SAN FRANCISCO -- Taylor Mays was one of the first players to run up the stairs from the 49ers' locker room to the field at Candlestick Park on Sunday night. The 49ers were still more than two hours away from their game against the Philadelphia Eagles, a 27-24 loss that gave them their first 0-5 start in 31 years, but Mays wanted to seemingly run around every inch of the field as he bobbed his head to the music blaring from his headphones.
Mays didn't get to see much of the field three weeks ago when he made his home debut against the New Orleans Saints. In fact, Mays didn't get to see much of any field during the 49ers' first three games of the season, when he was used sparingly on special teams and didn't play a single defensive snap.
Mays, a former All-America safety at USC who fell from a projected first-round draft pick to the 49ers in the second round this year, had been buried behind Michael Lewis and Reggie Smith on the depth chart since the season began. The player who had been a four-year starter at USC wasn't even worthy of garbage reps on a winless team.
"It was a struggle because I wanted to play and I felt like I was ready to play and I thought some of the coaches were telling me that I was too," Mays said. "It was hard because I wanted to play and I wasn't playing at all. It wasn't like I only played a little bit. I didn't even play at all."
The 49ers' coaching staff, however, had a plan for Mays, whom they always envisioned as their long-term starter at strong safety. They wanted to bring him along slowly while preventing him from getting burned for big plays and risk damaging his confidence by throwing him into football's version of center field without at least allowing him to watch a few at-bats from the dugout.
"Now I see their plan more and what they were trying to do," Mays said. "It was definitely a struggle, but it was a time where I was trying to get better every day and every week, knowing my time would come. Now I kind of understand more what their plan was and what they had in store for me."
What was supposed to be a gradual transition from sideline observer to full-time starter was fast-forwarded last week when Mays made his first NFL start at Atlanta two days after Lewis abruptly left the team, reportedly unhappy when he learned Mays would start over him. The 49ers would officially release Lewis on Monday and name Mays the starter for the rest of the season.
"Me and Mike were close," Mays said. "Our relationship was never influenced by him playing or me playing. He was somebody that since we first met, he was always there to help me and show me the ropes and was a mentor. That's the character guy that he is and I still think he will continue to do that elsewhere. That's the kind of relationship that we had. He helped me out a lot and he was never selfish in the way he acted towards me."
Mays' debut as a starter in Week 4 against Atlanta made releasing Lewis slightly less difficult for 49ers coach Mike Singletary. Mays led the 49ers with 11 tackles, the most in a game by a 49ers player this season, and spectacularly recovered a blocked punt in the end zone, somehow keeping both feet inbounds to become the first 49er in 23 years to recover a blocked punt for a touchdown.
"He knew exactly where he needed to be, played his position well and brought value to our team," Singletary said. "He's continued to blossom since he's been here, and I think he's going to be a tremendous asset going forward."
Mays laughed when he thought back to his first NFL touchdown -- not about how he was able kept both feet in bounds ("I was thinking of Chad Ochocinco and T.O. [Terrell Owens] keeping two feet in," he said), but his touchdown dance afterward.
"I had that planned out for months," said Mays of his version of the popular dance "Dougie" in the back of the end zone. "I was thinking of what I wanted to do when I scored so I had the whole dance planned out and everything. I just needed to score the touchdown."
Before Mays could do that, of course, he first had to get on the field, which seemed improbable two weeks ago when he was in the film room staying late to watch tape. Mays' work ethic and the fact he never complained about playing time were some of the reasons he would eventually get his chance to play one month into the season.
He wouldn't just pick the brains of Singletary, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and secondary coach Vance Johnson, but he would also talk constantly with Ronnie Lott, who has become a mentor to Mays. Lott, a Hall of Fame safety for the 49ers and an All-American at USC, took Mays under his wing when Mays was a hard-hitting freshman. No one was happier than Lott when Mays was picked by San Francisco in April.
"It feels like I've been following in his footsteps since college and it's up to me to take my game to the next level and live up to the comparisons," Mays said. "Ronnie has meant so much to me. He's been a mentor. He's been a friend. He's helped me [in the] late hours of the night and early in the morning. He's done everything to help me be a better player. It's just cool to go to his school, play for his NFL team and have a relationship with him. In a sense I'm being brought up the same way he was brought up as a Trojan and a 49er. It's just a special relationship."
As Mays ran onto the field before his first start at Candlestick Park, he looked up to his right, where Lott's No. 42 is retired. Mays, who wore No. 2 at USC, wanted to wear No. 24 with the 49ers. Not only was it the reverse of Lott's number, but it was also Willie Mays' number, and Taylor said he loved the idea of another Mays wearing No. 24, roaming center field for a San Francisco team. Alas, rookie running back Anthony Dixon claimed it before him and he ended up choosing No. 23.
"I really wanted to be 24 because of Willie Mays," Mays said, still hoping to claim it at some point. "I wanted to be No. 24 like him, playing center field in San Francisco, but I took 23 because I thought about LeBron James and Michael Jordan and dominant players like that and that's what I want to be."
Before Mays can be great, however, he must first become consistent, which is a trait many of his teammates have yet to master.
After Mays tackled Ellis Hobbs following a 21-yard kickoff return in the first quarter, he jumped up and down as the rest of the special teamers ran off the field and he stayed on with the starting defense. Ten plays later, Eagles tight end Brent Celek beat Mays for an 8-yard touchdown, catching a Kevin Kolb pass with Mays draped over his back.
In the second quarter, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy burst through the 49ers' front seven for a 29-yard touchdown -- beating out a pursuing Mays -- to give the Eagles a 17-7 lead in the second quarter.
Mays would finish the game with three tackles and a forced fumble in the fourth quarter that ended up being recovered by the Eagles. It certainly wasn't as impressive as his first start last week, and the result remained the same for the hapless 49ers.
Mays' positioning on two of Philadelphia's touchdowns brought back reminders of why many teams, including the Seattle Seahawks, coached by former USC coach Pete Carroll, passed on him in the draft. In fact, Carroll passed on Mays to select another safety, Earl Thomas from Texas, who was one of four safeties taken before the 49ers picked Mays with the 49th pick. Mays initially blamed Carroll for his drop in the draft, but later backed off his stance and spoke to Carroll. The two of them chatted in person after the first game of the season, when the Seahawks beat the 49ers, 31-6.
"Me and Coach Carroll have always been cool and we'll always be cool," Mays said. "We're still friends. That's what was funny about the whole situation for me. There was never anything negative between Coach Carroll and me. Even friends have misunderstandings and have things go the way you don't always want them to go."
Despite being on a winless team and a franchise that hasn't had a winning record since 2002, Mays says he still believes he will be part of a young core that will lead the 49ers back to relevancy. It's not simply a goal but an obligation he says he feels to the retired numbers that hang around Candlestick Park and the five Super Bowl trophies displayed at the team's headquarters, serving as a constant reminder of what this team once represented.
"It's tough right now because I know I play for one of the most storied teams in the NFL," Mays said. "All those numbers and trophies make me want to add to the legacy and build on what they've already done here and I know one day I'm going to be a part of it."
It may seem like a long shot right now, but judging by how far Mays' NFL career has come in the past two weeks, anything must seem possible to him.
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.