By Greg Rachac THE BILLINGS GAZETTE
BILLINGS — The Super Bowl. It’s a “forever” game.
Few get the chance to play in it. Even fewer win it.
Mike Person has journeyed from humble roots in Glendive through a standout career at Montana State and into the NFL where he bounced from team to team, fighting and scratching and doing whatever he could to hang on.
It wasn’t too long ago that Person had resigned himself to the notion that his pro football career might be finished.
Then, the phone rang. The San Francisco 49ers and coach Kyle Shanahan were interested.
“He knew he could play,” said Person’s father, Jim. “He just needed his chance and got it.”
Two years later, Person, 31, is at the pinnacle of his career as the starting right guard for the NFC champion 49ers. He is now preparing for his ultimate career moment: Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, where San Francisco will play the Kansas City Chiefs.
Kickoff is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Mountain time Sunday. The game will be broadcast on FOX.
It’s something Person dreamed about as a kid growing up in eastern Montana. But it was only that–a dream.
“Who would’ve ever thought a kid from Glendive would be playing in the Super Bowl, right?” Person told The Billings Gazette during an an interview two days after the 49ers beat the Packers 37-20 to win the NFC title. “I’m not just happy for me and my family, but I’m happy for my home town. I really am.”
Person’s life as an NFL nomad is well-documented. Originally drafted by the 49ers in the seventh round in 2011, he also spent time with the Seahawks, Chiefs, Rams and Colts before being rerouted back to San Francisco in 2018.
Person started 18 games from 2011-17, 14 of which were in 2015 with Atlanta where Shanahan was the offensive coordinator. He started 32 games in the last two years with the 49ers, including playoff victories this year over the Vikings and Packers.
Along the way, Person beat out first-round draft pick Josh Garnett for the starting spot at right guard and has remained there since. The 49ers rewarded Person last spring with a three-year, $8.2 million contract.
But here’s another oft-cited circumstance: Person was cut from three teams that eventually went on to play in the Super Bowl–the 49ers in 2012, the Seahawks in 2013 and the Falcons in 2016.
Those cut deep.
When the Colts let him go after the 2017 season, and as time lapsed beyond offseason minicamps, Person wasn’t going to accept an offer until it was the right situation. But he heard mostly silence.
Eventually the 49ers brought Person in for a workout and liked what they saw. For Person, Shanahan was the perfect coach at the perfect time. And now, here he is, on the precipice of playing in the biggest game of his life and the grandest occasion in what has been a long, strange, emotional trip.
“It’s pretty special. It really is. I wouldn’t trade it for anything right now,” Person said.
“You always dream about it growing up as a kid. I know that these opportunities are few and far between. It’s always kind of in the back of your mind once you’re in the NFL, that this is obviously the end goal. So it’s pretty cool for it to come to fruition.”
Person said Glendive and its near-5,000 population represents “one big fan club” that has served as an integral support system throughout his career.
It’s a place where Person, the youngest of four siblings, learned to become self-reliant on the football field and adopt a no-quit mindset instilled by his father, who was his high school coach.
“His mom and I told him, ‘Hey, this is what you do. You put your head down and you keep grinding and good things will happen,”’ Jim Person said. “And that’s what he’s done.”
Jim, as well as Mike’s sisters, Sarah and Katie, who both reside in North Dakota, will be watching proudly from the seats at Hard Rock Stadium come Sunday. Person’s brother John, as of last week, is unable to attend but will nonetheless be cheering from afar.
His wife, Kelly, and their three children are also sharing in this moment.
“They’ve been my fan club since Day 1 and it means so much to me,” Person said. “I can’t even tell you what’s going through their heads right now. I’m so excited that the first Super Bowl my dad gets to go to is the one I’m playing in.”
Mike’s mother, Shelley, passed away due to an illness in 2007. She is always in Person’s thoughts, especially at this moment.
“Not a day goes by,” he said. “I can’t imagine the smile that she would have on her face right now.”
Jason McEndoo, formerly the offensive line coach at Montana State, vividly recalls driving through a blizzard with then-head coach Mike Kramer in the winter of 2006 to make a recruiting visit to Person’s home.
Person was juggling college offers between the Bobcats, Montana and Wyoming. By the time Kramer and McEndoo walked out the door and back into the blowing snow, Person had pledged his commitment to play at Montana State.
