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Frank Gore: What I’ve Learned from Football

The veteran running back closes out his 13th NFL season, and possibly his career, on Sunday. From his youth days in Miami to his combative tenure at the U, and through four surgeries, the future Canton candidate reflects on the lessons the game has taught him over three decades

Frank Gore, the 34-year-old running back for the Indianapolis Colts, will play the last game of his 13th and perhaps final NFL season Sunday, against the Houston Texans in Lucas Oil Stadium.

He has had one of the unlikeliest careers in NFL history, having played the last 12 years with two reconstructed knees and two reconstructed shoulders. A cursory check of NFL history does not find a single player who has had major surgery on both knees and both shoulders and played one game. Since the last of the four surgeries, Gore has played 181.

He has not just played; he has excelled. He is the fifth-leading rusher of all time, with 13,858 yards, some 253 yards behind number-four Curtis Martin. He would like to play one more season in 2018, because he feels good and thinks he can be a model for some young running backs. And because he loves playing football. There’s not a big market for 35-year-old running backs who don’t play special teams, but we’ll see. Whether he or not plays in 2018, Gore is a good candidate for the Hall of Fame down the road. Of the 11 leading rushers of all time, Gore is the only active player. The other 10 are all in enshrined in Canton.

In the snow in Buffalo in Week 14.

In the snow in Buffalo in Week 14.

So, on the verge of what could be the last game of his career, The MMQB asked Gore to share what he’s learned from a life in football: nine years of youth ball in Miami, four years of high school football in Miami, four years at the University of Miami, and 13 years in the NFL with the Niners and Colts. Thirty years of football. Lots of lessons learned, lots of wounds inflicted and suffered, lots of uncertainty about his mental and physical future, and lots of rewards—financial ones, and life ones.

“I know what I signed up for,” Gore told me. “I do not regret anything I’ve done. I never, never wish I did not play this game.”

The early years, in Miami

“My neighborhood, Coconut Grove, we always played in the streets. It was corner against corner. We all had football teams. Different neighborhoods. My first year playing Pop Warner football, my mom had to change my birth certificate because I was too young. I was 5, I think, and you were supposed to be 6. My first time playing running back in a real game, I had eight touchdowns. I always loved football. For so long, I played against the older kids in the neighborhood. They had me really competing. I’d play corner, receiver, running back. I remember one time one of the older kids looked at me when I was playing corner, like it was a threat, and said: ‘You better not get beat.’

“When I got to Coral Gables High, it felt like I was on a different level. You play Pop Warner, and you’re good, and all the top high schools try to get you. So I felt like I was pretty good. I got over 1,000 yards my sophomore year, but my coach got fired. At that time I wasn’t really working hard. I was good, but I didn’t lift weights. This new coach, Joe Montoya, basically called me out in our first team meeting. He didn’t give a s--- what I done to that point. He said, ‘I don’t care what you did before I got here.’ He told the guys things were gonna be different, and they better work hard, or they could get out right now. I felt like he called me out. I was about to leave. But then I met with him. He said, ‘Listen to what I say, and you’ll be a D-1 player.’

“Good lesson. I listened to him. I got stronger and stronger, and I got faster. I was the first one at practice. I had to be first in every sprint. He had me programmed. I got better. My senior year, I rushed for 1,000 yards in my first four games. I wanted to play major-college football. Joe Montoya was really important. When I go back to Miami now, I call him. We have cookouts.”

The college years, at Miami

“I had offers to go to different places. I committed to Ole Miss. I figured they just lost Deuce McAllister, and they needed a back, and I could play right away in the big conference. Eli Manning was the quarterback. We could win there. I loved [the University of] Miami, but they had a lot of backs at the time, and I wanted to play right away.

“That backfield at Miami … Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, Najeh Davenport. [And Jarrett Payton, Chicago high school star and son of Walter.] One day, [Miami wide receivers coach] Curtis Johnson rolled up in front of my house. He challenged me. ‘You scared to compete? You scare of Portis? If you say you’re the best, you have to play with the best.’ That hit me. The night before signing day, I told my mom I didn’t want go to Ole Miss anymore. She didn’t want me to leave anyway. So I signed with Miami. I wanted to prove something to them. I got there and asked the coaches, ‘What do I have to do to play right away?’

