. "He flauuuunted it," Mostert says, laughing. "He flaunted it!"
He thinks back to the example. Trevor was like a brother to Mostert, and Mostert simply loved how hard this whole family worked, for everything.
Chop was the one, behind the scenes, molding Mostert into a man. Discipline. Empathy. Hard work. The lessons he didn't get at home were learned from him. Asked if he has any clue where he'd be today without him, Mostert's eyes widen. He stares ahead, mesmerized, and admits he has no clue. This guy in the camo hat chewing snuff, this guy he affectionately calls a "redneck," was the closest thing he's had to a father.
Last spring, Chop was there for the Mosterts' baby shower and seemed OK.
When he returned home, though, something was off. He could just tell. Mostert says that's when Chop visited a doctor and received terrible news. Not only did he have melanoma but also several brain tumors…and everything was spreading. From that point forward, every day Mostert helped his pregnant wife every way he could and then called Chop.
Most conversations ended with Chop telling Mostert not to worry about anything with these same words: "I'm going to fight this thing." ("Just the way you would," Devon adds.)
"He was always that type of guy," Mostert says. "Even if he didn't know you, he would put you ahead of himself."
And four weeks after finding out he was sick, Chop died at 53.
The news came from Chop's daughter, Autumn. Hearing it, Mostert cried, cried, hung up the phone and cried some more. He tried to shield Devon from the grief by staying in his bedroom whenever the pain was overbearing. Devon was so close to giving birth to Gunnar that he didn't want to burden her. This was the rawest, realest pain he'd ever felt. It hurt even more that he couldn't attend Chop's funeral with Gunnar so close to entering the world.
He still hasn't gotten over it. He still looks at those pictures.
But he's using it.
"I sat there, like, 'Why did it have to be a guy like him?'" Mostert says. "Then you understand, 'Hey, look, it happened for a reason.' I'm looking at it seven, eight months later—it was like manifest; it was destiny. It took that passion and that drive to eventually get to where I'm at.
"Chop has given me the blessings. He's my guardian angel. My son is my blessing. I'm speechless thinking of stuff like that."
Underneath his red home jersey, Mostert wears a loose shirt with the name "CHOP" in all caps written on it. He takes a long moment to stare at it before taking the field. He believes Chop is still with him every game, every snap, every carry. He hears Chop's voice ringing in his head: Come on, 'Heem! You're better than that! Chop it down! And he still tears up. Just yesterday, Mostert was on the phone with "Mama Chop" to talk about the Super Bowl. He's giving her and Trevor tickets.
They agreed that, yes, Chop will be there, too.
"We were talking," he says, "about how he would have the best seat in the house."
Mostert pauses. He's starting to get emotional, again.
"I don't think I'll ever get over that, no. Will I get past it, yeah. But it's always going to be in me. I don't want his legacy to ever die."
His eyes never stop darting over to his wife, to the person who's been there through so much with him, through this quest for a new life. Loud conversations collide in all directions at Fleming's. Zion Williamson's debut is on a TV above the nearby bar. The 49ers' equipment staff appears for a group dinner one table over. And as Mostert keeps getting that teacup refilled, his voice returns to normal.
Losing Chop stung. Badly.
But the thing is, he was ready for it. By this year, by this 2019-20 season, Mostert was equipped to handle anything.
He gazes at Devon with love that goes back, he explains, all the way to the first day he laid eyes on her. He tells the story with more pride than he shows in anything he's done on a field. The way Purdue's athletic facility was constructed, the football position meetings took place on a second floor that looked down on the weight room. Before ducking into the wide receiver room one day, Mostert did a quick panoramic view of the soccer team—he actually thought it was the softball team—and spotted Devon. Cupid's arrow struck him directly in the chest.
This became a pattern. Devon was easy to spot with blue accents in her hair.
"Wow," Mostert told himself. "I want to get to know her."
He shot her a message on Facebook and, soon enough, they were best friends. They took long walks together. He brought boxes of pizza over to her place when she studied for test after test. He thought that maybe, just maybe, she'd even lend him a hand with his homework because, as Mostert says, she's a "genius." But while Devon never had anything below an A-minus in college (and that A-minus in Medieval Times is still gutting), she refused to do any of her boyfriend's homework or papers or projects. She wouldn't even let him sit next to her in class.
