From EWU to the NFL: Kendrick was Bourne for this

The Easterner recently interviewed San Francisco 49ers rookie wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, who played for the EWU Eagles from 2013-2016.


EWU alum and San Fransisco 49ers rookie wide receiver Kendrick Bourne completes a catch against the Tennessee Titans in Week 15 of the NFL season. Bourne finished the game with four receptions and 88 yards. | Photo courtesy of Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

By Logan Stanley, Managing Editor

Back in September 2014, then-sophomore wide receiver Kendrick Bourne was relatively unknown to most people. The 19-year-old Bourne barely saw the field in his first season at EWU, as he recorded only seven receptions for 113 yards.

But before the game against the University of Washington in early September, one of Bourne’s teammates, wide receiver Shaq Hill, went down with an injury. Head coach Beau Baldwin and receiver coach Junior Adams then made the decision to insert Bourne into the starting lineup.

For the young wide receiver, it was a moment that carried significant weight.

“Them having confidence in me to go out there and prove myself was the start of my journey,” Bourne said, of Baldwin and Adams.

And what a start of a journey it was. In his first game as a starter, Bourne had eight receptions for 114 yards and one touchdown—topping his entire freshman campaign in one game. EWU lost to UW 59-52, but it paved the way for one of the most talented receivers to suit up for the Eagles.

During his illustrious three-year career at EWU, Bourne had 211 receptions for 3,130 yards and 27 touchdowns in 53 games. Those marks place him in the top seven for those three categories in school history.

It was enough for Bourne to gather the full confidence to declare for the 2017 NFL Draft.

“I felt as if I was ready, felt like I was strong enough—felt like I had put the work in that I could be one of the top receivers in the draft,” said Bourne. “Even if I wasn’t projected, I felt like I was. It was mostly me, but my family was motivating me to declare so it all kind of came together.”

He joined teammates Cooper Kupp, Samson Ebukam, Shaq Hill, Jordan West and Miquiyah Zamora as EWU’s 2017 NFL declarees. After putting his name in the draft, it was time to prepare for Bourne, who moved to the Seattle area for pre-draft workouts.

Bourne, alongside Ebukam, worked out at Ford Sports Performance with Tracy Ford. That training, Bourne said, was one of the toughest components of the whole draft process. From waking up early every single morning to a strict diet supplemented with a rigorous weight program, it was not easy for Bourne.

There were two opportunities for Bourne to showcase his talent to NFL personnel. First was the NFL Combine from Feb. 28 to March 6. Second was EWU’s Pro Day, which came a few weeks later on March 28.

During that time, contact with teams was mostly limited as organizations attempt to mask their true intentions with the hopes of deceiving others. Some clubs had been in contact with Bourne though.

So when the San Francisco 49ers called in the middle of the seventh round of the NFL Draft, it came as a surprise to Bourne as the team had precisely zero contact with him prior to the draft. The phone call actually came right after the Jacksonville Jaguars had called Bourne to let him know they were interested.

When the draft ended, Bourne had yet to be picked up. But teams were lining up for the rights to sign him to an undrafted free agent contract—Bourne said he had six options to choose from. Wanting to stay on the West Coast, the San Francisco 49ers were an easy choice.

Immediately following the conclusion of the draft, Bourne signed a three-year undrafted free agent contract with the 49ers. For Bourne, excitement and nervousness ensued upon realizing he was now going to be competing for a spot on an NFL roster.

The moment also came with a burden that most professional athletes carry—the pressure from family and friends.

“A lot of my family members hit me up, a lot of guys just thinking I’m a millionaire already,” said Bourne. “It was a lot of emotions. I just had to remind people, I ain’t really made it yet. I just signed a paper and got $20,000 guaranteed if I get cut—that’s all I really know. Me not really knowing, I just wanted to calm people down what they think about me. My cousin’s thinking I’m made it, like nah bro I ain’t done it yet. This is one step up, this is a big step. But it’s not where I want to be, so I couldn’t get to a point where I got too big-headed about it and I kept myself calm about it, not trying to put myself out there too much about it.”