Person went on to start 35 consecutive games on the Bobcats’ offensive line, and as a senior in 2010 he helped the team to the first of three consecutive Big Sky Conference titles under coach Rob Ash.
Jim Person credits McEndoo, now the offensive line coach at Oklahoma State, for helping to take Mike’s game to the next level. Mike said his bond with McEndoo is “a relationship that will last a lifetime.”
After the 49ers beat the Packers to advance to the Super Bowl, Person sent McEndoo a text message that read: “Coach, I’ve got two tickets with your name on them.”
McEndoo, who has yet to see Person play an NFL game live, is bringing his son, Luke, to the Super Bowl with him.
(Incidentally, Luke, a junior at Stillwater High in Oklahoma, recently received an offer to play at Montana State.)
“I’m ecstatic. I can’t even put words into that feeling,” Jason McEndoo said of Person’s Super Bowl run. “To recruit a guy from high school and stay with him his entire career and have a friendship with him for all these years and to see him at the pinnacle of his profession, it’s awesome.
“The cool thing about it is, right now it doesn’t matter if you’re a Bobcat fan or a Grizzly fan. If you’re from the state of Montana you’re pulling for that guy. There’s not too many guys out there that have an entire state pulling for him.”
Ash, who last coached the Bobcats in 2015 and is now the director of development with the football strategy company Championship Analytics, is similarly happy.
“Mike deserves this as much as anyone in the game because of his dedication, work ethic and commitment to his teams throughout his career,” Ash said. “He was the consummate leader, captain and stalwart on our Bobcat teams, and he has continued that same high level of leadership and performance at the NFL level.”
The 49ers have reached the Super Bowl on the strength of their running game and a stout defense. It’s a proven formula.
Against the Packers, San Francisco’s offense rushed for 285 yards. Running back Raheem Mostert had 220 yards and four touchdowns.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who like Person is a product of the FCS (out of Eastern Illinois), threw just eight passes, the fewest of any playoff-winning signal-caller in nearly 50 years.
Person was right in the middle of the fun, as he and his line mates _ tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, left guard Laken Tomlinson and center Ben Garland–dominated the trenches.
Person even got to spike the football in the end zone after one of Mostert’s touchdowns, a moment that was captured by FOX television cameras.
Shanahan “put a lot of faith in us up front. Obviously we wanted to run the ball going into it, but running the ball like that in the NFL, that doesn’t happen a lot,” Person said. “That’s one of the things I love about Kyle. When something’s working he doesn’t shy away from it.
“It’s a lot of fun when things are going like that. That’s kind of what you love as an offensive lineman. We’re in the huddle and (receiver) Emmanuel Sanders hasn’t gotten the ball all day and he’s like, ‘Man, screw throwing the ball. This is fun. Let’s keep doing this.”’
The irony that the Chiefs cut him earlier in his career isn’t lost on Person. But he says he doesn’t need any extra motivation for Sunday’s encounter.
The 49ers are, at the moment, slight underdogs. The franchise is trying to win its sixth Super Bowl, which would tie it with the Steelers and Patriots for the most in NFL history.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes leads the Chiefs into their first NFL championship game since they beat the Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl IV, a game in which another former Bobcat, Jan Stenerud, made three field goals for victorious Kansas City.
Person will be the first native Montanan to play in the Super Bowl since Columbus’ Dwan Edwards appeared in Super Bowl 50 with Carolina.
Along those same lines, Person said he was going to reach out to former MSU teammate Dane Fletcher, a linebacker who played in Super Bowl XLVI with New England, for advice on how to handle the hoopla.
“We know that we’re going to be challenged, and we know that we’re just going to have to be on every single detail if we want to end this thing the right way,” Person said.
“The Super Bowl, everybody knows what the festivities are. But once we’re on the field it’s football.
“That’s what you have to keep reminding yourself–this is a football game. Yeah, it’s the Super Bowl, but your job is to play ball. Once you get in between those white lines, that’s all that matters.”
Person badly wants to win for his family, for his people back home in Glendive and at MSU in Bozeman, and for his teammates.
But he also wants to win for himself–for a bargain he made a long time ago.
“It always comes down to taking a chance on yourself and believing in yourself,” Person said. “That helped me out a lot.”
Few players get to the Super Bowl. Even fewer win it.
No matter what happens, Person will cherish this experience.