Frank Gore is a real student of the game

When he started coaching Frank Gore two years ago, Tom Rathman quickly learned a new piece of football strategy: Switch the cell phone to vibrate before bedtime on Sunday nights, because the call could come at any hour.

Usually, the phone would go off between 1 and 2 a.m., and Rathman wanted a shot at keeping everyone else in the house asleep. He'd answer, stumbling sleepily to take the call. The 49ers' star running back would be on the line, obsessing over the game and eager for a critique of certain plays.

" 'Did I read that one right?' " Rathman said, impersonating a wired Gore before he mimicked his own drowsy voice. "Yeah, you read it right, Frank. Go to sleep."

One might think that dozing off would be easier for Gore now that the 49ers are 4-1 and becoming more offensively proficient than they've been at any previous time in his seven-year NFL career. But he says he can't sleep after any game, win or lose.

"Some things you can't get out of your head," he said. "You know what I mean?"

A lot of football players obsess into the night after games. Very few make the kinds of compulsive demands on their bosses that Gore does. None, at least in this region, has ever turned a string of coaches into sentimental mush, smiling like doting parents whenever they discuss him in public. It's the one style point that Mike Nolan, Mike Singletary and Jim Harbaugh - the three head coaches in Gore's 49ers career - have shared.
He has a similar effect on the matriarch of the franchise. Denise DeBartolo York deliberately stays in the background of the 49ers, allowing her husband and son to run the team. But she becomes fairly visible when she visits Gore outside the locker room after a game. She has been known to greet him with hugs and kisses, exclaiming: "There's my guy."

In a typical offseason, Gore said, he can expect her to check in by phone, and occasionally he calls the team owner "Ma." Gore can't explain exactly how the two of them bonded, but the connection grew stronger when DeBartolo York attended his mother's funeral in South Florida four years ago.

"I was kind of out of it that day, so I don't remember who all came," he said. "But I remember seeing Denise sitting there in the front row."

In keeping with her low profile, DeBartolo York declined an interview about Gore through the 49ers' public relations office. So we can only assume why she has such a fondness for the 28-year-old running back. The coaches' reasons are easier to discern.

He has long been the 49ers' most productive skill-position player on offense, and with a combined 252 yards rushing the last two weeks, he erased any concerns about whether he can still deliver with a body that has endured multiple severe injuries, including a fractured right hip that ended the 2010 season for him.

The rushing numbers alone would warm any coach's heart, but Gore's football IQ and the completeness of his game - especially his pass-protection skills - explain his special charm.

"A lot of guys struggle with retention of what you're coaching," Rathman said. "It takes them a period of time to learn it, maybe six months, maybe two months, maybe a month, maybe a week. Frank, you can tell him something one time, and it doesn't come up till Week 11, and it had not been addressed or emphasized from Week 1 to 11, and he'll know exactly what it is."

He soaks up every bit of information he can get, Rathman said, meeting with coaches at times that other players wouldn't consider. The preparation helps him read defenses better and faster, understanding an opponent's body language. He has always been attuned to defenders' eye movement and what that suggests about an upcoming play.

Tight end Delanie Walker said Gore had been counseling him on how to read defenders for a while. "Now I'm starting to see it," he said. "A couple of years ago, I didn't really see it the way he does."

Defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois works out with Gore in the Miami area during the offseason. This year, he said, their training took on special purpose because Gore had to prove he could return from the hip injury and because the lockout put so much else in doubt. They trained at a community center with several other NFL players, and Gore insisted that they behave as if they were in game-day mode, not revealing a single weakness, Francois said.

"He was trying to show we were going to outwork everybody that was there," he said. "Frank was like, 'Don't you bend over and grab your knees; don't you quit. We're going to show them what's the difference between a 49er and the rest of the league.' "

All in all, he sounds like a 1950s coach.

"Actually, he's the exact image of coach Harbaugh," Francois said. "He's all ball."

Though the 49ers have moved on with a new administration, Gore stays in touch with many of the former coaches, from Nolan, who now works in Miami, to Jimmy Raye, the deposed offensive coordinator from the Singletary era and a recipient of some of those late-night calls.

Rathman thinks he has found a way to eliminate the post-midnight chats. On game days, he and Gore now talk shortly after they get home. Then Rathman goes over the film, grading him before they talk again.

"I've got him down to 9:30 or 10 o'clock," Rathman said, sounding a little overconfident. Containing Frank Gore just isn't that easy. He'd better keep that phone on vibrate.

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