“What did I learn at Miami? How to be a football player. There was a big lesson there. You can be talented, but having great talent isn’t enough. You have to work every day or someone will pass you up. Not only am I competing against McGahee, Portis and Najeh, but every day I gotta beat Ed Reed. I gotta beat Sean Taylor. Imagine practicing that first year against Ed Reed [a senior] and Sean Taylor [a freshman] and thinking, ‘I gotta beat those guys.’ You know how tough that was?

Like a Hurricane.

Like a Hurricane.

“My first time going to Miami to train, I was doing agility drills, I feel like I’m a man. I go against the LBs, I get smoked. All I can think is, Man, I must have come to the wrong place! How am I gonna win here? But I was so competitive, I would go home at night and do the drills myself to be ready for the next day. I had to get better, every day. I had to beat Ed Reed.

“At Miami I was up, I was down, I was written off, I had back-to-back [knee] injuries. When I was up, people wanted to be around me. When I was down, nobody’s around.’ What I went through in college made me the kind of worker, the kind of person, I am.

“Sean T? Man. Me and Sean were real close. How it happened was just sad, someone broke in his house. Killed him. [Taylor, then a Pro Bowl NFL safety with Washington, was shot by a burglar in November 2007 and he died from blood loss.] Tough. So tough. Great dude. We came in together. When you know him, he’ll give you the shirt off his back.

“That’s how I tore my first ACL, against Sean T. It was a nine-on-seven [practice drill]. I broke through the line, me and Sean one-on-one. I made a move, planted my leg, Sean collapsed with me, my leg went out. He is one of the best football players I have ever seen, anywhere. I love Sean T.”

The 2005 Draft, and early life in NFL

Fifteen backs went in the top 150 picks of the 2005 draft:

2: Ronnie Brown
4: Cedric Benson
5: Cadillac Williams
44: J.J. Arrington
54: Eric Shelton
65: Frank Gore
73: VernandMorency
77: Ryan Moats
101: Maurice Clarett
109: Marion Barber III
110: Brandon Jacobs
112: CiatrickFaison
127: Alvin Pearman
130: Darren Sproles
142: Damien Nash

Gore had had two ACL surgeries at Miami, in 2002 and 2003. After his first NFL season, 2005 in San Francisco, he had both shoulders operated on. Then he won the starting job in 2006 and set the 49ers’ franchise record with 1,695 rushing yards.

“My first year, my rookie year at the 49ers, I had two labrum tears. Both shoulders. I had a chance to get the surgery before the season or play ball, and I told my coaches that I wanted to play and then get the surgeries. The reason was, when I came out [of college], everybody said I was injury-prone, and I just wanted to show them how tough I was and how much I love the game. That’s what that year was about. I got the surgeries after that first year in San Francisco. Both shoulders.

“After the surgeries, I respected Ronnie Brown, I respected Benson, I respected Cadillac. But I told people, ‘Once I get healthy I WILL NEVER be outrushed by any of those guys. No one in my draft class will ever outrush me again. That second year I proved that.

“How I did that … I don’t know. It’s not me. It’s God. God got me here. God and hard work. Respecting the game. Love, man. Love. Love the game. Love my teammates. Every time I get ready to strap up, show the world today that no one is better.”

The later years

With Jim Harbaugh.

With Jim Harbaugh.

“When [Jim] Harbaugh came to the Niners [in 2011], everything changed. His attitude basically was, We don’t give a F about anyone. Players, we loved that. Scot McCloughan basically built that team [as personnel director/GM for five years, starting in 2005], and it was a team of tough MF-ers. I respect coach Harbaugh a lot. We had a bunch of guys who loved football. Like at Miami.

