What Gore accomplished in his No. 21 jersey was simply unforeseen 10 years ago, when the 49ers used a third-round draft pick (65th overall) on a University of Miami running back whose knees each had overcome torn anterior cruciate ligaments.
Gore’s 11,073 rushing yards are the most ever by a 49er and 20th among the NFL’s all-time greats.
But statistics never truly defined Gore’s impact on the 49ers — or what he’ll bring to the Indianapolis Colts, who signed him Tuesday in his first-ever foray into free agency. Gore received $8.5 million guaranteed, ESPN reported.
Packed inside his 5-foot-9 frame is a passion for the sport, love of the game and PhD-level knowledge. That was never more on display than a 2007 trip to St. Louis, where he ran for 81 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 2 win. Earlier that week, his mother, Liz, died from kidney disease. She was 46.
Gore, who turns 32 on May 14, has been the mainstay of the 49ers offense and soul of the team since 2006.
As Gore heads to a new team, so continues his quest for a new end to a season, one with a Super Bowl championship. “That’s why we’re here, why we do this, why we play NFL ball, why you play team sports – to be a champion,” Gore said in December. “I want to be a champion.”
The 49ers did not produce a winning record or playoff berth in his first six seasons, going 37-59. Since 2011, the 49ers have gone 35-19-1 in regular-season action, with trips to the three straight NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl before this season’s sour, 8-8 finish.
Gore’s departure is not unexpected, nor was Jerry Rice’s when the 49ers’ greatest receiver was shown the door in 2001, when bitter feelings also were masked by talk of a business-oriented divorce.
The 49ers repeatedly said over the past couple months they wanted Gore to return, and he verbally reciprocated that desire, at least until he got his first-ever taste of free agency.
Gore’s legacy casts an enormous shadow for his immediate successor, which figures to be Carlos Hyde, who ran for 333 yards and four touchdowns as a second-round draft pick last year out of Ohio State.
“He’s still one of those rare backs that can find the smallest hole to get through,” wide receiver Anquan Boldin said last summer. “Out of all the guys I’ve played with, he’s that guy, running between the tackles. I haven’t seen anybody like him.”
For a franchise that’s produced Hall of Fame rushers in Hugh McElhenny and Joe Perry (and perhaps someday Roger Craig), Gore ran for more than any of them. His name also tops the 49ers’ rushing charts for carries (2,442), touchdowns (64), 100-yard games (39) and 1,000-yard seasons (eight).
Arguably no running back in NFL history blocked as well in pass protection as consistently and for so long. That will be overlooked by many but should not be, especially when the time comes for his Pro Football Hall of Fame candidacy.
Gore was instrumental in clinching his lone Super Bowl trip, rushing for a pair of second-half touchdowns in the NFC Championship win at Atlanta two years ago. He also nearly ran for a potential winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, racing 33 yards to the 7-yard line with 2:39 remaining; he never touched the ball again in the failed comeback attempt.
Once the 49ers got eliminated from playoff contention last December, Gore responded with his most prolific stretch of back-to-back games since that 2006, breakout season. He ran for 158 yards in a Dec. 20 collapse to the San Diego Chargers and then 144 yards in the season-closing win over the Arizona Cardinals.
“I know I can play. You put the tape on and you’ll see,” Gore said prior to that finale. “You can’t judge a guy on how the team plays. You’ve got to watch the tape and see what goes on out there. You go watch the tape and you’ll see I can still play football.”
Each of the past four seasons, Gore has played in every game, starting all but an Oct. 2, 2011 win at Philadelphia, where he came off the bench and rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown to help spark the 49ers’ revival under then-coach Jim Harbaugh.
Gore missed only seven games his 5 ½ seasons (because of groin and ankle injuries) until his 2010 season was halted Nov. 29 with a fractured hip.
Such durability, production and overall leadership resulted in praise and requisite awards. Coaches awarded him the Bill Walsh Award as team MVP in 2006 and 2010, and teammates last season bestowed upon him his first Len Eshmont Award, the 49ers’ most prestigious honor as it represents inspiration and courage.
Gore’s popularity stretched from teammates to fans and the media. Last season, he became the only three-time winner of the Garry Niver Award, given by beat writers to the most professional and cooperative player. Winning that honor last year was quite a feat considering how much he stewed with anger – but didn’t detrimentally vent — over the 49ers’ perilous path out of playoff contention.
“He’s a huge asset. I’m hoping he’s back here,” quarterback Colin Kaepernick said before the season finale. “I feel a lot more comfortable with (No.) 21 in the backfield.”
General manager Trent Baalke acknowledged in December he told Gore he wanted an 11th season out of him. “We can both want each other’s company,” Baalke said then, “but to make that happen, there are hurdles that are going to have to be crossed.”
Gore’s take at the time: “If they want to bring me back, they will. They’ll come to me in a respectful way. We’ll sit down, see what they want me to do. See what my role is and if I like it, I’ll sign. If I don’t, I’ll try to see what other teams think of me.”
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Here is how Frank Gore ranks in the 49ers record book:
Frank Gore (2005-14)…..11,073
Joe Perry (1950-60, 63)…..7,344
Roger Craig (1983-90)…..7,064
Ken Willard (1965-73)….. 5,930
Garrison Hearst (1997-03)…..5,535
100-YARD RUSHING GAMES
Jerry Rice 187
Terrell Owens 83
Frank Gore 76
Roger Craig 66
Ken Willard 61