SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- For obvious reasons, we spent much of the season marveling at the freakish recuperative powers of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who made a serious run at the single-season rushing record despite being less than a year removed from major reconstructive knee surgery. If there were a lifetime award for playing at a high level after overcoming or playing through significant injuries, however, San Francisco running back Frank Gore might win hands down.
He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during spring ball following a solid freshman season at the University of Miami, but was back on the practice field late that fall. The next year he tore the ACL in his right knee, but returned to run for more than 1,000 yards the following season. Since entering the NFL in 2005 as a third-round choice, he has suffered abdominal strains, ankle and shoulder sprains, a hip pointer, a broken hand and bruised ribs, among other things. Yet he has missed an average of just under 1.5 games a season the last seven years.
His resiliency is largely due to genetics and toughness, but there is an ample dose of passion in the recipe. It might not be as public as a Ray Lewis pre-game dance or speech, but it's obvious behind the closed doors of the locker room, where the soft-spoken 5-foot-9, 217-pound veteran has been known to cry at his locker after losses, or on the practice field, where during training camp in 2007 coaches had to hide his helmet because he kept sneaking onto to the practice field despite having a broken hand.
Gore was so upset with what his coaches had done that his emotions fluctuated between anger and disappointment. Never mind that he was the franchise back who had just signed a $28 million extension. His love for the game is deeper than a Langston Hughes poem.
"He was legitimately upset, down on himself, teary-eyed, mad that he's not out here practicing with us," quarterback Alex Smith said at the time.
His passion has not dissipated five seasons later. If anything it's increased, because the 49ers can advance to their first Super Bowl since the 1994 season with a win Sunday in Atlanta. They were in the same position a year ago, but lost in overtime to the visiting Giants. For Gore, the defeat hurt more than any injury he had ever experienced. If the redness in his eyes last January didn't say so, the smile on his face last Saturday after beating the Packers did.
Making that moment sweeter Saturday was Gore's ability to play through injuries. Neither he nor the team would discuss his ailment, but doctors hovered around him in the locker room and led him away for examination shortly after the media were allowed in. He returned later and said he was fine, but with Gore you never know, because he's always there when the 49ers need him.
"It's truly remarkable," says Broncos great Terrell Davis, whose career was cut short by a knee injury. "Guys typically don't come back to be the same player after that type of knee injury, and you definitely don't see many bounce back and have the type of career that Frank is having. When he had his second injury, I'm sure people wrote him off and said his career is over, or maybe he'd be just an average back at the next level. Now he's one of the top three backs in this league."
Gore turned 29 last May, which is typically the age when running backs start slowing down. But this season he ran for 1,214 yards and eight touchdowns, the rushing total the second-most in his career, and the touchdowns tying for second-most. His 8,231 yards rushing over the last seven seasons trail only Peterson (8,849) and Steven Jackson (8,416). To him, age truly is just a number. Against the Packers last week he got stronger as the game progressed, gaining 73 of his 119 yards in the final one-plus quarters.
"I've known Frank since we were little kids in Miami," says Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch. "We played against each other in Little League, high school and college. I have more respect for him now than ever. To tear his ACL in two different legs, to lose his mother to [kidney disease], to face the injuries he's faced as a pro -- he just stays so positive and works so hard. We train together in the offseason, and he goes twice a day. He's just what you'd expect from an All-Pro."
Gore is one of the game's most complete backs, a threat as a runner and a receiver and unflinching as a protector. His football IQ is among the highest on the team, which is a testament to not only him but also position coach Tom Rathman, who got him to see the game as a quarterback does. That was invaluable, because it allowed Gore to recognize the stress points in the defense and to see where the holes and crevices would be before the snap. Not that he needed the advantage.
His vision and balance already make him a monster to bring down. He also runs low behind his pads and has the power and burst to break tackles or slip through small openings. His breakaway speed isn't what it was early in his career, and he has had to learn to be more patient with his reads after the 49ers began using more option-like zone reads with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback instead of Smith. But when it's time to deliver, he's always there.
Part of it stems from conversations he used to have with wideout Isaac Bruce, who spent two years with the Niners before retiring in his mid-30s. "He told me when I hit 28, 29, everyone was going to tell me that I'm supposed to decline," Gore says. "But he always told me, 'Don't ever listen to them. As long as you train hard, put the right stuff in your body, go out there and practice hard, you can do whatever you want to do.' Ever since he told me that, I never listen to the statistics of a running back. I know that from this point on in my career, I'm going to hear that every year, every year. As long as God blesses me in the morning to get up and work hard, I'm going to take advantage of it."
That means seeing a "muscle doctor" and massage therapist on Monday when his body is hurting. It means more therapy on Tuesday or Thursday, if necessary. It means laser therapy to help heal his soft-tissue injuries. And it means a visit with the chiropractor on Friday.
With age comes wisdom, which is why Gore now says he sees his knee injuries in college as a blessing. "I was always a hard worker, but when I was younger I didn't have to put the extra work in like some of the other guys," he says. "I'm happy that God made things happen the way that they happened because I probably would have left school real early, with my mind not right, and been a top-five, top-10 pick, not ready for that. I would have probably been hanging around the wrong guys, who were behind me just because of what I was doing.
"But when things started happening to me [from an injury standpoint] I kind of saw who my real friends were," he continues. "I'm glad God put me through that. It made me even hungrier to get back to something that I love to do. Third-round pick, looking at the other guys who I felt weren't better than me that went before me -- it always gave me something to push toward."
His primary goal used to be finishing with more career rushing yards than the running backs selected ahead of him in 2005: first-round picks Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson and Cadillac Williams, and second-rounders J.J. Arrington and Eric Shelton. He not only has done that -- his 8,839 yards are 2,822 more than Benson -- but his six seasons of at least 1,000 yards rushing are equal to the combined total of the aforementioned five.
"The turnover at that position is so great because there's always somebody younger to take your job, so really it's a remarkable story what Frank has done," says Cardinals guard Adam Snyder, who teamed with Gore from 2005-11. "I can remember being in college and I saw the story on Frank on ESPN. I just remember thinking, 'Wow! What a story.' To have both knees blown out and still be drafted -- and that highly -- for me he's an inspiration, he really is. To just have the drive to keep going, most guys would have probably given up. But he doesn't know what that means. He's incredible."