- Seth Wickersham, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- Waiting for the go, Chad Hall turns right onto Bourbon Street. It's early Wednesday evening, and he wants some fresh air, to take in the scene while he's still living it, and he's waiting to find out how he'll live it on Super Sunday.
He is a slot receiver for the 49ers, although for him it's a description in transition. He hopes to be a slot receiver for the 49ers on Sunday. He has been on the active roster for only one game, played only one snap, seen only one pass, and he has spent his Super Bowl week like he has spent his entire career -- practicing hard, working hard, preparing to play, unsure if come kickoff he'll dress for the game.
A cool breeze blows. The translucent glow from bars and strip clubs seems to turn night to day. Many of his teammates are out, and they are stopped for autographs and photographs. Nobody stops Hall, wearing a few days' worth of blond scruff, jeans and a Nats hat pulled low. He is short and built like the Air Force Academy graduate that he is, a football player since age 6 who people stare through tonight just as he's been stared through his entire life -- unrecruited, undrafted.
If he's anxious, he doesn't show it. If it's killing him inside to not know if he'll run onto the Superdome field Sunday in pads or in sweats, he's hiding it well.
After all, he's here. He's in New Orleans. He's on a Super Bowl team.
"I dreamed about this," he says.
Two months ago, Hall was running routes alone on his old high school football field in Norcross, Ga., just north of Atlanta, wondering if he'd made the biggest mistake of his life. He had just declined to spend a third year on the Eagles' practice squad. Since 2010, Andy Reid had moved him up and down from active to inactive.
Hall had played in 15 games over two years and caught 14 passes, 2 for touchdowns. He averaged 10.7 yards per punt return. But in training camp it was clear he wasn't going to make the team, and he chose to roll the dice elsewhere rather than spend another season on the practice squad.
"I felt that they weren't as honest as they could have been," he says, walking past the Famous Door club, where a cover band is playing "Born to Run." "They didn't give me a chance in the returner role. The special teams coach said, 'We like you. We know what you can do.' But that's the business side. They tell you one thing, and then ...
"I felt that I had to get other eyes on me."
So he walked away from the Eagles last September, a bold move for a 26-year-old with a thin résumé. As he saw it, the only way to take a step forward was to take a step back. It's been that way for him since he first played football and lined up as nose tackle at 43 pounds.
His will has always superseded reason. As an option quarterback, he'd often change the plays that his dad, Jay, the coach, had called. With the game on the line, he once decided to not return a punt and instead tried (unsuccessfully) to block it, against his dad's wishes.
After graduating from Wesleyan School, he was overlooked by the big colleges and decided to attend the Air Force Academy. He started as a quarterback, then was moved to running back. After graduating in 2008, he served for two years as a maintenance officer with 200 people reporting to him. Everywhere he went, he brought his cleats, but in March 2009, stationed in Wichita Falls, he was ready to give up. His older sister, Kelly, called one day and asked him how training was going, and he unloaded. It's not going, Chad said. It's over. What team was going to want a 5-foot-8, 180-pound running back who hadn't played in two years?
"We believe in you," Kelly said, and Hall hung up the phone, tied his cleats, and at 9 p.m. ran sprints outside, on a shabby field. A few months later, based in Salt Lake City, he worked out at the University of Utah's pro day, as a wide receiver for the first time. No teams signed him.
That summer, Hall was days from being sent to Afghanistan when the Eagles called. He was able to defer his deployment, and he bounced around from the practice squad to the active roster and back before he finally quit, and he was relegated to running routes alone at his high school, envisioning different coverages to adjust to, an imaginary reality in a sinking career.
Then in November, 49ers receiver Kyle Williams tore his ACL, and the team needed a slot receiver. They signed Hall to the practice squad. He was paid $5,700 a week. He moved into backup quarterback Scott Tolzien's apartment, sleeping on his couch, living out of his suitcase, competing with Tolzien at "Jeopardy!" over dinner and shutting the windows that Tolzien likes to keep open at night because he was cold, under his one blanket.