Here, they banter.
"I wanted him to get better!"
"She wouldn't even sit by me!"
"There was no cheating, no helping."
Their chemistry is so obvious, so magnetic. Mostert's be-friends-with-anyone chill blends beautifully with Devon's do-anything-for-this-person intensity. It's the sort of yin and yang anyone could spend a lifetime searching for. They come from polar-opposite backgrounds, too. Whereas Mostert witnessed the thin line between life and death, Devon grew up in quaint Chardon, Ohio (population: 5,171). The two meshed perfectly and set off on an NFL odyssey together.
Both pinpoint the precise moment it all could've ended. The one moment doubt consumed him.
After the two became engaged, in Baltimore in 2015, the Ravens cut Mostert loose, and in swooped Devon's hometown Cleveland Browns. It was all so perfect. By then, he was extremely close to Devon's family—her parents were his parents—and he loved those trips to quiet Chardon, to the middle of nowhere, to joining her for cinnamon buns at Mary Yoder's Amish Kitchen. Most importantly, the Browns apparently loved his game. Yeah, Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson were still 1 and 1A going into the 2016 season, but Mostert believed he was right there behind them thanks to his special teams skills.
In the fourth preseason game that year, the Browns even held him out with a minor hamstring injury he easily could've played through. He was too valuable.
Mostert made the team. He celebrated with Devon's family that night, and the party raged on into the next day for Devon's bridal shower…then Mostert got the news. He'd been cut. Out of nowhere. He and Devon's father kept it their little secret because the last thing he wanted to do was suck any joy out of Devon's special day.
Then, at night, he dropped the bomb. He could barely muster the words.
For the first time ever, he considered quitting football.
"Moving around to so many different cities. States," he says. "It takes a toll on your mental state."
So he asked aloud to Devon and Devon's parents: "What do you think I should do?"
Devon didn't hesitate. She told him that if he loves it, then he should "do anything" for it. So he did. And right then Mostert chose to keep believing in himself. Keep fighting. They had their stuff packed in storage units all over the country, but it didn't matter. Nobody else seemed to believe in him—imagine yourself getting fired from work six times in a row—but they clutched to their belief.
The Browns' excuse? Their reasoning?
Sensing, here in Santa Clara, that his wife is getting pissed about it all over again, Mostert smiles, nods to her, says, "Go ahead, go ahead." And Devon morphs into a person you'd never want to mess with.
"They wanted somebody younger," she says, coldly. "He was 24."
In this case, they were general manager Sashi Brown, head coach Hue Jackson and running backs coach Kirby Wilson. Brown was the one who told Mostert the Browns wanted to go young.
He has heard all the bull before, from GMs and coaches and scouts alike. Everyone who's anyone in football has made it very clear to him: you're not good enough. Incessant rejection like that could have spiraled him deep into depression. But outside of that one moment in Cleveland, he has never overcomplicated anything.
To him, it's simple. He looks at the "bright side" of every situation in life.
After two more cuts, in came the 49ers. In came a new regime. And in came that new regime's handpicked running backs. Yet even as the 49ers doled out contracts to Jerick McKinnon (four years, $30 million) and Tevin Coleman (two years, $10 million) and kept Matt Breida around, Mostert never again questioned himself like he did in Cleveland.
Anyway, he says, he has never cared about the money. Football, forever, was the escape.
"I love the game. I want to play," he says. "Everybody wants to be financially stable, but I'm looking at the bigger picture. I want to teach life lessons to my son. I want him to grow up and say: 'My dad did this, and this is what he did to overcome that. He taught me this, this and this.' That means way more to me than money or being the last guy on the depth chart. If I apply something from the game of football to life, I'm more than happy to do that."
He lost Chop, and that loss leaves a mark.
But eight days later, his son was born. Mom fought through 30 hours of tough labor. The dream—stability, a family, a team that wants him—started becoming a reality. And Browns be damned, the Mosterts bought a house in Westlake, Ohio, 15 miles west of Cleveland. They are finished moving all over the country. After this Sunday, their lives may never be the same again.
