MIAMI — Raheem Mostert wanted to get off the field as fast as he could. “Once that confetti hits,” he said, “I am going to be really, really messed up.”
Mostert beat the confetti, but there were still clusters of red-and-yellow paper that players tracked into the Niners locker room after him, a visible reminder of how close this team was to winning the Super Bowl. The confetti is basically the same color scheme as the Niners’, so it wasn’t hard to imagine an alternative reality where they hadn’t given up a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter.
Across the locker room, Fred Warner turns his back to the crowd, buries his face into a green towel and cries. He lifts his head up, takes a deep breath and then goes right back to the towel. He tosses the plastic Gatorade and water bottles at his locker onto the ground in frustration. Many of his Niners teammates sit at their lockers in various stages of undress, just staring at their phones motionlessly, thumbs too sad to scroll.
Nick Bosa throws his backpack over his shoulder and embraces a Niners staffer for several seconds. Solomon Thomas is struggling to answer a simple question. How do you feel right now?
“Just . . . I don't know how to put it into words,” he mumbles quietly. “I don't know, it's . . . We put so much work into the season and we put it all on the line. I just love these guys and we deserve to win and we didn't pull away with it. It's a feeling of disappointment but we're proud of each other for sure.”
When Kyle Shanahan addressed the team in the locker room after the loss, his message was simple. “He flat-out told us that he loved us,” said Mostert. “And he knows that it's not going to be the same team next year but he knows that we poured our hearts and souls out onto the field and gave everything we had, we just came up short.”
One player who may not be back next year is the longest-tenured, left tackle Joe Staley. Staley is 35 years old, in his 13th season in the NFL, all with the 49ers. He’s now played in two Super Bowls and lost both of them. Staley is a leader that Niners players rally around, and his long and difficult career in San Francisco was an inspiration for teammates.
Staley’s locker is next to his younger counterpart, second-year right tackle Mike McGlinchey. McGlinchey chokes up when he’s asked whether the loss was even harder because they didn’t win one for Joe. “Yeah,” he nods, looking down at the ground. “Yeah, absolutely.”
When he looks back up, Staley is walking toward him, coming back from his own podium appearance, where he had a hard time answering questions. Staley is under contract for two more seasons, and he’s avoided talk about retirement, but his postgame press conference showed the raw emotional and physical toll of his job. Staley, who played in Super Bowl XLVII, said this one hurts worse.
“This is super disappointing,” he said, staring off into the crowd of reporters. “This is very hard being in this moment right now. You put your heart and soul and your whole life into trying to be a Super Bowl champion, and you get toward the end of your career and you realize how rare these opportunities are. The emotions are still raw and real for me right now. I’m trying to answer questions and I’m sorry that I’m not. . . . Put yourself in my shoes for a second—it is tough.”
Staley’s right thumb is bandaged; he needed stitches to return to the game after getting a bad cut in the third quarter. He takes a seat next to McGlinchey’s locker and starts to cut off the layers of tape on his cleats, for what might be the last time. As McGlinchey answers questions at his locker, the finality sinks in. “This is an extremely close group of really, really cool people, and unfortunately, in the NFL it rarely remains the exact same,” he said. “And that's what is really tough about this. We were knocking on the doorstep and we could have had it and we should have had it. Yeah, this one hurts.”
These Niners have a young roster and the right head coach and general manager. Tonight sucks, McGlinchey says, but he has a feeling San Francisco will be back. “I am really confident in what we have here,” he says. “We have a really good core group of guys and the right people at the helm from ownership on down and I'm confident we will be back here.”
The phrases BE LEGENDARY and I GOT YOUR BACK are printed on banners on the wall. The 49ers accomplished one of those two team goals in this game. As the players pack up their equipment bags and leave their Super Bowl locker room behind, most remember to grab their turquoise name plates, decorated with the palm tree design of Super Bowl LIV. Running back Matt Breida slowly pulls his off the silver holder and tosses it into his black bag. Yes, this is a talented team with a unique offensive mind at head coach and a formidable defense that frustrated Patrick Mahomes for most of the night, but they know as well as anyone that the NFC is stocked with competition and the road back will be difficult.
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