SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Running like mad, Ted Ginn Jr. almost raised the ball in the air before the goal line to start celebrating a touchdown on his 102-yard kickoff return.
He thought twice, then tucked it in safely at his right side. Ginn had looked up at the big screen and saw a chasing defender. No way he was risking something going wrong.
Not after his turbulent week.
Ahead of the season opener, Ginn took a hefty pay cut and lost his starting job in the receiving corps to newcomer Braylon Edwards.
What a tough few days for the fifth-year pro before he returned two kicks for touchdowns in a 59-second span to seal San Francisco's season-opening 33-17 victory over Seattle.
The 49ers got their money's worth and then some from the veteran wideout and special teams star against the defending NFC West champion Seahawks. Ginn gave the 49ers their first game in franchise history with a kickoff return and a punt return for touchdowns.
"I'm a team player. It's not always about money," Ginn said. "You come in, you play the game, and as you play the game, good things should happen for you."
It hasn't always been that way for Ginn, however.
Booed by Dolphins fans from the day he was drafted out of Ohio State, the criticism he received in South Florida was relentless. Even for a guy who scored on kickoff returns of 100 and 101 yards in the same quarter of a game against the New York Jets in November 2009. He became the first player with two kickoff returns of at least 100 yards in the same game.
The 49ers got quite a glimpse — make that two — of Ginn's explosive, game-breaking ability Sunday. Even at age 26, he shows off the speed and first step that made him a national hurdle champion in high school.
"Career day, record-setting day by Ted Ginn," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Phenomenal performance by Teddy."
And to think Harbaugh nearly went with somebody else back deep in the return game. The first-year coach ultimately decided to go with Ginn because of "his experience more than anything else."
"I wanted a guy back there who was going to have a cool head and make good decisions," Harbaugh said.
Ginn will be given another chance to shine on special teams this week. While Ginn has always longed to pull double duty on special teams and offense, Harbaugh seems content to stick with what worked.
The 49ers host the Dallas Cowboys at Candlestick Park after Tony Romo and Co. blew a 14-point lead to lose 27-24 to the Jets on Sunday night.
"You sure hate to take him off the field right now in those roles," Harbaugh said of Ginn. "He means a lot to us on the offensive side of the ball as well. We weren't going to have him returning the kicks. That was close to a day-before-game decision to let him roll on the kickoff return. But glad we did it."
Ginn is giving San Francisco — after one week, at least — what he believed he had in him when he arrived in the Bay Area last year.
The 49ers acquired Ginn in a trade with the Dolphins in April 2010, when then-coach Mike Singletary made upgrading the return game one of his top priorities.
"I'm just going to come into the 49ers and show 'em what I got," Ginn said after the trade.
He insists he gauges his field position based on "feel."
"I've been back there for about five years now, so I can kind of get a good feel on how the kickoff team is coming down," he said.
Selected with the ninth overall pick in 2007, Ginn was considered the fastest draft bust in Dolphins history. He managed only five touchdown catches in three seasons while averaging 13.0 yards per reception.
Ginn seems to have moved on from all that. He made 12 catches last season with a TD in his first year with the 49ers.
On Sunday, he left Candlestick with a trio of souvenir balls — the game ball and two more from his TD runs.
Ginn has been telling his teammates all along he would break free.
"He said, 'Man, all I need is a couple more blocks and I will get in the end zone. And you saw it. Kickoff return," special teams mate Delanie Walker said. "He just did that by himself. It was a left return, he just took it all the way to the right. He's got the speed to get around the corner, and that's what he did. The punt return everyone had a great block, he broke a couple tackles, right up the middle for a touchdown.
"He says it all the time. Right when we get in our huddle when we say the play, 'Hey, one block and I'm going to do the rest and y'all can look at me score.' And that's what we did."
Harbaugh declined to address Ginn's pay cut, only praising his team-first attitude.
"Ted's a stud, no doubt a heck of a football player and a great guy," Harbaugh said. "Nobody would be disputing that. ... A real football player, courageous, talented, hardworking, great teammate."
Still, when Harbaugh was sitting at home Sunday night flipping through the sports channels for highlights, he never came across the Niners — despite Ginn's fine day. He knows respect for this franchise will take time. San Francisco has gone eight years without reaching the playoffs or posting a winning record.
"It just kind of documents what you know, what the perception is of our team around the league and around the country," Harbaugh said. "Some people can say that's not fair, it isn't right, but do something about it. And that's our mindset. That's our approach."
Ginn's fine day was a start.
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