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Two Generations of Gores

Frank Gore Sr. has made a name for himself as one of the most durable running backs in NFL history. Frank Gore Jr. is making a name for himself as a sophomore running back at Southern Miss. The two share a position, a name and a lot more.

One night this past summer, Frank Gore skipped his second workout. In the context of a future-Hall-of-Fame career founded on famously tireless training, this was a behavioral oddity akin to a drone bee taking five from the hive to tan itself atop a tulip. Where offseason mornings were traditionally spent doing agility drills among a large group of fellow NFL running backs who lived in the area, Gore always strove to separate himself from the pack by hitting up a ballfield near his South Florida home for private sessions around sunset. “That’s the secret weapon,” he says. “It’s the one that gets you over the top, gets you that mindset: ‘I know the next man’s not doing this.’ ”

In breaking tradition here, then, the 38-year-old free agent was foremost acknowledging his own football mortality after 16 seasons. No sense busting ass if said ass would soon be couch-bound in retirement. But his choice to stay behind was also a calculated test of sorts, one made with the future of his training partner—the first player whom Gore ever allowed to shuffle through ladders and shove weighted sleds next to him at those secret second workouts—in mind. The results, Gore would say later, filled him with paternal pride: Presented with an excuse to have an evening off, Frank Gore Jr. stiff-armed the easy out, headed back to the park off South Flamingo Road and ran cones solo. 

“That’s when I knew,” Frank Gore Sr. says, “he understands what it takes to be successful.”

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On one level, the younger Frank Gore gets along with his famous dad in ways that are surely familiar to plenty of families. For instance: Now a 19-year-old sophomore at Southern Miss, off in the land of unlimited meal plans and 1 a.m. pizza, Frank Jr. is constantly getting texts from Frank Sr. about practicing healthy eating habits. And: Their mutual competitiveness bubbles up everywhere from questionably refereed pickup basketball battles—“He cheats,” Junior says. “If he misses a shot, it’s a foul”—to fierce debates about who was better on the gridiron as a teen. (“It wasn’t close,” Senior says. “I could’ve went to the league coming out of high school, bro.”)

Then again, how many kids can claim to have received a sideline view of what Frank the Tank has accomplished, scoring touchdowns in three separate decades and ranking third all-time in carries (3,735) and total yards (16,000) and first among running backs in games (241)? As a result, Frank Jr. has become far more than a factoid invoked on social media to make certain generations feel old. Last season he led the Golden Eagles with 708 rushing yards and tied for the national lead in broken tackles per attempt. This fall, after making a pair of national awards watch lists, the speedster is averaging 91 yards through three games heading into Saturday’s primetime road meeting with No. 1 Alabama.

Given that Frank Sr. remains unsigned through Week 2, while reportedly dividing his time between football training and boxing lessons, it seems unlikely that the Gores will ever become the first father-son duo to play in the NFL together. (“Hopefully he balls [at Southern Miss] this year, balls next year,” Frank Sr. says. “I don’t know if I could wait that long, man.”) This current moment, however, provides a snapshot of their overlapping journeys—a father on his way out and a son on his way up, taking the mantle in what together they call, simply, “business.” 

For no matter where Frank Jr. goes from here, whether to enduring success at the next level or down another path, he will carry the lessons he has learned from Frank Sr. as closely and tightly as he cradles a handoff. As Frank Jr. puts it, describing the depths of their relationship: 

“He’s my dad, my mentor, my trainer, my best friend, my everything all in one.”

Gore Sr. rushed for more than 1,000 yards eight times during his 10 seasons in San Francisco.

Gore Sr. rushed for more than 1,000 yards eight times during his 10 seasons in San Francisco.

Down! Set! Hut!

The three words triggered a party trick. A pretty good one, too. The grownups would be chatting around the dinner table when Frank Sr. would suddenly bark like a quarterback under center, at which point baby Frank Jr., then barely old enough to walk, would crouch into a two-point stance and wait for the snap before bursting forward to take an invisible handoff from his dad and rumble for an imaginary first down. “Everyone thought it was so funny,” Frank Jr. says.

Frank Jr. was born in March 2002, two months after Frank Sr. won a national title as a freshman at Miami, and from an early age it was clear that he would follow in his namesake’s cleat marks. By age 3 he was joining his older cousins for pickup in the front yard, almost always losing but never crying. He first suited up for an organized season at 4, and three years later scored seven touchdowns in a game with the Coral Gables Panthers—four on offense, three on defense. 