Since EWU is on the quarter system, NFL rules prohibited Bourne from joining the team while school was still in session. Organized team activities usually begin in late May. Bourne was not allowed to join the team until late June, and did not do so until July.

That led to a sharp learning curve for the undrafted rookie, who was on the bottom of the 49ers wide receivers depth chart heading into training camp in August. But Bourne said his commitment to studying the playbook proved to be a valuable tool as he learned to become a better NFL receiver. The combination of studying and live practice repetitions fueled Bourne’s early growth.

After months of practicing, it was finally time for game action. The 49ers opened up the preseason on the road against the Kansas City Chiefs—a game that holds a certain distinction in Bourne’s mind, for a few reasons.

In with the reserves toward the end of the game, Bourne had his number called on a slant route. He ran the route clean, got open and went to grab the pass thrown his way. As he began to make his first move, Bourne was blasted by a Chiefs defender and dropped the pass.

Bourne went to the sidelines, obviously feeling down on himself. His very next play, Bourne again had his number called. And for the second consecutive time, Bourne dropped it.

Two passes, two drops. For the first-year player on the fringe of the roster, it was not the best of starts.

Then it happened.

“When I made the move, the double-move didn’t work,” said Bourne. “The corner didn’t come up how I anticipated. He kind of came up, but he still was back, he had enough room to cover and get back and try to beat me vertical. I just stuttered him, went up—I tried to get outside of him, but he cut me off and so I just slipped inside of him. Then it was an off-schedule by [quarterback] C.J. [Beathard], he rolled out, running away from some linemen. I was just open and I made a good elusive move.”

Forty-six yards later and Bourne was dancing in the end zone after scoring his first NFL touchdown, bringing the score to 17-16. The 49ers ended up winning 26-17, with Bourne’s 46-yard touchdown proving to be crucial.

Bourne finished the game with four receptions for 88 yards and one touchdown. As an undrafted rookie, it was quite the debut.

As the preseason progressed, Bourne felt as he if were making improvements. Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL though, especially being undrafted. When the day of roster cuts came, it was a period of uneasiness for Bourne.

When no call came on both days of cuts for Bourne, who was with his family eating breakfast at the time, the stress began to subside. Once he saw his name on the official team roster later that day, it was another sense of accomplishment.

Entering the season, Bourne was buried on the depth chart behind the likes of Pierre Garçon, Marquise Goodwin, Trent Taylor and Aldrick Robinson. It is why Bourne did not see the field at all during the beginning of the season, remaining on the inactive list from Week 2 to Week 6.

But that would not be case for long as Garçon went down with a neck injury in Week 8 and was subsequently placed on injured reserve, ending the veteran receiver’s season. One’s peril ended up as another’s opportunity.

With a depleted core, it was Bourne’s turn to show that he could make plays. Being put into the receiving rotation came as a confident booster for the rookie, who admitted to struggling with it while the team was 0-9 and he was not seeing any playing time.

Bourne said not getting on the field actually ended up fueling him, wanting to prove to head coach Kyle Shanahan that he was worthy of game action.

“If [Shanahan] notices me every time, I’m just showing up every time, every day, he has to get to a point where he’s like, ‘We gotta activate this guy. We just have to use him. Even if doesn’t play, we just need him just in case,’” said Bourne.

Even with the increased role, the production had yet to be seen from Bourne. That would come later, when a certain quarterback change was made.

On October 30, the 49ers dealt a 2018 second-round pick to the New England Patriots in exchange for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Instantly, Bourne’s phone started buzzing. But not for the reason one probably thinks.

“Everybody was on my social media like, ‘Number 10 man, you gotta give it up,’” said Bourne. “And I’m like, ‘Dang man, this sucks. Wow he come in here and take my number.’ But I was just being a team player with it, I didn’t really care. I didn’t do nothing in the number or anything like that. I’m just going to give it up, like I don’t even care. He’s a vet, he’s been in the league, so it was an easy give-away.”

