Former surfer Raheem Mostert riding the wave as 49ers' X factor

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Raheem Mostert is uniquely equipped to do anything he is asked.

The San Francisco 49ers' top rusher has been taking on breakers, both literal and figurative, most of his life.

A former skateboarder-turned-surfer-turned-football player, Mostert's NFL career has been full of stops and starts. The Niners are his seventh NFL team, with previous stops in Philadelphia, Miami, Baltimore, Cleveland, New York (Jets) and Chicago -- all in less than two years. In some of those places, Mostert didn't make the active roster.

"Everything is, like, finally soaking in and it actually is surreal," Mostert said of his breakout season with the 49ers. "Especially with what I've been through these past five years. It's just been an unbelievable ride and I've got to keep it going. We still have one goal, and that's to get to the Super Bowl. We've got to win the rest of these games, so I've got to do my best and try to help the team out as best as I can."

When the Niners host the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday (6:40 p.m. ET, Fox), Mostert will be one of the Niners' most valuable and versatile weapons. In fact, Mostert's versatility is unlike any other player in the league.

Mostert is the only player since ESPN tracking began in 2001 to lead his team in rushing yards (772) and special-teams tackles (14) in the same season.

"The effort that he plays with throughout all facets of his game is something that everybody should try and match on our football team because it's special," right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "It's meant the world to us and been a huge reason for our success this year."

Growing up in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, a surf town tabbed as the "Shark Bite Capital of the World," Mostert found himself attracted to boards.

Mostert's first love was a skateboard, but the pull of the ocean eventually got him, and by the time he was 12, he was doing his best Kelly Slater impersonation. A few years later, Billabong was intrigued enough to offer him a professional surfing contract, which he rejected.

While he didn't end up turning surfing into a career, Mostert was able to refine some of the skills that would help him excel in football. The body control required to ride a wave or perform an Ollie came as second nature for Mostert, who had shown enough on the field to earn a scholarship to Purdue.

There, Mostert didn't move to running back until his junior season, when he requested it. Along the way, he picked up an affinity for special teams. As a freshman, he knew his best chance to contribute was as a returner. Secretly, Mostert was also capable of running and tackling after playing safety in high school.

That little secret was why he went undrafted despite the turf-burning speed that usually has teams salivating. He won gold in the 60- and 200-meter sprints at the 2014 Big Ten Indoor Championships for the Boilermakers and clocked a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at his pro day.

Mostert signed with the Eagles as an undrafted free agent in 2015 and made a strong first impression on coach Chip Kelly, who praised him until the day he released him. Mostert remembers the phone call in detail, recalling Kelly telling him how tough a decision it was and how he needed to be patient.

To this day, Mostert says that call from Kelly was the most difficult of his career, but it wasn't the one that had him pondering walking away from the game. That came later in 2015, when the Browns released him after three games. He sat down with his wife, Devon, convinced he was ready to leave football behind.

"I told her, 'What do you think we should do?'" Mostert said. "She told me, 'Hey, just keep pushing.'"

Mostert landed with the Niners in 2016 after the team hired Kelly as head coach. Mostert quickly took to his role on special teams, becoming a roster staple and earning praise from teammates as one of the best gunners in the league.

Carries were sparse, but when they came in 2018, Mostert averaged 7.7 yards on 34 attempts before a broken forearm ended his season. Still, he had showed enough that the Niners signed him to a three-year, $8.7 million contract in March and left coaches privately discussing ways to get him more involved despite the presence of Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida at running back.

Injuries eventually created enough opportunities for Mostert to get his chance, and he's been riding the wave ever since. He finished the regular season with 772 yards on 137 carries, a 5.64-yard average that was the best among all qualified running backs. He scored eight rushing touchdowns, including one in each of the final six games, making him the third player in franchise history to accomplish that feat.

Watching him run, it's not hard to see how Mostert's history as a surfer and a gunner have melded together to form a fast, well-balanced runner with no fear of contact. In some ways, it makes him the ideal runner for 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan's zone-heavy run scheme. According to NFL Next Gen Stats data, Mostert was the fastest running back in the league when hitting the line of scrimmage, reaching an average speed of 11.3 mph before accelerating into the teeth of the defense.

"When he finally gets his opportunity, he just sprints through people's faces," tight end George Kittle said. "Guys takes angles at him and they realize angles aren't good enough because he’s so fast."

While Mostert runs through those angles and faces, he finds himself doing more than racking up yards and tackles. He has become the Niners' X factor at the most important time.

Through it all, he hasn't forgotten what he went through to get here. He has stayed true to his roots, both in the water and on the field. After touchdowns, he often drops to his stomach, mimics paddling and then jumps to his feet as though he's surfing. As for his special-teams beginnings, one need look no further than his son's name, Gunner, to see its importance.

"What's been most exciting is the actual journey to where he is right now," left tackle Joe Staley said. "He's never complained about his role ... It was always about doing what he can do to help the team. That's a message for a lot of young guys. Not complaining about your role, what your role is currently, just try to be the best player you can be for the football team. You never know what's going to happen, what opportunities are going to arise. He's made the most of it."