SAN FRANCISCO — Long before he burrowed his way into the Super Bowl, darting through small holes and dancing through slender creases, the San Francisco 49ers’ Frank Gore carved out his persona as a workingman’s running back.
Not even his mom could stop him.
She tried, in the final game of his career at Coral Gables High outside Miami. Gore rambled for nearly 300 yards, by his recollection, and played defensive back for much of his team’s playoff duel with Miami Southridge.
Finally, there went Lizzie Gore bounding out of the bleachers and onto the sideline.
“Get my baby out of there!” she shouted. “Y’all are going to kill him! He’s tired!”
Gore smiled as he told the story Friday in Santa Clara, outside the 49ers’ locker room.
So did she succeed in getting her baby some rest? Fat chance.
“Aw, I wanted to play,” Gore said.
This makes perfect sense, given his relentlessness and persistence in eight seasons with the 49ers. That’s how he became the franchise’s all-time leading rusher and how he wore down the Packers in the divisional round (23 carries, 119 yards, one touchdown) and the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game (21 carries, 90 yards, two TDs).
The roots of this relentlessness and persistence start with Lizzie Gore and the way she raised three kids with little money. As many as 12 people stayed in their one-bedroom apartment at times, including nieces and nephews.
Lizzie got sick during Frank’s junior year in high school, nearly dying then of what became a debilitating kidney ailment. She endured thrice-weekly dialysis for several years and died in 2007, at 46, early during Gore’s third NFL season.
“She did whatever it took to put food on the table and clothes on our back,” he said Friday, speaking to a group of reporters. “It was hard. All the hard work she did for us — that’s why God blessed me with a talent. That’s why I try my best to do it hard every day.”
Even in high school, in the image-conscious years of his youth, Gore had no use for flamboyance.Humble origins
He wore no gloves, no wristbands, nothing at all on his arms while playing at Coral Gables. Gore had found his niche — training diligently, squeezing through any hole he could find, steadily chewing up chunks of yardage.
Gore set all sorts of Dade County records as a high school player, but one-time teammate Roger Pollard does not recall a back with striking speed or overwhelming power. More than 12 years later, ask Pollard about Gore’s running style back then, and he offers one word.
“He sees you even when he’s not looking at you,” Pollard said.
Gore traced his vision to haphazard pickup games in the rough Coconut Grove neighborhood where he grew up, playing tackle football in the park or two-hand touch games in the street. Either way, he learned — quickly — the value of spotting defenders coming at him from various angles.
“When you get the ball in those games, everybody tries to tackle you,” he said. “I think that kind of helped.”Inspirational leader
Gore weathered one broken ankle in high school, two torn ACLs in college and six maddening, non-winning seasons with the 49ers before coach Jim Harbaugh arrived. And now Gore prepares to play in the Super Bowl, not ready to retire but San Francisco’s inspirational answer to Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis.
Much as Ravens players want to win for Lewis, so do 49ers players speak of their fervent desire to reward Gore, 29, with a Super Bowl ring. And their respect for him stretches deeper than his production.
Offensive tackle Joe Staley brought up a scene at practice last week.
“The offensive line was running gassers, and Frank just jumped in with us and ran gassers with us,” Staley said. “He’s always working. You go in the weight room, and he’s always busting his (butt) on the treadmill or the Stairmaster.”
Fullback Bruce Miller mentioned Gore’s blocks.
“He pass protects better than a lot of offensive linemen,” Miller said. “It’s unreal to watch. He’s not the biggest guy, but he plays with great leverage and explosion. His timing is second to none, the way he sizes up guys and just explodes through them.”
Running back Anthony Dixon talked about the time, in a previous season, when he returned to the practice facility for a late-night workout. Dixon figured he needed to put in extra work as a young running back fighting for his spot on the team — and then he came across the starter, now a four-time Pro Bowler.Leads by example
“Frank was walking through the halls, sweating,” Dixon said. “I was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I felt like I was going to get my edge — little did I know Frank was in here thinking the same thing.”
The work ethic and pass blocking say plenty about Gore, because they are not the glamorous aspects of playing running back in the NFL.
“My mom would love to be here right now,” he said. “She knows how much I love playing this sport and how hard I work at it.”
And Lizzie Gore really would savor this part: Her baby doesn’t need to play both ways anymore.