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Barber: 49ers touch down in Miami for Super Bowl LIV

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MIAMI — The 49ers have arrived.

Metaphorically, they have arrived. They are the best team in the NFC this year, and in a week will get a chance to crown themselves champions of the entire NFL. And now they have arrived in a more literal sense. Their United Airlines Boeing 777 touched down at Miami International Airport on Sunday, and at 7:10 p.m. Eastern time that plane taxied into American Airlines’ maintenance hangar for the first great photo op of Super Bowl LIV.

Their slow roll into the hangar was accompanied by a DJ’s booming tracks. The United pilot waved a 49ers flag from the cockpit. Lights flashed as crewmen connected stairways to the two exit doors. As each passenger reached the bottom of the steps, someone plopped a tropical-themed Super Bowl cap on his or her head.

The participants’ arrival (the Chiefs had landed here a couple hours earlier) is the flimsiest of news items, a hyped look at professional athletes doing a thing that we lesser mortals do all the time — get off an airplane. In this case, though, it was also a chance to mark the unlikely path many of these players and coaches have taken to the Super Bowl.

Every sports team has tales of perseverance and improbability. But these 49ers seem to be specialists in the genre. Win or lose against the Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday, this arrival was a moment they could take pride in.

The first player off the plane was Jimmy Garoppolo. He was wearing a sweatsuit top over a flowered shirt. He could look dapper in a nurse’s smock.

Garoppolo tore his ACL on a fluke play in the third game of 2018, delaying his emergence as the 49ers’ franchise quarterback. He has been around a while. He has a Super Bowl ring from the Patriots. But this was his first full season as an NFL starter. Garoppolo threw just eight passes against Green Bay in the NFC championship game. As he prepares to start a Super Bowl at the most important position on the field, we still don’t entirely know who he is.

There was Raheem Mostert, dressed in black workout gear as most of the 49ers were.

Mostert has emerged as one of the most effective running backs in the NFL — he carved up the Packers for a franchise-record 220 yards in that NFC title game — but it took him several seasons just to get the chance. Six different teams cut him before he signed with the 49ers, and even San Francisco saw him purely as a special-teamer for at least a year, before injuries to other backs gave Mostert an opportunity.

There was fullback Kyle Juszczyk, wearing a big smile, as usual.

Juszczyk is a standout at a position that has become all but extinct in the NFL. Some teams rarely field a fullback outside of goal-line situations. The 49ers are an outlier. Coach and offensive architect Kyle Shanahan not only uses Juszczyk as a blocker, he designs plays to isolate the 235-pound Harvard grad as a receiver. A big game by Juice on America’s biggest stage might singlehandedly resuscitate the position.

There was guard Mike Person, though most of the people assembled to watch the spectacle probably didn’t recognize him.

Person was a seventh-round draft choice of the 49ers in 2011, but they waived him in 2012 before he ever played a game. The Seahawks cut him in 2013. The Falcons let him go in 2016. All three of those teams wound up playing in the Super Bowl. Getting rid of Mike Person became a good luck ritual (though it didn’t work for the Colts, Rams or Chiefs, three more teams that had no room for him). The 49ers kept Person on the roster, and he wound up starting 16 games for them at right guard. He’s expected to start one more.

There was George Kittle, probably ready to kick off the game the minute his feet reached the pavement.

Kittle is a bona fide NFL superstar, but he wasn’t supposed to be. He caught 48 passes in 49 games at the University of Iowa, where he was primarily a blocker. The 49ers drafted him in the fifth round in 2017, after eight other tight ends had left the board. Kittle’s skills are apparent every Sunday. But it took Shanahan and his staff to recognize them first.

There was free safety Jimmie Ward, looking scarcely big enough to play in the NFL.

Ward’s first five seasons in the league weren’t so much a playing career as a medical history. He broke bones at least four different times in that span. He missed a total of 29 games and finished four of those five seasons on the 49ers’ injured reserve. Ward began this season hurt, too, having fractured his collarbone during a practice in May. Since then, though, he hasn’t been just durable (he has started 15 consecutive games), he’s been one of the Niners’ best players.

There was Joe Staley, descending the stairs right behind Garoppolo and celebrated cornerback Richard Sherman.

Staley is a former first-round draft choice and a six-time Pro Bowl selection. The left tackle isn’t an out-of-nowhere story. He’s more of a still-hanging-around story. Staley is 35 years old. Only 13 players from his 2007 draft class were active in the NFL in 2019. Staley has acknowledged that he was considering retirement in 2017, following two dismal seasons for the 49ers. He stuck around because he believed in Shanahan and his staff, and now Staley gets one more crack at a Super Bowl ring.

There were more surprises debarking that airplane and striding toward the team buses in Miami on Sunday evening. Players never drafted by an NFL team included nickel corner K’Waun Williams, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, placekicker Robbie Gould, linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, backup quarterback Nick Mullens, running back Matt Breida, offensive lineman Daniel Brunskill and backup tight end Ross Dwelley. Important contributors, all of them.

Yes, the 49ers have blue-chippers, too, like Nick Bosa and DeForest Buckner. Shanahan himself, having grown up among the NFL elite, seemed destined for a head coaching opportunity. When Super Bowl LIV kicks off in a week, it won’t really matter how anyone got there. The only relevant point will be their performance that evening.

For now, though, it’s useful to remember the sacrifices some of these guys made for a chance at immortality.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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