Bourne’s No. 10 jersey was handed to Garoppolo, and a No. 84 jersey was distributed to the rookie. For two different players, both from FCS schools, the number switch can be viewed as a rebirth.

Garoppolo—in his new No. 10 jersey—proceeded to lead the 49ers on a five-game winning streak to end the season once he was named the starter in Week 13. Bourne—in his new No. 84 jersey—began to find his way into the stat sheet, culminating in a particularly impressive Week 15 win against the Tennessee Titans.

Bourne had four receptions for a season-high 85 yards in that game, showing off his ability to create yards after the catch and establishing a rapport with Garoppolo.

While his season numbers altogether are not that notable—16 receptions for 257 yards—it is the late-season surge that provides room for optimism with Bourne moving forward. That surge is partly attributable to Garoppolo, who elevates the play of those around him, among the many traits the 26-year-old quarterback possesses.

For Bourne, it is Garoppolo’s intangibles that stand out the most compared to the previous quarterbacks he played with.

“It’s [Garoppolo’s] confidence and his natural leadership,” said Bourne. “Natural leadership mostly though, because he just knows how to motivate people. It was natural when he first came in. Last couple games I was dancing—we got a first down—and he was like, ‘Come on KB! Get the hell in the huddle.’ Like aye man, that’s legit. Ain’t no other quarterback yelled at me like that, telling me ‘let’s go.’ One time we was in the huddle, the Gatorade ladies was in there, the waterboys, and he come in like, ‘Get the hell out of the huddle! We got to go!’ Like serious, he made them go.”

That kind of urgency is appealing to Bourne, and it is part of why the entire locker room is feeling positive about their new quarterback.

As well as playing with one of the bright young passers of the game, Bourne has had the opportunity to learn under the tutelage of Kyle Shanahan—widely recognized as one of the most innovative offensive minds in football.

Like Bourne, it was also a debut year for Shanahan, who signed a six-year deal on Feb. 7 to be the head coach of the 49ers. Under the guide of Shanahan, the mental aspect of the game has opened up for Bourne.

“He definitely showed me parts about football that I never even thought about or considered that all really affect the game,” said Bourne. “I’m talking lineman-wise; linemen having to do certain blocks, how he sets up d-ends [defensive ends] to think we running this play and we’re running this play; sets up linebackers to think we’re doing this run, when we’re running a boot. Like I know everything that’s happening now. I know what the fullback is doing, I know what the slot is doing, I know when the tight end is going across the line to block that d-end on the right side. I know everything that is going on.”

Heading into 2018, even with Garçon set to return, the role of Bourne will most likely be expanded. The first-year player has provided glimpses of his ability, both on and off-the-field, to warrant such an expansion. Even Shanahan noted Bourne’s performances throughout the year.

With his rookie NFL season in the rearview mirror, Bourne is settling into his life as a professional. Bourne currently lives in Santa Clara with teammate offensive lineman Darrell Williams Jr.

When he first made the roster—his rookie contract becoming guaranteed—Bourne said he frequented the mall quite a bit, buying clothes he had always wanted.

Growing up, Bourne never had much, evident of the landscaping job he worked with his father beginning at age 13. He also purchased a Mercedes Benz AMG 663, but has since cooled his spending, feeling just content with the items he has right now.

Per Spotrac, Bourne’s three-year deal is worth a total of $1.6 million. This past season, Bourne made $465,000 in base salary with a $25,000 signing bonus.

Now, life is kind of boring for Bourne having bought what he wanted to. A typical day consists of team-related activities followed up with body treatment. And that is just how Bourne prefers it, because this is the life he has aspired for.

“It really is one of the best jobs in the world and I don’t take it for granted,” said Bourne. “I won’t put nothing at risk to lose it.”