Gore overcomes tragedy, challenges to lead 49ers to Super Bowl

Gore explains how he has remained so durable

Gore overcomes tragedy, challenges to lead 49ers to Super Bowl
January 28, 2013, 8:00 am
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Frank Gore’s 90 yards in the NFC championship game and two touchdowns contributed heavily to San Francisco advancing to the Super Bowl.

NEW ORLEANS -- He overcame challenges in the classroom. He sustained two significant knee injuries in college that could have easily derailed his career.

And for six NFL seasons, he was a star player on bad football teams.

Running back Frank Gore never accepted losing, and he never even tried to hide his emotions.

But his most painful moment came before a 49ers game against the St. Louis Rams on Sept. 16, 2007, as he awaited a phone call that would never come. Earlier that week, his mother, Liz, died from kidney disease. She was 46.

"She used to call me at a certain time before every game," Gore said. "When that happened, that day, when that time came and I didn't get the call, I just busted out and cried and cried and cried."

Gore scored two touchdowns that game, including a 43-yard run late in the third quarter, as the 49ers came away with a 17-16 victory.

"I had a pretty good game that day," Gore said. "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."

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Gore is a four-time Pro Bowl running back who 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said should some day be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It does not hurt that Gore is now playing for a winning team after six years of non-playoff frustration.

He has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in six of the past seven seasons. The only only time after his rookie season that Gore fell short was when he gained 853 yards in 11 games before sustaining a season-ending fractured hip in 2010.

Gore is the 49ers' all-time leader in rushing yards (8,839) and touchdowns (51). And, now, he will deservedly play on the game's biggest stage.

He scored two second-half touchdowns against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game to propel the 49ers to a 28-24 victory and a trip to Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

"I always knew we had the talent," Gore said. "I knew we had the guys to do it, like Patrick (Willis), Vernon (Davis), Justin Smith, (Michael) Crabtree. The list can go on. We had the guys. I don't think we had the right people in front of us to lead us the right way."

Gore always had the right person to lead him. Liz Gore worked tirelessly to support Gore, his brother and sister in one of the roughest neighborhoods of Miami. She would take the bus to watch his football games at Coral Gables High.

Gore played on the varsity team as a sophomore and his skill and passion for the sport were undeniable. But a learning disability, affecting his comprehension of written material, appeared to be an insurmountable obstacle.

He was enrolled in special-education classes in English and math during his first two years of high school. If Gore did not make up credits from the two years of regular classes he missed, he would not qualify for college.

"When he realized he was that far behind, Frank told me, 'I don't know if I can make up all this work,'" his coach, Joe Montoya, said in a 2006 interview. "I said, 'Yes, you can. You just have to take it one thing at a time.'"

Gore knew his football dreams would likely come to an end if he could not make up all the work in the class room. So Gore attended night school and summer classes the next two years. There were times he came to football practice late or left early to work with a tutor. And when there was a conflict with his studies, Gore skipped practice altogether.

Through it all, Gore was also dealing with additional stress at home. His mother was diagnosed with kidney disease and started dialysis treatments.

"He went through a lot and you could tell that it bothered him at times," Montoya said. "But his way out of everything would be to go to the field and just play and practice. That's how he dealt with it."

Gore rushed for 2,953 yards and 34 touchdowns as a senior. He qualified academically for college and decided on the University of Miami, so he could remain close to his mother.

While at Miami, Gore was met with more adversity. He sustained a tear to the ACL in his right knee in the spring of 2002. A year later, he tore his left ACL. He left college for the NFL in 2005, and was mostly viewed as damaged goods.

In fact, then-49ers personnel chief Scot McCloughan was criticized for selecting Gore with the first pick of the third round. One Sports Illustrated reporter called Gore the most overrated running back in the draft.

But McCloughan had closely followed Gore since his freshman season. When the 49ers' medical staff gave Gore a passing medical grade, McCloughan made the selection.

"He's going to do everything in his power to make himself a great player," McCloughan said early in Gore's career with the 49ers. "If you take football away from him, you take his life away. He's overcome a lot. He's God-given as a runner. He has balance and vision. He's a very unique back."

He also has unique football intellect. Former coach Mike Nolan regularly spoke with Gore to get his input on the 49ers' roster. General manager Trent Baalke had Gore watch film college running backs, including LaMichael James, prior to last year's draft.

Gore can also be seen regularly discussing in-game strategy with coach Jim Harbaugh on the sideline.

"He's one of the most gifted, knowledgeable and intelligent football players that I've been around, really at any position," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "He just has a feel and an understanding for the game. It's funny, when you install something or put something new in, he can just see it. It's pretty impressive.

"I always tell Frank, 'Man, when you're done playing, come find me or I'll find you,' because he is a guy that I love working with as a player and I'm sure I would love working with as a coach."

But there is plenty for Gore to still accomplish as a player. He turns 30 in May, and he continues to play at a remarkably consistent level.

After rushing for 119 yards in a playoff victory over the Green Bay Packers, Gore said to a reporter, "I looked fast, didn't I?"

He is not slowing down. And the memory of his mother is providing inspiration as he speeds toward the ultimate goal for any football player.

"I miss her and I love her," Gore said. "And I know she's happy for her son, who went through so much coming up high school, college and NFL, and to finally get an opportunity to play in the big game."