This Sunday, Frank Gore could be playing his last game as a San Francisco 49er. We take a look back on his journey to the NFL and why he deserves to be mentioned among the franchise's all-time greats.
Eight years later, I can still remember the moment.
It was December 14, 2006 - my birthday - and how did I spend it? I sat alone in the middle of my living room floor, in front of a television, with a death grip on a red and gold scarf as if to will good fortune into it with my bare hands. The Seattle Seahawks were fresh off a Super Bowl berth, defending their division title at then-Qwest Field. They were Goliath.
Meanwhile, their opposition stumbled out of a season that statistics site Football Outsiders deemed as the worst team performance ever recorded, reaching a rarified tier of football mediocrity. The San Francisco 49ers were David, with no chance in hell, no reason to fight, or even try, or even to believe...
But they had a slingshot.
A lone white jersey, emblazoned with a red "21", blasted forward with the momentum of a Mack truck, engulfed in a wave of teal. Maybe you remember it as well as I do. Seahawks clung to his waist; one tried to punch out the ball while another tugged on his carrying arm. A third pulled on his facemask and one more tried to do anything at all. They tripped and fell over one another trying to bring down a single man. It was unreal. Herculean, even. The stuff of legends.
I was so captivated that I didn't even notice my girlfriend walk into the room. She placed her hand over my heart for a brief second to feel a thumping cadence before jolting back with a genuine look of concern in her eyes.
"Are you OK?" she asked. "It's just football."
I had been a lifelong fan up to that point, but until the day I die, I will remember that single play as the moment that I fell in love with football - and the 49ers - and it was all thanks to Frank.
If you're one to read into signs from the universe, you might believe that Frank Gore was never meant to make it as far as he did. Maybe he was never meant to make it at all.
Gore was a standout at Coral Gables High School, shattering several of Miami-Dade County's single-season rushing records. But for as well as he read defenses on the football field, he arrived to Coral Gables as a freshman reading no better than a fourth grade level in the classroom. He was academically stunted by specific learning disabilities - "SLD" for short - which he eventually overcame through a combination of effective counseling and a love of football.
By the end of his high school career, he was named the nation's No. 5 running back prospect by The Miami Herald and could have played for practically any football program in the country - Ohio State and Wisconsin, among others, made offers.
But he forsook any dreams of leaving the Sunshine State when he chose the University of Miami, just a stone's throw away from home. Why? His mother, Liz, who used to catch a bus out to Coral Gables every Friday to watch her son play football, was diagnosed with kidney disease. She underwent dialysis treatment at least three times a week in between working to put food on the table for her three children. Gore chose a school just two miles away so that he could continue to support his mother and siblings while still pursuing gridiron dreams and a college education.
At Miami, he was met with more trials. As a freshman, Gore was tasked with making a name for himself behind Clinton Portis who was already entrenched as the Hurricanes' star running back, and redshirt freshman Willis McGahee. Even on a limited number of carries, Gore rushed for 562 yards, averaging 9.1 yards per carry - the second-best YPC average by any Canes back ever - en route to Miami's historic 2001 campaign that saw the program go undefeated before capturing the National Championship.
Portis declared for the NFL Draft the following year which left a wide-open gap in Miami's backfield. Gore was positioned to start over fellow sophomore standout Willis McGahee, but his opportunity never came to fruition - he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during spring drills. Gore spent the 2002 season in rehabilitation.
Misfortune would rear its ugly head once more just five games into the 2003 season. After rushing for 468 yards on 89 carries - a 5.3 YPC average - and scoring four touchdowns, Gore suffered yet another ACL tear, but this time, in his left knee.
In his junior year, Gore was finally able to finish an entire season healthy, playing in all 12 games at Miami and posting year-end numbers that were...good. But you have to wonder what kind of mark he would have left on the program had he been able to play all three seasons on two healthy knees.
Gore declared for the 2005 NFL Draft following his junior year anyway, knowing his stock was already over the hill. But even considering his knee injuries, Gore had obvious talent. It wasn't a matter of if he would be drafted, but rather how late?
Of course, the 49ers then were in full-blown recovery mode after a miserable 2-14 record earned them the top spot in the draft. Their completely revamped front office, helmed by newly-hired personnel chief Scot McCloughan and head coach Mike Nolan, sought to acquire franchise pieces for the next decade - a fresh start in every phase of the game.
Alex Smith was selected with the first pick to address the passing game. Kevan Barlow was the only true back already on San Francisco's roster, so an addition to the team's depleted backfield was inevitable.
Three running backs were drafted in the first round: Ronnie Brown with the 2nd overall pick, then Cedric Benson with the 4th, and Cadillac Williams with the 5th. J.J. Arrington was drafted in the middle of the second round, and Eric Shelton followed ten picks later.