But Hall didn't play in any games. On the Thursday before the NFC Championship Game, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke asked him to come upstairs. He had a contract to sign. He was being activated -- for the biggest game of the year -- in Atlanta, his hometown. He looked at the contract. It was about $500,000 more than his practice squad deal. "What a blessing," he thought.
Baalke ordered him to not tell anyone, to keep the Falcons off guard, so Hall kept it to himself. At night, in his mind he ran the play that offensive coordinator Greg Roman had designed for him: an option route from the slot on third down, where Hall cuts in, out, or turns around, depending on the defense. On Saturday before the game, he was finally allowed to tell his family that he was playing. They didn't have any of his jerseys, so they went online to the custom jerseys page, where you can personalize any name with any number, and ordered five with HALL, No. 14.
Hall took an Ambien the night before the game. In the third quarter, the coaches turned to him and said, "Get ready." He tightened his gloves and clapped his hands. From her seat in the Georgia Dome nosebleeds, Kelly recognized that routine from his Eagles days and told her parents, "He's going in!"
It was third-and-5 from the Falcons' 20-yard line. San Francisco trailed 24-21. Hall was the first in the huddle and the first out. He saw that the Falcons were double-teaming Michael Crabtree -- the perfect coverage for his route. The ball was coming to him. He ran upfield and found a soft spot in the Falcons' zone, right past the first-down marker. He hooked in it. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick fired toward him. The ball seemed to slow as it hummed toward him; he saw its rotation like a hitter sees a baseball's. Safety William Moore dove to tip it, and as Moore left his feet Hall thought, "If I catch this, there's no one left."
Then, everything happened so fast. Moore's fingers grazed the ball, just enough to disrupt its trajectory, from hitting Hall between the numbers to bouncing off his biceps. Hall had no time to adjust. From the stands, his family thought he had dropped it. From the sideline, coach Jim Harbaugh thought he had dropped it too, and after the game -- that was Hall's only play -- Harbaugh approached him and said, "Oh man, you had a chance!"
"If he hadn't tipped it," Hall said, "I think I could've gone to the end zone."
"He tipped it?"
"I don't know," Harbaugh said. "I don't know."
Later on the bus, Harbaugh approached him and said, "I called my dad. It definitely got tipped. You couldn't have caught it."
Which only meant that he hadn't screwed up. All Hall could think about was that the play -- his play -- didn't work. Plays have a way of compounding. If one works, a coach finds more. If it doesn't, it disappears. "I was thinking, 'Why me?'" he says, walking through the French Quarter, declining an offer to enter a cabaret. "Why that play?"
He shakes his head. "There was nothing I could have done," he says.
And now, there's nothing he can do but wait to see if his number is called. He feels part of the team, whether come Sunday he'll actually be on it or not. Unlike the Eagles, the 49ers treat their practice squad players as if they're on the roster. They travel with the team. They prepare with the team. They are allowed a handful of complimentary tickets to the game and discounts on extra rooms at the W, which Hall gave to seven buddies from the Air Force; seven buddies who played football and like him were a little too small and a little too light for a major school; seven buddies who went to war when he went to training camp. "I love them," he says. "We went through hell together."
He circles back from the French Quarter toward the team hotel on Canal Street, both anxious and at peace. "If I don't dress, it's how Coach Harbaugh thinks another guy is the best chance we have to win," he says. "That's all I care about. I want that ring."
But then, he stops himself. After all, it's the Super Bowl.
"Selfishly, all I want to do is make a play and help my team," he says. "But I'm still young. Hopefully my career will continue. Hopefully I can catch on with the 49ers and help them in the future. All I want, no matter what, is to win."
He turns into his hotel lobby. A fan asks him to sign a helmet. A couple asks him to pose for a picture. Right now, at least, he's a 49er, at the Super Bowl.
"I'm ready," he says.