CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- It had been 14 years since they shared a national title at the University of Miami, and reconnecting, as it turns out, didn't take much for Frank Gore and Andre Johnson.
"It was really just a phone call," explains Johnson. "Two guys felt the same way about an organization, and they both made a decision to go try and get the job done."
The phone call -- which Gore placed to Johnson -- happened in March, just minutes after the Houston Texans announced they were releasing Johnson, ending his career there as the greatest offensive player in franchise history.
"It didn't really hit me until it was actually put out in the media," Johnson said. "Once that happened, I was just sitting in the house like, man ... what am I going to do? I had never been in that situation before."
Gore, meanwhile, knew exactly what Johnson was going through. Despite 49ers CEO Jed York promising to find a way to bring Gore back for 2015, the team opted to instead let their all-time rushing leader walk away a free agent. When reminded of his final game in San Francisco, Gore's easy-going smile fades.
"I cried coming off the field," he recalls. "They say they want you to be here, they want you to be here forever, they want you to retire [with them]." Gore shakes his head. "In your heart, you really know."
When Gore called Johnson that day, it was not to vent about his current situation. In fact, Gore had nearly made the move to Philadelphia to join head coach Chip Kelly. Kelly's other offseason moves, however -- which included the departures of running back LeSean McCoy, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and quarterback Nick Foles -- made Gore uneasy.
"I know Chip is a great coach, but you have to have the right guys on the field who have the respect in this league. Seeing the pieces moving around, I don't know if I want to do that."
Gore called Johnson again.
"I said man, 'What you going to do?' He said, 'I don't know, it just happened,'" laughs Gore. "He said, 'I got you bro, I'll keep you in the loop.'"
Gore made it easy for Johnson to keep him in the loop -- he kept calling. And calling. And calling.
"The next day he called back again, 'what's up, man? Like, you hear anything?'" Johnson recalls with a laugh. "So, the third time, we talked. I asked him, 'Be honest, what team you think can win a Super Bowl right now?' He said, 'I like the Colts.' So, in my mind when he said that I was like, that's my team."
This summer in Coral Gables, Florida, home to their alma mater, Johnson and Gore worked out together, preparing for the first time in their careers to play for a different team than the one that signed them over a decade ago. Now, teammates once again, they sit together in the Hurricanes' Athletic Hall of Fame room, a place where Johnson has already been inducted as one of the most dominating receivers in the school's history. They are surrounded by photos and mementos of past Miami greats -- Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Reggie Wayne ... the list of future NFL Hall of Famers in that room seems endless, which made for a difficult roster to join as an incoming freshman.
"When I first got [to Miami], I see these big guys I'm like man, I don't know. I think I made the wrong decision in my head," recalls Gore, who almost went to Ole Miss over Miami. His pride in his choice still shows, as he is dressed in a bright orange and green tank top -- U colors -- and zebra striped shorts. "I was like, 'I have to get better.' That helped me as a football player."
Johnson, who's patterned Jordan T-shirt shows off the numerous arm tattoos going up his biceps and down his forearms, agrees. "I had to go through the same thing. You had to earn your stripes, and you were going to be challenged as soon as you walked in the door. When you first go through it you wonder, is it really like this? Am I this far behind? But at the same time, it's just adjusting to that next level of football."
Johnson's willingness to join Gore in Indianapolis goes back further than the national championship season they shared at Miami; their friendship began long before that.
"Our high school teams were rivals, and my mom and his mom went to high school together," explained Johnson. "[My mom] was telling me about this kid, Frank Gore, that plays running back. I just kind of kept up with his career, and what he accomplished ... it was pretty amazing."
Coming out of Dade County, Florida, both players had impressive high school careers. Johnson, coming from Miami Senior High School, was named first-team All-State and All-City, catching 31 passes for 908 yards and 15 touchdowns during his senior season. Gore, two years behind him at Coral Gables Senior High School, set a Dade County record for rushing yardage in a season in 2000 with 2,953 yards and 34 touchdowns. The two earned each other's respect almost immediately.
"He made it look so easy, you know?" recalls Gore of Johnson's high school days. "I just heard around the neighborhood how good of a guy he is and how hard of a worker he was. So, the night we played him, I stood up the whole game, to really see if he was the real deal. He just dominated. He could do [anything] on the field in high school."
Seventeen years after that game in Coral Gables, Gore and Johnson would board a plane to Indianapolis together, in hopes of signing with the Colts. Gore's process went quickly -- signing a three-year, $12 million deal. Johnson's deal didn't go so smoothly.
"I kind of got frustrated with the process," recalls Johnson. "Coach [Chuck Pagano] said, 'I'm not letting you leave until you sign the contract. ... Frank, you can go ahead and take the plane and go back home.'"
"I said no," said Gore. "I'm going to wait right here with him." Gore would wait in an outside hallway at the Colts facility for almost two hours while Johnson and his agent negotiated terms with the team. Finally, Johnson emerged, sporting a Colts baseball cap and a newly signed three-year, $21 million contract. Gore was ecstatic.
"He just took off running down the hall," remembers Johnson. "He jumped on me, gave me a big hug and we were just like, 'Let's go do it.'"
So far? It's been some frustration. The Colts aren't living up to preseason expectations, and both players have had ups and downs. But the two remain optimistic.
They've been around a long time, and it's a long season.
"Whenever you play any team sport you want to win trophies. You want to be known for winning the Super Bowl," explains Gore. "Knowing [Andre], watching him in high school, being at UM and knowing what he did in the NFL, it'd be a real blessing to finish our career with a trophy."