There was a time when San Francisco 49ers receiver Kendrick Bourne’s hair color matched the blazing red turf of Roos Field.
It’s when the former Eastern Washington standout hauled in 211 career receptions for 3,130 yards and in 2016 aided one of the most electrifying offenses in Football Championship Subdivision history.
The Portland native’s friends and family often made the 5-hour trek to Cheney, where Bourne lined up alongside star Cooper Kupp, another receiver who rewrote FCS and EWU records before beginning his successful young career with the Los Angeles Rams.
Now they’ll make the 175-mile drive up Interstate 5 to watch Bourne play live on a much grander stage.
Bourne makes his annual return to Seattle on Sunday when the 49ers (12-3) face the Seahawks (11-4) at CentruryLink Field in a regular-season finale that will decide the NFL West crown.
“It’s definitely a home game for me,” Bourne said. “It’s big, but I treat it the same as any other game, never get too high or too low. And I’m from that part of the country, so if it rains, I’ll be used to it.”
The Seahawks clipped the 49ers 27-24 in overtime last month in San Francisco, when Bourne totaled four catches for 42 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown.
The charismatic Bourne has had a significant role in the 49ers’ resurgence. His signature end-zone dance helps convey his free spirit.
Bourne has been quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s fourth-leading target, totaling 30 catches for 358 yards and five touchdowns. He had 42 catches for 487 yards and four touchdowns in 2018.
“This has been a dream come true for me,” Bourne said.
Undrafted in 2017, Bourne, an FCS All-American who was invited to the NFL scouting combine with Kupp, signed a rookie free-agent contract with the 49ers and found a role on the 53-man roster after a series of injuries at receiver.
He had 16 catches for 257 yards in his rookie season, changing jersey numbers to accommodate Garoppolo after he left the New England Patriots to join the 49ers midseason, when Bourne was wearing the quarterback’s preferred No. 10. He now wears 84.
San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan liked what he saw in Bourne – a red-zone threat – and signed him to a three-year rookie deal of $1,670,000.
“He was a guy that we thought had too much talent to put on the practice squad,” Shanahan told San Francisco reporters last year. “We were scared that we’d lose him. We knew some teams might take him, so we put him on our roster, and once we had some injuries he got out there a little more than he should have.
“I think he was a little overwhelmed at first, but he kept battling through it. Even when we would ride him, he didn’t go into a shell. He kept working.”
Bourne points to the lessons he learned at EWU for pushing through the learning curve.
“I still stick to the same things that I did in college,” Bourne said. “I have been through the dog days.
“You have to keep your mind clear for the next day. That’s how you keep it fun for yourself. It’s stressful, especially when you get to the (NFC West title game).”
Bourne wasn’t drafted and didn’t generate serious recruiting interest from Power 5 schools when he starred at Milwaukie (Oregon) Academy of the Arts. He learned to make the most out of his opportunities.
At EWU, he knew he’d play second fiddle to Kupp, who has 87 catches for 1,062 yards and nine touchdowns for the Rams this season.
“I was put at EWU to play around Cooper for a reason,” Bourne said. “I could have the been No. 1 guy at Portland State, but learning with him and (ex-EWU receiver) Shaq Hill was big.”
Kupp, Bourne and Hill combined for 4,057 receiving yards and 34 touchdowns in 2016.
But before that trio, EWU had Nick Edwards, Greg Herd and Brandon Kaufman, who helped the Eagles win a FCS national title in 2010.
Kaufman and Herd each had a cup of coffee in the NFL after signing rookie free-agent contracts, inspiring Bourne’s attempt to reach the next level.
“When I saw them get a chance, I knew I could get a chance,” Bourne said. “In my first preseason game, I had a touchdown. I knew I could do this. I’ve been trying to build off that ever since.’
More EWU alums are getting those opportunities.
There are seven ex-Eagles on NFL rosters, including Bourne, Kupp, linebacker Samson Ebukam (Rams), punt returner Nsimba Webster (Rams), running back Taiwan Jones (Houston Texans) offensive tackle Jake Rodgers (Denver Broncos) and defensive tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli (Denver Broncos practice squad).
“They’re respecting up more (at the FCS level),” said Bourne, whose quarterback, Garoppolo, played at Eastern Illinois.
Bourne was in Cheney last year for EWU’s pro day, offering wisdom to the NFL process.
Webster, a star receiver at EWU in 2018, signed a rookie free-agent contract with the Rams and made the team’s 53-man roster.
“They have to try and believe,” Bourne said. “I talked to Nsimba a lot when he was going through the process. I told him to put a lot of good stuff on tape. Make it hard for them to let you go.”
Bourne has kept tabs on EWU football and his former teammates since his 2017 departure, including the new jobs of his former coaches.
Former EWU head coach Beau Baldwin, who spent the last three seasons as the offensive coordinator at California, came back to the Big Sky Conference earlier this month when he was named the head coach at Cal Poly.
Bourne’s receivers coach at EWU, Edwards, will be Baldwin’s co-offensive coordinator.
Bourne’s co-offensive coordinator in 2016, Troy Taylor, is also elsewhere in the Big Sky as the head coach of Sacramento State, which shared a conference title last season under Taylor.
“Cal Poly needs to change that (triple-option) offense,” Bourne said. “Baldwin’s playbook will be versatile, like Shanahan’s. He will put guys in a position to get interest from the next level.”
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