A dancing Kendrick Bourne made his way down the steps of the San Francisco 49ers’ team plane after landing in Miami earlier this week, the sort of Super Bowl entrance Eastern Washington fans would expect from the animated wide receiver.
NCAA rules prohibited Bourne from excessive touchdown celebrations at EWU, but he’s taken full advantage of the NFL’s liberalization of end-zone dance parties.
He’s 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s fourth-leading target (34 receptions for 404 yards) but ranks higher in energy and entertainment.
“You can never get too high or too low in this league,” Bourne said. “You have to go out there and have fun.”
Former EWU head coach Beau Baldwin saw the same approach in Cheney.
“He’s still the same 18-year-old kid we recruited. Has that same energy,” said Baldwin, who recently accepted the same job at Big Sky Conference member Cal Poly after three years as an offensive coordinator at California. “He has the ability to always have fun but also be coachable.”
The Big Sky Conference also will have a reason to dance if Bourne scores his sixth touchdown of the season on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Fifty-five Big Sky players – including current 49ers starting offensive lineman Mike Person from Montana State – have been on Super Bowl rosters, but none has scored a touchdown in the NFL’s ultimate game.
Bourne, a red-zone threat who scored as recently as the 49ers’ 27-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC divisional round, will be the fourth former EWU star to play in a Super Bowl.
He’d be the fifth if college teammate and trusty Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp had been healthy last year.
Kupp, who bounced back in 2019 to account for 94 catches, 1,161 yards and 10 touchdowns, missed the second half of the Rams’ run to the Super Bowl last season because of a knee injury. Former EWU linebacker Samson Ebukam played, however, registering four tackles for the Rams in a 13-3 loss to the New England Patriots.
Bourne is now helping fill the void EWU fans and those connected to the program felt a year ago when one of the school’s most notable graduates was on the sideline in a cast, unable to play on the NFL’s grandest stage.
“Obviously I would have liked to have seen Cooper play (in the Super Bowl), but injuries are an unfortunate part of the game and he put in the hard work to recover,” Baldwin said. “Now we’ll get to see (Bourne).”
Ed Simmons, an offensive lineman for the Washington Redskins, was the first EWU product to play in a Super Bowl (1992). Kurt Schulz, a safety and special teams player for the Buffalo Bills, was the second (1994). Last year Ebukam was the third.
EWU is now the rare Football Championship Subdivision team to have different alums play in back-to-back Super Bowls.
When Kupp, Bourne and Shaq Hill helped EWU’s offense account for a nation-leading 401 passing yards per game in 2016, they formed one of the greatest trios in FCS history.
Kupp, who rewrote several FCS and EWU receiving records before being selected in the third round of the 2017 draft, was the most decorated of the three and recently named FCS Player of the Decade by Athlon Sports.
Bourne and Hill were All-Americans, too, but weren’t generating any late-round NFL draft buzz.
“He could have been the No. 1 receiver at any other FCS school,” Baldwin said of Bourne. “He could have been jealous of the attention Cooper was getting, but he was unselfish.”
Bourne was invited to 49ers rookie camp following the draft, where he ultimately signed a rookie free-agent contract. Hill was invited to Houston Texans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers camps but was eventually cut.
Baldwin believes the reasons Bourne wasn’t drafted were similar to why he wasn’t recruited by bigger colleges coming out of the Milwaukie Academy of the Arts, south of Portland.
“People get caught up in test and combine numbers, and that’s not really his thing,” Baldwin said. “He has football speed and can get up and get the football. He makes the tough catch look easy.”
Bourne’s athleticism stood out to 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who elevated the rookie to the team’s 53-man roster in 2017.
His former EWU teammates noticed Bourne’s explosion immediately.
“You just knew he was a next-level kind of athlete, so I’m not surprised he’s been able to play in the NFL,” said former Eagles quarterback Gage Gubrud. “Just playing basketball at the rec center, he’d be doing windmill dunks.”
“A lot of the attention was on Cooper, but we had three NFL-level receivers that year. Kendrick was always smiling and an amazing teammate.”
Los Angeles Rams and former EWU receiver Nsimba Webster was a sophomore reserve on the 2016 team that featured Kupp, Bourne and Hill, still learning the position after playing quarterback in high school.
Webster, who like Bourne made an NFL team’s 53-man roster after going undrafted, said he first saw Bourne’s leaping ability at Hoopfest.
“He was in the slam dunk contest,” Webster said. “You could just see that natural ability he had. He was a special player for us.”
Webster, who grew up in the Bay Area in a house full of 49ers fans, said his 2016 apprenticeship was key in his development.
“I am glad I went through that, because I was still in the learning process,” he said. “It was huge for my junior and senior seasons.”
Bourne helped Webster navigate the NFL training and agent process last year and visited Cheney during the Eagles’ pro day.
Former star EWU quarterback Vernon Adams, who recently signed a two-year extension with the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes, also threw 12 touchdown passes to Bourne before transferring to Oregon in 2015.
Adams said Bourne came to Cheney as a raw talent and improved every week.
“He definitely had Pac-12 ability,” Adams said. “He brought so much energy to the team, and he’s earned his way to the pros. He deserves it.”
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