Aside from teaching the fundamentals of how to throw, catch and, of course, receive a handoff, Frank Sr. mostly took a backseat in his son’s early education on the field. “I let him be a kid,” he says. “Just because I love playing ball, I don’t want to make them feel like they have to do it, you know?” Even so, as Frank Sr. climbed the ladder, overcoming two torn ACLs in college to go in the third round to the 49ers in 2005, Frank Jr. was paying close attention. “We’d play away, I’d come home, and he’s asking me questions about the game,” Frank Sr. says.

Later on, when Frank Jr. would visit his dad during the Niners’ season—growing up he lived in Miami with his mother, Shasta Smith, who is separated from Gore Sr.—he never wanted to bop around the players’ lounge or hop in the whirlpool tub. “I was strictly watching practice,” Frank Jr. says with a laugh. “I was locked in.” Never starstruck, not even around Michael Crabtree, his favorite player aside from his dad, young Frank Jr. and his sharp mind created the opposite problem. 

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“I had to make sure he don’t say nothing crazy about other players, like, ‘He sucks,’ this and that,” Frank Sr. says. “Golly, he was so smart. I had to keep him close to me.” 

Together they shared the highs and lows of a football life. In Frank Sr.’s ​​fondest memory, 9-year-old Frank Jr. is perched on his lap for a postgame interview after the Niners beat the Falcons in the 2012 NFC championship thanks to two Gore touchdowns. “How happy he was up there, and also in the locker room celebrating …,” Frank Sr. says, trailing off. In Frank Jr.’s most vivid one, he and half-brothers Ricardo and Demetrius are bawling after San Francisco’s subsequent loss to the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. “My spirit was crushed,” Frank Jr. says. 

But he was also inspired, a goal lodging itself in his mind as the Niners made their run. “I knew what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be like, and what it would take,” Frank Jr. says. The only problem: For the first 13 seasons of Frank Sr.’s career—10 with the Niners and three with the Colts—he was an absentee football dad, unable to watch his son grow . “Me playing so long, man, I missed a lot of Pop Warner games,” he says. Then, in March 2018, Gore signed a one-year deal with the Dolphins, bringing him back home for the first time as a pro. “That was the best time, the happiest time, because I had a chance to see [Frank Jr.] play live,” he says.

Until that point Frank Sr. could only keep tabs on his son from afar, but he was impressed enough by what he heard—in particular how Frank Jr. had grabbed a role as a sophomore at Killian High School in late 2017—to make a major call. “When I used to get clips and stuff, I saw how he was dominating toward the end of the season,” Frank Sr. says. “They had older guys at the position, but the last four, five games the coach was like, I’m finna play this motherf---er. And that’s when I said, ‘Now it’s time, I’ve got to grab him and show him what it takes.’ ”

So it was that Frank Jr. was welcomed into the family business, rising each morning at 6 a.m. to train with LeSean McCoy, Devan Singletary and other notable NFL names. “I wanted him to be around those guys to let him know he ain’t nothing,” Frank Sr. says. “I’d tell him, ‘Keep doing this, you can be better than the guys you’re next to right now.’ ” Lifting weights came next on the daily agenda, followed by that all-important night workout. “I didn’t have to still do two-a-days when I got f---ing 14,000 yards,” Frank Sr. says. “I could’ve took the easy road, collect a check, mentor a young guy. Nah. If I say I’m going, I’m going. That’s what I wanted him to see.”

The results were evident in late summer 2018, when Frank Sr. was able to watch one of Frank Jr.’s games from the stands for the first time since peewee football. “I was so nervous, like I was about to play,” Frank Sr. says. Until that point, Frank Sr. had only video clips, summer workouts, and the word of coaches to speak to his son’s potential. “I had people saying, ‘Your son can play,’ ” he says. “I’m thinking, ‘They’re probably just saying that because I’m the dad.’ ” Any skepticism evaporated when Frank Jr., then a junior, ripped off a big run on his opening carry against North Miami Beach. 

“Then I’m like, ‘O.K., O.K., he got it,’ ” Frank Sr. recalls.

Gore Sr. and Gore Jr. in 2013 after the 49ers won the NFC championship game.