Mostert is heading back to Florida.
For the Super Bowl.
That list of cut dates used to be the background on his phone. Not anymore. Now it's a picture of Gunnar. And when Mostert does reopen that old file, in the Notes app, he tends to read and reread the other words on the screen.
Here, he opens his phone and reads aloud.
"I have a family to support. I don't want to be back on the street. I've put too much time in this to not perform."
His life has come into focus.
He's turning his dream into a reality, creating a legacy for himself and a family he and Devon plan to keep growing (they both want three more kids).
He looks and sounds like a man on top of the world. Like nothing can stop him.
On the field, he might be right. The 49ers' zone-blocking scheme was practically invented for him. In this offense, backs must decisively hit the hole, must seize the opportunity at a precise moment. That's Mostert. He's always lived on the NFL fringes, with zero margin for error, and will seize every step of every carry he gets. While Purdue used him as a receiver, then as a gadget back, and it took so much studying here in Santa Clara to grasp the scheme…now he's busting out. He has averaged six-plus yards per carry the past two years, fully synchronized with the O-line.
So what if the Chiefs just shut down Derrick Henry? Mostert assures they haven't seen him, that he's faster than Henry.
His confidence is soaring.
His generosity is bursting.
Upon hearing that Fleming's is covering this meal, he thanks the waiter and then tells him he wants to cover the bill for the 49ers' equipment staff. There's a dozen or so of them, but Mostert feels the need to give back after everything they've done for him. Just as he feels the need to hand the football to linemen to spike in the end zone, for everything they do. Just as he feels the intrinsic duty to speak at juvenile centers in San Jose about his upbringing. He tells those kids they don't need to be what they were born into.
He's still drawn to all types of people, eating burgers at this exact restaurant with the team's punter and long snapper through training camp and now eating dinner regularly with star cornerback Richard Sherman.
He is, essentially, Chop. Always prioritizing you above himself.
After scoring one touchdown on Monday Night Football, Mostert even paid tribute to the father of his agent, Brett Tessler, who had recently died.
Tessler was speechless. That heartfelt "T" gave his family joy when joy was needed most.
"Men love him. Women love him. Everybody loves him," Tessler says. "He's just a very special guy. Being around him makes you want to be a better husband, a better dad, a better friend. He's everything that somebody should aspire to be. ... If you've been there for him—somebody he can trust, somebody who's had his back through thick and thin—he's the kind of guy who'll repay you with that same loyalty tenfold."
For the longest time, Mostert confided the details of his upbringing only to the tightest of tight inner circles. Now, he feels a duty to spread the word. He knows his story—especially right now, right when people are discovering who he is—can inspire.
Football was his release, but he insists everyone can find a release in life. "Music or art or a math problem. You never know?" Steve Jobs never went to college, he continues. Google was created in a basement, he adds. His point? "There's always going to be positives in life." And that's where Mostert must make a clear distinction. He's been an underdog in the NFL, but by no means has he ever viewed himself as a victim. He hates that word. He's "embarrassed" by that word. He cringes at that word, because he's never, ever, viewed himself through such a defeatist prism.
He believes anyone can dig themselves out of any situation and that he is living proof. It's not "poor me!" he says. "It's…it's…I have it in me," says Devon, finishing his sentence.
Tessler puts it best. It's not like Mostert suddenly became tough. Such mettle has, indeed, been in him all along.
Granted, he's still pinching himself. He cannot believe he's on the verge of playing in a Super Bowl and admits, sure, he's nervous. He hopes that first hit shakes the nerves out of his system. Check that. He knows the first hit will.
He's counting on more turbulence, too.
"There can be some rough waves out there," Mostert says. "The currents are crazy. Hey, I find a way, man.
"I find a way."
Then, it's back to daydreaming. He envisions himself getting a gold jacket in Canton when his career is all said and done. And when Gunnar and his little siblings grow up and head to college, and Mostert and Devon retire, he imagines buying a house right on the beach.
He'll sprawl, soak in the rays, reminisce about Lombardi Trophies, and keep an eye on the ocean. Whenever a gnarly wave breaks out, he'll grab his board, race to the water and not worry for a second whether the sharks are still there waiting for him.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.