SANTA CLARA – In one of his first years coaching varsity football at Coral Gables High School in Miami, Joe Montoya recalls, the team made T-shirts for parents bearing the jersey numbers of their sons.
He saw a lot of the shirt given to Liz Gore, mother of the team's standout running back, Frank Gore.
"Every game she would be out there," Montoya recalled. "She would be right behind us … and she would be wearing his number all the time."
Gore rushed for 2,953 yards his senior season at Coral Gables, a Dade County record. Twelve years later, Gore is the 49ers' all-time rushing leader, having helped lead the franchise to its first Super Bowl appearance since 1995.
The road between has hardly been smooth. There were the two major surgeries while playing at the University of Miami to repair ACL tears in both of Gore's knees. The two shoulder surgeries after his rookie season in 2005 with the 49ers. The fractured hip that ended his 2010 campaign after 11 games.
In Gore's first six seasons, the 49ers went 37-59 and did not make the playoffs. As a bright spot on those teams, the 49ers dialed Gore's number often, and he shouldered much of the offensive load. But amid the losing, he said last week, the lowest point was a call that never came.
Before the 49ers' second game in 2007, Gore's mother died at the age of 46 after a long battle with kidney disease. Liz Gore had raised Frank, his siblings and several cousins in a small apartment in Coconut Grove, Fla., under difficult circumstances. When he reached the NFL, Gore said, she made sure to call him before each game.
"That day, the time came when I didn't get the call, I just burst out," Gore said. "I just cried and cried. But I knew she would've wanted me to play, and I had a pretty good game that day. I think she came on the field, because I made a crazy run."
Gore, a soft-spoken 29-year-old, is a highly respected figure in the 49ers' locker room. It comes in part from his eight seasons in San Francisco and from a work ethic that seemingly has not subsided.
"Everyone knows he's a good football player on Sunday, but his work ethic the other times is what we see," fullback Bruce Miller said. "He pushes everyone to be a better football player."
The determination was evident in Gore's later high school years, said Roger Pollard, a former Coral Gables teammate who now coaches the program.
"He had a broken ankle his junior year going into spring," Pollard recalled by phone. "He kept running on it until later they found out it was broken."
The impetus, Gore said, could be found at home.
"Being with my mom since I was a kid, (her) doing whatever it takes to put food on the table, put clothes on our back, and it was hard," he said. "God blessed me with the talent, and that's why I try my best to do it hard every day."
It may not have always been so. When Montoya arrived at Coral Gables after Gore's sophomore season, he found "a kid that did not have an idea of how to prepare himself physically and mentally" for football. In a pointed sit-down, Gore was told his habits needed to change.
His junior year, Gore broke the school's rushing record. Next season, it was the county mark. In the classroom, having fallen behind while battling a learning disability, Gore scrambled to make up units he needed to qualify for college, Montoya said. Meanwhile, in Gore's junior year, his mother began undergoing dialysis for her ailing kidneys.
"It would be days he would come to the school and he would be in tears," Montoya said. "You could tell certain days at practice that his mind wasn't in it. I just told him, 'Frank, you've got to hang in there.' "
In 2001, Gore signed his letter of intent to attend Miami in Montoya's office, with Liz Gore in attendance.
Gore averaged 9.1 yards per carry as a freshman but redshirted the next year after his first ACL tear. Despite the surgeries, the 49ers made him a third-round pick in 2005. Gore has rewarded them by eclipsing 1,000 rushing yards in six seasons. He was named to his fourth Pro Bowl this season after rushing for 1,214 yards.
And now he is in the Super Bowl, a steadying force on a 49ers team that has gone 24-7-1 over the past two regular seasons. Last week, at his locker, where he represents a link to the darker times of the past decade, Gore was asked whether he will honor his mother during the game. He said he'll probably just do what he has since Week 2 of the 2007 season – if he scores a touchdown, he'll point skyward.
"Tell her it's for her," Gore said. "I miss her, I love her, and I know she's happy just like her son, who went through so much coming up … finally gets an opportunity to play in a big game."