In the fall of 2015, the Miami Dolphins signed Raheem Mostert after he had spent a week on the Philadelphia Eagles practice squad. The former Purdue standout did not know anyone on the team, but quickly struck up a friendship with fellow running back Damien Williams. It was common for him to visit Williams' apartment, where the two would compete in Spades or Madden and NBA 2K.
"I used to whoop him," Williams said last week. "I mean, he would win sometimes, but most of the time I would whoop him. That was my dude."
In between the playful banter, there were serious conversations about their football backgrounds and aspirations. They quickly realized they shared not only a love of competitive games, but also the underdog label that comes with not being drafted. It is a label that, regardless of your talent, makes opportunities harder to come by because draft choices typically get more chances to prove themselves, if only to keep personnel departments from having to acknowledge they made a mistake.
"Raheem is a competitive person and I'm a competitive person," Williams said. "There was a time we both were looking at our situations like we want to be starters, you know what I'm saying? In our minds, there was never a doubt that either of us could be that guy. We just needed a chance."
Four seasons have passed since those conversations, but the talks are sure to be revisited this week in South Florida, where Williams and Mostert will start for the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers, respectively, in Super Bowl LIV. Their time together with the Dolphins lasted only four weeks, but it was long enough to develop a friendship that brings a smile to each of their faces when asked about the other one.
"We talked after Championship Sunday," said Mostert, who ranks second this postseason with 278 yards rushing and is first with four rushing touchdowns. "He was like, 'Hey, man. We're looking forward to it. I'll see you in Miami where it all started.' We're going to link up and have dinner or something like that."
Theirs is a story of perseverance for every overlooked or underestimated player seeking a chance -- particularly that of Mostert, who was cut by six teams before finally sticking with the 49ers. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry as a senior with the Purdue Boilermakers, but did not hear his name among the 256 selections (including 18 running backs) in the 2015 NFL Draft. That set him on a journey that even Disney would have a hard time selling. Consider ...
As a rookie, he signed as a free agent with the Eagles on May 9, was waived on Sept. 5, released on Sept. 6, then signed back to the practice squad on Sept. 7. Eight days later, the Dolphins signed him ... only to waive him four weeks later. The Baltimore Ravens claimed him, but, two months later, waived him themselves. The Cleveland Browns then acquired his rights for the remainder of the season.
So, in the first four months of the regular season that year, Mostert was signed by four teams, waived by three and logged exactly zero carries while on rosters for a total of 11 games.
His second season was equally scattered. The Browns re-signed him in March and released him in September. The Jets signed him to their practice squad on Sept. 6, but released him six days later. That led to an eight-day stint on the Bears' practice squad and a two-week spot on the active roster, only to be released again on Oct. 4, signed back to the practice squad on Oct. 5 and released again on Nov. 24. Four days later, the 49ers signed him to their practice squad, and on Dec. 31, promoted him to the active roster.
That's four teams and three practice squads -- four if you include double duty with Chicago -- during the 2016 season. With his career unable to gain traction, Mostert had a heart-to-heart with his wife amid his ping-ponging from Philadelphia to Miami to Baltimore to Cleveland to New York to Chicago and, finally, to San Francisco. Just how far should he go in pursuit of a dream that had taken him just over 5,200 miles in two years?
"She basically said, 'If you love this sport like you say you do, you'll keep fighting,' " Mostert recalled. "All she had to do was say that and it was a wrap."
He kept pursuing his dream. He took only two snaps as a rookie and four the following year; however, over the last three seasons that total has increased from 15 to 90 to 362. He rarely gets a heavy load -- the conference final two Sundays ago was the first time in his career he carried at least 20 times, and only twice this season has he had more than 14 rushes in a game. Still, he tends to make the most of his opportunities with his speed and ability to break tackles, averaging at least 4.8 yards per carry in 11 games this season.
To see him on the field is to see a man running with multiple purposes: to provide for his wife and young son, to never be unwanted by a team again, to affirm his belief that he belongs. Before each game he checks a "Notes" app document in his phone. It lists many of the teams and dates that he was cut. It also reminds him of his "why."
He reviewed the document before Championship Sunday, then became the only person ever to rush for at least 200 yards (he had 220) and four touchdowns in an NFL playoff game. In fact, it was the most rushing yards in a conference final in league history and only the second time a player has surpassed 220 yards rushing in a postseason game. Equally stunning: In that one game, he finished 77 yards shy of his career rushing total coming into the season.
Now, Mostert has gone from being overlooked to being in demand. Reporters clamor around his locker, seeking to tell a story that warms the heart and defies the odds. I was one of those reporters last week, and when I asked which was greater -- the hunger to reach this point, or the hunger to stay here? -- he didn't hesitate.
"The hunger to get to this point," he said. "How I see it is, if a dog is super hungry, he's going to do anything and everything to get that meal. That's just how everyone is around this locker room, not just myself. If you look, there are guys that are hungry to win. We haven't been winning in the past for years. For us to get this opportunity, it just shows how hungry everyone has become. It's just like a sickness. It's contagious around here."
Williams is equally hungry. He has not bounced around like Mostert -- he spent his first four seasons with the Dolphins and the last two with the Chiefs -- but the opportunity to really showcase his skill set had eluded him until the final three weeks of 2018, after Kansas City had released running back Kareem Huntfor shoving and kicking a woman. To that point Williams had rushed for 53 yards on the season, but he started the final three games of the regular season and gained 203 yards on 34 carries. He was equally proficient in the postseason, piling up 250 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns over two games.
He struggled through inconsistency and injury during the 2019 regular season, but has shown up in the playoffs, accounting for 157 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns. While he has not broken the long gains, he has come through with chain-moving gains that have allowed coach Andy Reid to stay with the run even when the team is down early.
"If I was to sit down and talk to somebody about what I've been through, I would tell them to never give up, always fight," said Williams. "Confidence is one thing that can really take you a long way -- having confidence and being confident. When you know your job and know what you're doing, at the end of the day, you're able to play better, be better, do better. At the end of the day, they're going to look at a drafted guy before someone who was undrafted to potentially be the guy. I had to dig deep and fight just to stay on the team and be the second back or come on the field on third down."
Like Mostert, Williams has a personal memory that serves as his motivation. He doesn't keep it on a Notes app, but rather in his head. It's directly linked to his release from the Dolphins. He had injured his shoulder that year, but said he was told by coach Adam Gase that the team planned to re-sign him because he was a big part of their plans. However, Williams said Gase, whom he considered a friend, stopped taking his calls after he had surgery.
"That really hurt," Williams said. "I was there four years and gave Miami my all. I still have not spoken to him to this day. That hurt me because me and Gase were cool."
Reached last week, Gase said he regrets that things ended poorly. He said he attempted to reach Williams but was unsuccessful.
"I'm super happy for the guy. He played his ass off for me," Gase said. "Do I wish I would have handled it better? Yeah. Looking back on it, I wish I would have handled it differently. I hate the fact that I haven't talked to him."
Gase said he hopes to clear the air after the Super Bowl because he has great affection for Williams, adding that this is not the time to distract from his focus. The San Diego native has come a long way, and a Super Bowl would be affirmation of the confidence he has in himself. Then again, the same could be said of Mostert, who views Sunday as part of his journey and not the final destination.
"I keep going just because I'm hungry," Mostert said. "It's never going to stop for me until I can't walk anymore. That's how I'm built. That's what makes me me."