Finally, in the third round, with the 65th overall pick, Gore was drafted by the 49ers - the sixth running back selected that year.
Of course it's easy to dig up any ol' draft from however many years ago and say who hit and who missed, but looking back at some of the names that came before him, you can't help but laugh at just how absurdly off-the-mark everyone was.
"Just looking at my career from college to here, they wrote me off," Gore told Eric Branch last week. "When Scot McCloughan drafted me, they said he reached on me."
Gore is likely referring to (among others) Sports Illustrated's claim that Gore was the most overrated running back heading into the draft that year.
"And I'm still here, man," Gore said.
His rookie season got off to a modest start as the veteran Barlow was given the lion's share of carries, but it didn't take long for Gore to make a name for himself off the field.
In Week 3, the 49ers hosted the Dallas Cowboys and held a comfortable two-possession lead heading into the fourth quarter. But San Francisco's slapdash defense unraveled, allowing 15 unanswered points before falling to Dallas, 34-31. After the game, Gore walked into the players' parking lot to find his teammates cracking jokes and laughing. Heartbroken, Gore burst into tears, struggling to understand how his team could treat defeat with such levity.
For Gore, football was his life, and winning meant everything, but maybe not for the reasons you might expect. Not for money, or glory, or accolades, but to honor his team and his legacy.
"When they mention my name, they'll mention me as a football player. Not just being a running back. A football player," Gore said. "And my teammates respect me. This organization respects me. My coaches respect me - the way I come to work, practice and play.
"Like I said, if I'm not here next year, I know that I gave it my all here. I know they will say this guy gave our organization his all."
It was only with the unconditional love and support of his mother that Gore was able to become the football player - the man - that he is today.
On September 16, 2007, Gore prepared for a game against the St. Louis Rams. Per tradition, his mother would call him before each game but she never did that day. She succumbed to her kidney disease and passed away earlier that week at the age of 46.
"When that happened, that day, when that time came, and I didn't get the call," Gore later said, "I just busted out and cried and cried and cried."
He scored two touchdowns in the 49ers' 17-16 victory over the Rams.
"I had a pretty good game that day," Gore said. His second score came on a 43-yard burner in the third quarter. "I think she came on the field with me. I had a crazy run. I don't know how I broke all the tackles and scored the winning touchdown."
This is Gore's tenth year in San Francisco, and in those ten years, he has done more than enough to earn the distinction of being one of the franchise's all-time greats. He has been named to five Pro Bowls, captured an NFC rushing title, and is currently the 49ers' all-time rushing leader for yards and touchdowns. Most recently, he became only the 29th player in league history to record 10,000 rushing yards.
But he is still chasing the only thing that he wants the most - a world championship. He came close after San Francisco's miracle 2012 season, but when the clock hit zero, purple and gold confetti rained down inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The inconvenient truth is this: we may very well be seeing Frank Gore's last days as a San Francisco 49er. He knows this. Gore is in the last year of a contract set to expire after this Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals.
General manager Trent Baalke has gone on record as saying the 49ers would gladly welcome him back, but the front office has yet to make a formal offer.
"He understands what he means to this organization," Baalke said. "He would certainly like to be back, and we would certainly like to have him back. Now, whether we can make that a reality or not, time will tell."
Gore's stance, which shouldn't be a surprise to any fan of the team, is reciprocal.
"Hopefully, the 49ers bring me back, and I have a chance to get [a Super Bowl title] with the team that drafted me," Gore said. "If not, hopefully I'll get the opportunity to see what teams have a chance to get something I've always wanted - and that's a ring. But I would love to get it here, though."
Based on statistical accomplishments alone, Gore is undisputedly one of the greatest 49ers of all time. But I believe his character is what truly endears him to the Faithful. He's genuine, humble, and kind-hearted - we all know this. And for a sport that has been so recently marred by criminal behavior, Gore's brand of authentic, sincere compassion is a welcome breath of fresh air. When the fans suffered through the bad times, so did he. When the fans finally saw success, he celebrated with us.
"The fans, they are happy, and I'm happy for them," Gore said in an interview back in 2011, during San Francisco's turnaround season. "There's been some rough years, and they've always been there, and now we're doing something really great for them."
To put it plainly, he actually cares, and we can tell. How many of today's athletes can you say that about with a straight face?
"Basically, this is my home. I was a 21-year-old kid when I first got drafted here," Gore said. "I love the fans. I put my work here. I stamped my name here. The great years, the bad years - you look at all that.
"I would love to come back here. My first option is to be a Niner for life."
Gore has been the face of this franchise for the last decade, so it is a bit of poetic irony that his future with the team is as murky as the general direction of the organization.
Regardless of where he ends up next season, he should not only be remembered, but revered as one of the greatest ever, right next to Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, and other 49er legends.
He deserves nothing less.