Antrel Rolle has been playing football against Frank Gore since they were youngsters near Miami. When they were in high school — Rolle at South Dade, Gore a bit north in Coral Gables — Rolle always heard that Gore, blessed with elusiveness, exceptional balance and uncanny field vision, might be the best running back ever to come out of those neighborhoods, which doubled as a recruiter’s dream.
Clinton Portis saw it for himself, when, while already a University of Miami running back, he went to Gables High School games to watch the youngster he now considers a protégé playing, he said, with no socks under his cleats, no gloves on his hands, shredding heavily favored opponents by running draws and dives out of four-wide receiver sets. Portis returned to the Hurricanes practices to tell his coaches, “This Frank Gore is special.”
Rolle, now a Giants safety, said this week: “You really don’t get a full grasp of what kind of runner he is until you go against him. I will say it to the day I die, going against him, I still feel he was the best running back to come through the University of Miami before his knee injuries.”
That is the legend of Frank Gore, one of the most talented players on, perhaps, Miami’s most talented team, who was never as good as he might have been in college. He had to overcome two significant injuries, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee just after he beat out Willis McGahee in spring practice before Gore’s sophomore season, then the one in his right knee the next season. Those injuries are why the San Francisco 49ers chose clips from Gore’s freshman season when they showed his college highlights before their playoff victory over Green Bay last weekend. That was when, with his knees still unscarred and while splitting time with McGahee and Portis as a true freshman, he averaged 9.1 yards per carry.
“At times, I look back and I say if I wouldn’t have been hurt, I would probably have been a top 5 or 10 player coming out,” Gore said in a telephone interview this week. “It didn’t go my way. I look at it as God wanted me to go a different route. Before I got injured, football was very easy, I didn’t have to work out. I guess he wanted me to work hard and appreciate the game that He blessed me with the talent to do. That’s one thing I focus on.”
Gore is now one of the N.F.L.’s best running backs, compiling his sixth 1,000-yard season in eight years. He is already San Francisco’s leading career rusher.
This season, as the 49ers have transitioned from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick at quarterback and advanced to Sunday’s N.F.C. championship game at Atlanta, Gore has been the same quiet, consistent force he has always been. He is not the fastest runner, nor the one with the Adonis physique, but he still reads blocks better than most, and, to Portis’s astonishment, can shake, with his movement and the angles he takes, defenders approaching from behind that he can’t even see.
Gore arrived at Miami in 2001, a stroke of luck the then-Miami coach Larry Coker acknowledges occurred because he was recruiting Gore’s best friend, Roscoe Parrish, just 10 days before signing day. Gore grew up in one of Miami’s poorest areas. His mother, Liz, was then seriously ill with kidney disease and on dialysis. Gore struggled for years with dyslexia.
But after his first team meeting at Miami, Gore went up to his position coach and told him he wanted to play. He was told he had to learn the 12 pass protections the Hurricanes used. He took the playbook home that night and at 3:30 a.m., less than five hours before practice, he called his coach at home, asking to be quizzed on the pass protections. He had learned them all.
More than 11 years later, the film still shows the special player Rolle and Portis and the others saw.
“They were saying, ‘Dang, you were fast,’ ” said Don Soldinger, the former Hurricanes running backs coach, who Gore called after San Francisco beat Green Bay last Saturday. “He was saying ‘I was the best one.’ He put me on the phone with Randy Moss and said, ‘Tell Randy Moss how good I was.’ ”
Soldinger had to talk Gore out of quitting after the second knee injury. The doctor who performed the operations, John Uribe, explained to Gore that he would be better than ever once he recovered, because his original ligament structure had not been strong enough for his knees.
Portis was already an N.F.L. rookie when Gore injured his knee the first time and remembered that Gore was devastated. He said, in each of their conversations, Gore would ask, “Bro, what do you think?” Portis always told him he could come back. Privately, though, he wondered, just like the coaches and the N.F.L. scouts, if Gore would ever be the same.
“I remember thinking, I hope he didn’t lose what he had, because he was so agile, you couldn’t get a hand on him,” Portis said. “I remember thinking, what do you tell him?”
It was Soldinger, one of the few guiding forces in Gore’s life then, who finally prevailed upon him.
“I was very frustrated,” Gore said. “He talked to me, my mom talked to me, he said keep following my rehab. I was frustrated. I felt like it wasn’t for me. He told me just keep pushing at it. He wanted me to get a chance to reach my childhood dream to have an N.F.L. career.”
That he has had one at all is why Coker uses Gore as an example to encourage his players at Texas-San Antonio when they get hurt. When Gore talked to Soldinger after the victory over Green Bay, Soldinger told him he had to make a big push now, to try to propel his team to a championship. Portis regrets that Gore’s mother, who died in 2007, did not live to enjoy what her son has become. She had encouraged him to leave Miami early to go to the N.F.L. after he played a full season following the knee injuries. Gore was certain by then that if he was healthy he could still be productive.
On Saturday, Portis watched San Francisco’s victory over Green Bay with Edgerrin James, another former Hurricanes running back, in Los Angeles and the two have plans to be in Atlanta on Sunday, three generations of Hurricanes running backs together. James wondered how much longer Gore would play and Portis guessed four or five more years, because he knows how to avoid taking a pounding to keep his body healthy. Portis wonders if Gore will finish with more yards than any of them — James rushed for 12,246 in his career, Portis for 9,923 and Gore, at age 29, has 8,839.
Portis reminisced this week about how eager a freshman Gore was, always sitting next to him on the way to games, always talking about football, always saying, “I can’t wait until my time comes.” On Sunday, Portis talked to Gore on the phone again.
“He was still excited,” Portis said. “ ‘Man, you saw that game? What do you think?’ I said, ‘Bro, you got it.’ ”