SANTA CLARA -- If Jim Harbaugh thinks Michael Crabtree is great at catching passes, the 49ers coach ought to see him snagging tennis balls.

Back in college, Texas Tech players built up their hand strength by cranking up a tennis machine, standing at close range and trying to catch fuzzy yellow bullets blasting out at 50 mph.

Players would start from 10 to 15 yards away, then creep closer ... and closer ... until only Crabtree was left standing.

"Crabtree would just walk up there and catch them one-handed and laugh at the other guys," former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell recalled in a phone interview Thursday. "For everybody else, it was dodge ball -- they'd be jumping out of the way."

This week, Crabtree's hands are creating a racket again. After a playoff victory last Sunday, Harbaugh said that if his life depended on somebody making a catch, "I'd enlist Michael Crabtree to do it."

The actual stakes are only slightly lower this Sunday: If the 49ers beat the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., they would advance to the NFC Championship game, the prelude to a second consecutive Super Bowl.

And the 49ers' chances might indeed rest in the palm of Crabtree's size-XXXL Nike Vapor Jet gloves. An injury sidelined the receiver for the first 11 games of the season, including the first meeting between the teams, when Carolina stifled Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the 49ers' offense in a 10-9 victory on Nov. 10.


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But now that Crabtree, 26, is healthy again, the mood around the locker room is optimistic. "Having Crabtree makes a huge difference," tight end Vernon Davis said. "We're just on a different level right now."

In the 49ers' playoff victory over the Green Bay Packers last weekend, Crabtree had eight catches for 125 yards, plucking balls out of the frigid air as if Lambeau Field were a Hawaiian beach.

On the 49ers' final drive alone, Crabtree made catches of 11 and 17 yards to help set up Phil Dawson's winning field goal.

"People talk about cold weather and how it would be tough to catch balls, but greatest catcher of all time, Michael Crabtree, catches everything. It's unbelievable," Harbaugh gushed after the game.

"In the northern snow lands, down to the tropics' sunny scenes, he's catching the football. Where they throw the football, he'll be catching it."

Harbaugh's life-insurance policy would have been tough to justify early in Crabtree's career, when the first-round pick dropped seven passes in each of his first three seasons. But he has dropped only six passes in his 21 games since, according to sportingcharts.com.

The men who've seen Crabtree's wondrous feats echo Harbaugh's choice. They'd use him as a lifeline, too.

"Those aren't little slender basketball hands he has,'' former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach said. "He's got a couple of first baseman's mitts at the end of each arm."

Crabtree's hand size is nothing beyond the norm for a top-flight NFL receiver. His hands were measured at 91/4 inches shortly before he was drafted.

Former Cal star Keenan Allen, now of the San Diego Chargers, was among the rookies to check in this season with a 10-inch hand span. Arizona Cardinals star Larry Fitzgerald once had his hands measured at 101/2 inches -- "hands the size of Frisbees and arms like fire hoses," as the Chicago Tribune put it.

Heck, even A.J. Jenkins -- the 49ers' disappointing first-rounder of 2012 -- had bigger hands, at 93/8.

Leach, now the head coach at Washington State, said that what separated Crabtree's hands from the rest of the pack was the strength, not the size. The receiver spoiled his quarterback because they could throw the ball into a thicket of defenders and trust that Crabtree would do the rest. "He might be flat-out covered,'' Leach said, "but he's got the hands to pull the ball in anyway."

Harrell, the former quarterback, agreed.

"He has the strongest hands of anyone I've ever seen," Harrell said. "I don't know how to measure that, but if a ball came near him he would catch it, even if he was covered. His hands, his grip, his whatever was always stronger than somebody else's."

It seems that the more important the games, the better he plays. Crabtree has three career 100-yard games in only six career playoff games. The only 49ers with more 100-yard playoff games are Jerry Rice (seven), and Vernon Davis and Dwight Clark (tied with four).

Where do such mighty hands come from? Some of it is God-given. Some of it is big-brother induced.

Keiron Stevenson, who was six years older, used to fire a football at little Michael when they were growing up in Dallas. And Keiron didn't go easy. He fired it hard -- like a tennis ball machine with feet.

"And I got tired of catching it with my chest because it was hurting me," Crabtree explained shortly after the 49ers selected him with the No. 10 pick in the 2009 draft. "I started using my hands."

His hands, though, nearly lost their footing over the years as Crabtree's athletic road took him everywhere but receiver. Now listed at 6-foot-1, 214 pounds, he was a star basketball player in high school and considered a future in that sport (he was recruited hard by no less an authority than Bob Knight, then at Texas Tech).

As a high school football player, he caught only one pass while at David W. Carter High School. That's because coaches always used their best athlete at quarterback, and their best athlete was Crabtree.

Still, offensive coordinator Scott Jackson noticed a peculiar habit whenever his starting QB warmed up with the other passers. Crabtree would catch the return throw one-handed.

"I used to tell him, 'Two hands!' But he would catch it with one for the heck of it -- just because he could," Jackson recalled this week.

Those who know Crabtree best are quick to point out that there's a person attached to those hands. And they say the rest of him doesn't get enough credit, including Crabtree's grasp of the game.

"I guarantee you right now he's someplace thinking about football," Leach said, out of nowhere, in the middle of an interview. "You and I are talking right now and maybe thinking about the variety of things in our lives. But he's thinking about football. That's what he's about.

"When games were over, Crabtree would be mad that they're over. He wanted to keep playing."

Crabtree is famously elusive with the media. It's tough to talk to The Hands. He made an exception this week, when a PR staffer all but dragged him out and promised reporters 2 minutes of questioning. "One minute," Crabtree corrected, smiling wide.

Asked about how he refined his catching technique, the receiver said he works mostly on focus. For example, he'll walk around the house with a football in hand, squeezing it from time to time and rehearsing his grip.

At precisely 2 minutes, 39 seconds, Crabtree was gone.

After all, he has bigger things to think about. Against the Panthers, he'll have his hands full.

Follow Daniel Brown at Twitter.com/mercbrownie.