“[In 2011], we started 2-1 and went to Philly to play the Dream Team. I didn’t even know I’d play that game. I hurt my ankle against Cincinnati [the previous week] and I couldn’t practice. I rehabbed, rehabbed, rehabbed. I went out there to see if I could go before the game. I got in the game, but it was a struggle. Down 17-3 at halftime, I think. Me and Patrick Willis looking around, trying to figure out what would happen. We’re in trouble, man. Coach Harbaugh didn’t think it was trouble. He just said, We gotta make adjustments. We will make adjustments. Strike fast. Change things up. We will win this game. So we went out there, scored right away. I was making some big runs. I made the winning run.”

Gore: 15 carries, 127 yards. His 12-yard touchdown run with 3:00 to play won it, 24-23.

“We go on in ’13 to beat Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game and make the Super Bowl. Best years of my life. I loved that team. Harbaugh, man, straightforward guy. If he thought you were full of s---, he’d tell you, and you’re not going to be on his team.

After the 2014 season, the Niners let their all-time leading rusher go. He has played the last three years with Indianapolis.

“I have loved it here. I miss San Francisco. I never wanted to leave. But I still think I get better as I go. Ask my boy Jack. [Tight end] Jack Doyle. I know what the defense is gonna do, always. I tell Jack. He changes his blocks for me.

“I just want to finish up strong here. Things haven’t gone as well as we hoped. But my plan is to play one more year. I want to play one more. I can help a locker room. I can help a team, just by the way I practice.

“But if this is it, if this is my last year, I want everybody in the NFL to say, ‘He was a football player. Period.’

His advice for those who come after him

“Love the game. Love the game. Perfect your craft, every day. Look at all the guys who everyone says, ‘He’s the best one.’ And be better than they are.

“When I came in the league, I was thinking about the best guys. Not the best guys on my team—the best guys in the league. I was thinking about LT [LaDainian Tomlinson], Marshall Faulk, Portis, Larry Johnson … Thinking about how I wanted my name mentioned with them. What can I do to make that happen?

“This was important to me … My first year [2005], late in the season, we beat the Rams. I had a long run in the fourth quarter to win the game. Marshall came up to me after the game. He said, ‘Keep working hard. You’ll be a special player in the league.’ Man, that was big. Marshall Faulk!

As a rookie in 2005.

As a rookie in 2005.

“I started calling those guys. I wanted to know stuff from them. LT, Faulk, Edge [Edgerrin James]. Now it’s come around. What I am happy about now, young guys at my position—Derrick Henry, after we play the Titans, he comes up to me and says, ‘Damn, I want to train with you, man.’ Even coordinators. They say, You still got it.

“When I was young, I remember [former Niners fullback and coach] Tom Rathman said to me, ‘The only thing you should worry about is your peers’ respect.’ He’s right. If your peers respect you, you’re doing it right.

“No matter what your job is in your life, don’t listen to anyone who says you can’t do something. I can tell you: You can do it.”

On mortality

“I don’t think about it. Like I said, I know what I signed up for. What happens, it was meant for my life. God got me, man. God got me.”

A postscript

Before this season, the Colts hired a new general manager, Chris Ballard. Upon taking the job, Ballard though he would release Gore, a running back with lots of wear and tear who would be turning 34 in 2017. During Super Bowl week, Ballard called Gore to congratulate him on winning the league’s Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award. Ballard recalls the episode:

“Frank picks up the phone in the middle of a party he was attending, and I could feel his passion and love for football. He went on for 10 minutes about how much he wanted to win. So he next day I went to the office and watched all of his carries from 2016 and came to the conclusion that there was absolutely no way I was letting him out of the building.

Through two knee surgeries and two shoulder surgeries, Gore has carved out a career that will merit strong consideration for Canton.

Through two knee surgeries and two shoulder surgeries, Gore has carved out a career that will merit strong consideration for Canton.

“Best decision I made this year. His legacy will live in all his teammates going forward.

“I think the world should know what a gift he has been to football. I don’t know if I have ever been around a player who has impacted me more than Frank. His love and respect for football are what all personnel people strive to acquire when we draft players. There will never be another player like him. In this hard year, Frank has kept me going and kept everything in perspective. He has taught me that no matter how hard it gets, you keep working and respecting the game of football. If he is not a first-ballot Hall of Famer, we need to discontinue how we select.’’

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