Gore Sr. and Gore Jr. in 2013 after the 49ers won the NFC championship game.

Will Hall noticed the waterworks out of the corner of his eye. It was early September, two days after Southern Miss coughed up four turnovers in its season-opening loss to South Alabama, and the Golden Eagles’ coach was about to deliver the postmortem when a few redshirting freshmen entered the room, joking around. This caught the attention of the sophomore seated in the front row, closest to the door, and as the meeting began Frank Gore Jr.’s frustrations boiled over. “He was in tears,” Hall says. “Later I called him over to me and asked what was going on. And he said, ‘We’ve got some guys in here that don’t care like they need to care.’ ”

Frank Jr.’s dedication manifests in myriad ways. During practice he zips around like a stir-crazy kid at recess, sneaking in ball security drills on the side or bringing water bottles to offensive linemen between reps; afterward he often bolts to the office of running backs coach Jordy Joseph to break down film before Joseph so much as returns from the field. Junior will mark his presence with a note: GEEZIE WAS HERE. “He’s into pass protections, into the routes, likes to know why we call the run schemes, what our checks are,” Hall says. “He’s a football junkie, man.”

Frank Gore Jr. rips off a run against Troy in his season opener.

Frank Gore Jr. rips off a run against Troy in his season opener.

No doubt Frank Jr. gets his intensity from Frank Sr.—and some other traits, too. “We’re very similar; I’m just bigger,” says Frank Sr., who is an inch taller (5' 9" to 5' 8") and 17 pounds heavier (212 to 195). “He’s got very great feet, great eyes.” As runners, their biggest stylistic difference lies in what Frank Sr. calls the “shiftiness” of Frank Jr., who doubled as a quarterback throughout high school. But the latter also has no qualms about running Power through the A-gap, the bullheaded play that defines his dad’s legacy. “I’m getting better [at it] every day,” he says.

Frank Jr. is ready to write his own story. He continues to rise at 6 a.m., even when the Golden Eagles aren’t practicing that morning. “I don’t get no rest,” he says, “but it all shaped me into the person I am today.” Asked if he can match Frank Sr. in intensity and endurance when they train together, he exclaims, “Of course! Can he keep up with me?” And when both reached the end zone on the same weekend last November, Frank Sr. for the Jets and Frank Jr. against UTSA, the college freshman still earned household bragging rights, as it was his second touchdown of the season—and only Frank Sr.’s first.

But the education never stops. Two weekends ago, Frank Sr. was on campus in Hattiesburg, Miss., when the Golden Eagles walloped Grambling State, 37–0, and Frank Jr. amassed 162 yards on 21 carries, including a 51-yard score halfway through the third quarter. Afterward, Hall recalls, Frank Sr. walked into the postgame press conference and teased Frank Jr., “What’d it take you so long to break a big one for?” The next morning, the two Gores met at the team facility and broke down the film together, Frank Sr. offering tips on Frank Jr.’s running angles.

In addition to boxing promoters, a handful of NFL teams have called Frank Sr. to express interest in his services over recent weeks, he says. But he is making up for lost time as a father, coaching his 5- and 11-year-olds in youth football, and traveling to Wisconsin to visit son Ricardo Hallman, a freshman cornerback for the Badgers and Frank Jr.’s half-brother. He’s happier being a dad than he would be grinding away for a roster spot

“I still can play,” Frank Sr. says. “It’s on me, man. I’m enjoying my kids.”

For Frank Jr., this love manifests in a dozen or so daily texts from his dad in a family thread. Many deal with the particulars of his McDonald’s-heavy diet—“He don’t have specific foods of what I should eat, but he does for what I shouldn’t eat”—but he also gets Bible verses, reminders to thank the servers at the team cafeteria, and more than enough motivation to fuel his football future. “Your journey is that you’ve got to overcome all the naysayers saying you’re too small,” Frank Sr. recalls telling him. “That’s what you got to keep you hungry.”

Despite his dad’s forecast—despite the steep odds—Frank Jr. doesn’t outright dismiss the dream of two generations of Gores appearing in the NFL together. How could he with how hard he has seen the Tank toil over the years? “That would be a blessing,” Frank Jr. says. “Hopefully we play against each other, and I come out on top. He’s not going to hear the end of it.”

And if the elder Frank Gore wins?

“I won’t talk to him for a long, long time. Probably until the next summer.”

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