Coach Jim Harbaugh reminded his players where they came from by surfacing… (Monica M. Davey / EPA )
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Every member of the San Francisco 49ers can't help but look up to a high school player.
That's because above his locker at team headquarters, each 49ers player has a picture of himself in high school, along with where he was ranked by scouting services at the time.
Coach Jim Harbaugh had a laminated sheet made for each player during wild-card weekend, which the 49ers had off, then surprised the players with them when they reentered the locker room after a meeting.
The scene was like the day high school yearbooks are distributed, with players going from locker to locker, checking out what their teammates looked like as kids, comparing notes on who had a higher national player ranking, or who was ranked higher in his particular state.
"Coach really wants us to tap into what we wanted to be at that time," said safety Donte Whitner, whose team plays at Atlanta on Sunday in the NFC championship game. "When you look at this picture, it's like, 'At this moment, what did I want to be?' We all look at this and we understand what we wanted to be, and where we are now."
There has been endless ribbing over some of the photos and rankings. For instance, receiver Randy Moss' locker is next to that of long snapper Brian Jennings. Whereas Moss was ranked No. 1 in every category as the nation's top high school recruit, Jennings, in his 13th season, was unranked both nationally and in his state (Arizona).
Then again, Jennings and his teammates can laugh about this: Moss, 35, and guard Leonard Davis, 34, are the only players whose high school shots are in black and white.
"I don't think they had color pictures back then," 24-year-old cornerback Chris Culliver joked.
To remind Moss that he's surrounded by much younger teammates, someone wrote "B.C. 1202" on athletic tape and affixed it to the receiver's bio.
"It's just something that spices things up a little bit to break up the monotony of the day," said Jed York, 49ers chief executive. "Something new for them to think about.
"You'll get guys teasing each other, 'Oh, you were only a three-star,' or, 'You weren't even ranked.' I remember NaVorro [Bowman, a starting linebacker] saying, 'Guess they missed on me.'"
Harbaugh, the NFL's coach of the year in 2011, has used this type of motivational reminder before. Last season, he gave his players short-sleeved mechanics shirts with their names on them, perfect for a hard-working, lunch-pail team. This season, "blue-collar" performers were awarded corresponding blue work jackets.
Harbaugh declined to elaborate on why he had the photos made, but team spokesman Bob Lange said the coach "wants the players to be able to interpret the reason for it in any way they want."
At Harbaugh's request, Lange and his staff spent several hours gathering the photos and scouring high school scouting services to find information on all of the players. The pictures from high school effectively connect players with their past, reminding them of their childhood hopes and dreams and…
"Reminds me of how bad I [stunk] when I was in high school," said defensive tackle Ray McDonald, who was unranked in his home state of Florida.
Asked to describe that kid in the picture, the dreadlocked McDonald said: "Young. Didn't know a lot back then. Wet behind the ears. Different hairstyle — had braids, not dreads — about 50 pounds lighter. Probably a little faster than I am now."
When he was on the outside looking in, McDonald envisioned the NFL as a different place too.
"It's more work than you think it is," he said. "You've got to take care of your body. You've got to make sure you're getting the right protein, eating the right food, working out, lifting and training all the time. When you're younger, you don't know. You just think that life in the NFL is one big party."
Running back Kendall Hunter was the 40th-ranked running back in the state of Texas, a reminder he gets every time he changes clothes. Motivation?
"Always," said the 5-foot-7 Hunter, reasoning his size led to scouts' ignoring him. "A lot of people see you and they don't think you can play at this level. It's just another chip on your shoulder. It's a reminder of where you were at, and where you were trying to be."
A few lockers down, guard Daniel Kilgore knows the feeling.
"You look around the locker room and see guys with five stars, four, two and some without any stars," said Kilgore, who received a two-star rating.
"I look at it, and I never was that star athlete, coming from Tennessee, and I wasn't ever ranked or anything. So just looking back at it, and where all the 'men of football' in the magazines classified you. They never even looked at you, and now look where I'm at. Kind of just rub it in their face now."
Ah, yes, faces. Fifty-three of them. They stare down from those pictures, many smiling, most too young to need a razor.
"To see some of these guys in their early years, pretty bad-looking kids," practice-squad safety Curtis Taylor said with a laugh. "I'm just being honest. I ain't going to put nobody's names out there to say who was ugly and who looked good. But if you just look around…"
Whitner laughs about that too. But he also sees deeper meaning in the nostalgic gesture, something that could help his team. Players forever taught to look ahead sometimes need a reminder to look backward every so often.
Harbaugh is "always doing little things to motivate us," he said. "With this, you really don't have to explain it. It's, 'Aw, man, I remember this.' It's something to make you play a little harder on Sunday."