Once ‘soft,’ Frank Gore credits Rathman for mid-career change

The 49ers employ a hard-nosed, Nebraska-bred former fullback as their running backs coach, and Frank Gore is grateful for that.

Gore, of course, is something of a rarity: a dynamic running back that delights in dirty work.

Gore’s ability to stonewall blitzing linebackers is legendary (see here). And watch closely the next time Colin Kaepernick is sprinting 20 yards downfield. There’s a decent chance Gore will be in the immediate vicinity looking to wipe out a would-be tackler.

It wasn’t always like this. During the first four seasons of his nine-year career, Gore defined himself by yards gained and linebackers eluded. Then former 49ers fullback Tom Rathman arrived in 2009.

During a 20-minute interview for this feature story, Gore brought up Rathman’s influence without prompting and was eager to stay on that topic.

“You have to try to do everything great as a running back,” Gore said. “I feel like everybody at this level should be able to run the ball, but coach Tom got me to think – he changed my mind – about the extra stuff. Protecting the quarterback, blocking downfield.”

“A lot of guys can’t do what I do. Seeing the holes before they’re there, getting through small spaces and trying my best to protect my quarterback. Other backs don’t do that. And I give credit for that to Tom. I just wanted to run the ball before. I didn’t mind protecting, but now I take pride in it.”

Gore arrived in the NFL known for his resilience. He tore the ACL in both knees at Miami. He returned from his second surgery to rush for 945 yards in 2004 in his final college season and won the Brian Piccolo Award given to the ACC’s “most courageous” player.

However, Rathman, whose run-first Nebraska team lost a national championship to glitzy Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl, wasn’t impressed: Dude, don’t you want to block?

“He challenged me. He called me soft: ‘Oh, you’re from Miami,’” Gore said. “I don’t know what kind of bad experience he had with Miami players, but he was going at me hard, man. And I’m a competitive guy. And I respect Tom. I’m glad he came into my career when he did because I think that was the perfect time. I think he’s a big part of my success and why I’m still going.”

One of Gore’s first chances to prove his grit to Rathman came during a joint training-camp practice with the Raiders in 2009. Gore treated the one-on-one pass blocking drills pitting the 49ers running backs and Raiders linebackers like the Super Bowl. At one point, Rathman had to separate Gore from Oakland’s Kirk Morrison (see video).

Gore admitted he was initially ticked off by Rathman’s assessment.

“Yeah, at first, I was like ‘Man, this guy,’” Gore said. “We went to practice against Oakland and I was going to show him that I wasn’t soft.”

For his part, Rathman, 51, doesn’t recall specifically calling out Gore.

“I can remember sitting down and talking to him in the classroom, with all the guys, explaining to them what we want those guys to become as football players,” Rathman said.

Whatever the case, Rathman acknowledged the obvious: The message resonated.

“You see Kap run and you see Frank down there getting cut blocks,” Rathman said. “I don’t know, from the footage I’ve seen in the NFL, I don’t know if any back has ever done what he’s doing as far as being a pass-blocker and blocking downfield.”

“… There’s a lot of players that play the game. And there’s a lot of football players that play the game. And Frank is definitely a football player. And we love having football players here. Guys that are passionate about the game and want to do anything possible to have success. Frank does it all.”

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