SANTA CLARA -- Kneeling on a stool in the locker room, 49ers safety Donte Whitner glances up at the laminated poster above his stall and, for a moment, he is wistful.

The poster depicts a photo of himself as a high-school athlete, along with football information pertinent at the time. Whitner, 27, pauses and ponders the significance of this tangible reminder of his childhood.

"We were young kids," he says, still gazing at the poster. "But what did you want to be at that moment? At the time when you took this picture?

"We all can look at this and we all understand what we wanted to be," he adds, before turning to face me.

"And it's where we are now."

The 49ers are one victory away from the Super Bowl, football's most celebrated game. A win over Atlanta in the NFC Championship game Sunday allows the players to advance to the game that has been a subject of fantasies since they were growing boys in high school, if not before.

Think 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh doesn't know that?

There are many ways to reach and warm the heart of a professional athlete, but few can be more effective than recalling the innocence and idealism of childhood. After a recent lunchtime conversation with several players who were reminiscing about their prep exploits, the coach last week requested the 49ers media relations staff to research recruiting files and compile information on each player.


Advertisement

The result was a poster above each locker stall when the 49ers returned last week to prepare for their divisional game against Green Bay.

In a flash, Harbaugh had taken his players, adults and mostly wealthy, back to a time when they were boys playing for free, perhaps dreaming of that faraway day when it might pay off. Maybe they'd be in the NFL, perhaps with an opportunity to play in the Super Bowl.

"I think there's a message behind it, to show you how hard you grind to (get from high school) to the NFL," defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois says. "And (Harbaugh) wants you to grind the same way you did in high school."

The posters can be, depending on the individual, poignant or surprising or revealing. They also can be, as you will see in the case of Randy Moss, simultaneously impressive and hilarious.

Each poster displays the name and photo of the individual in a uniform from his days in high school or junior college. Accompanying each picture is such relevant information as star rating (zero through 5), national ranking, overall state ranking and overall position ranking -- assuming there was a ranking at all.

The poster essentially whispers into a player's ear that he is living his dream and within days of a climactic moment.

"I tell people all the time, it wasn't just a dream for me because I dream in reality," linebacker Patrick Willis says. "And my reality as a kid was to be a professional ballplayer, whether it was baseball or basketball or football. And through God's grace, He allowed me to make it in football."

The posters also send another, more subtle message to anyone paying attention: There are expectations, and then there are results.

The posters indicate a broad range of talent in the eyes of scouts.

Quarterback Alex Smith and guard Mike Iupati, both two-star recruits, became first-round picks and immediate NFL starters.

Wide receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn Jr., a five-star recruit rated No. 2 in the nation, also was a first-round NFL draft pick but rarely participates on offense.

Willis was a three-star prep recruit who through advanced tutelage and dedicated training has become of the most decorated players in the NFL. He has been in the league six years and been voted to the Pro Bowl six times.

"Honestly, it just kind of proves it doesn't matter how many stars you have or what ranking you have at your position or any of that," Willis says. "When you look around this room, we're all here. So whether you're a 5-star or a 3-star or 1-star or a zero-star, it doesn't matter. We all got here, and that's all that matters."

Among the other five-star recruits, considered blue-chip by college scouts, are linebacker Ahmad Brooks, cornerback Chris Culliver, guard Alex Boone and Moss, who was listed as the nation's No. 1 recruit in 1994 out of DuPont High in Rand, W.Va.

The crude lettering taped by a teammate to Moss' poster insists the team's oldest position player left high school in 1202 B.C. Though there are more than 50 posters visible, that of the wide receiver who will turn 36 next month is, um, distinctive.

"I laughed at 'em, just seeing how we looked back then," said tight end Delanie Walker, a three-star recruit out of Mt. San Antonio community college. "Then going around and seeing how ... Randy Moss has a black-and-white picture."

It's the only noncolor photo in the room.

Harbaugh, however, believes the photos generally had at least one thing in common. The youngsters, he thinks, looked eager and uncomplicated.

"As I looked through every single picture of every single guy, I was moved by the eyes," the coach says. "It's always in the eyes. They're cheerful and undefeated."

Whitner sees the idea as a wise ploy on the part of Harbaugh.

"He's always doing little things to motivate us," Whitner says, pointing to his poster. "You don't really have to explain it. You see it, and it's like, 'Oh, man, I remember this.' So you automatically tap back into why, at this moment, I wanted to be in the NFL.

"It's something to make you play a little harder on Sunday."

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/1montepoole.

ON A1
Colin Kaepernick's sprinter's form amazes track experts.
inside
49ers coaching staff, front office remain intact. page 6
Police investigate Michael Crabtree in sexual assault. page 6
Falcons urge Tony Gonzalez to postpone retirement. page 7

ON A1
Colin Kaepernick's sprinter's form amazes track experts.
inside
49ers coaching staff, front office remain intact. page 6
Police investigate Michael Crabtree in sexual assault. page 6
Falcons urge Tony Gonzalez to postpone retirement. page 7