Frank Gore has a way of making you question football assumptions. He has a way of shrugging while shattering barriers. He has a way of turning the question of legacy around and making you think about the ending first instead of the beginning.
Because he's doing something so exceedingly rare for a running back. At 33 years old, the Indianapolis Colts backfield anchor keeps leaping age hurdles and pushing long past the usual expiry date for careers at his position.
He's doing it quietly, because away from the field, away from the gym and away from the boxing ring (yes, the boxing ring), that's the first impression you get of Gore.
Which is partly why speaking with him feels like a quest to unlock a mystery that begins with large questions.
How is it possible he's on pace for his ninth 1,000-plus-yard rushing season at an age when most running backs have long eased into their post-career rocking chairs? How has he reached that plateau repeatedly while taking 250-plus carries in seven of his 11 NFL seasons? And most remarkably, how has he not crumbled yet and instead logged five straight 16-game years?
There's another automatic question you ask Gore in the search to find out exactly what's made his inner motor run so hot for so long. It's a question that spills out with his age looming large as you look at two lists.
The first one is the list of all-time rushing leaders. Gore currently sits ninth on that list, and he'll easily leap Tony Dorsett for eighth in 2016. He has one more year in 2017 left on his Colts contract, and if the kid from Coconut Grove, Florida, keeps breaking the laws of football, breaking the top five is within reach.
|NFL Top 10 All-Time Rushing Leaders|
|Running Back||Rushing Yards|
The second list is the one to really focus on with Gore, as it zooms in on a specific period of time. It highlights the post-30 age period when running backs are either firmly in their decline phase or just gone entirely.
Gore's production after the age of 30 isn't just rare. No, it's borderline historic and something we've only seen several times before.
|Most All-Time Post-30 Rushing Yards|
|Running Back||Rushing Yards|
Barring injury, he should easily move up two spots on that list by the end of 2016, again putting the top five within reach there.
So you look at those two lists and then essentially ask Gore this question: What gives?
Those in his past—from his high school coach at Coral Gables, to his offensive coordinator with the Miami Hurricanes and an offensive lineman who blocked in front of him in San Francisco—all echoed the same tune. They said Gore's work ethic reached freak status long, long ago. He's always been that way.
"When I was in San Francisco, we had something called the breakfast club, and it was the guys who would come in and lift at 6 a.m.," said Alex Boone, a former 49ers guard who played with Gore for five seasons. "Probably about six or seven of us would come in every day, and Frank was just finishing his lift when we got in there at 6 a.m."
That's the only version of Gore anyone has ever known. What made him that way?
"A love of the game and the things I went through in life," Gore said.
The first part of that answer is obvious. The second part is where Gore's story begins.
Frank Gore Is a Determined Fighter
Gore's mother passed away in 2007 after a long battle with kidney disease.
It was her strength while also raising a family as a single mother that ignited the fire deep within Gore. She was the rock at the center of a crowded and small home.
"I saw my mom fight when she was on dialysis and had 11 or 12 kids in a one-bedroom apartment," he said. Of those kids, four were her own. But she also had the generosity and kindness to open her doors to other kids who needed a place to stay.
His mother was on dialysis throughout most of Gore's time at Coral Gables High School. He had to mature quickly to help his mom through those tough times. And he did.
"I had to be mature as a kid with my mom as a single parent and struggling to take care of her kids, and my dad wasn't in my life. I had to grow up fast," he said
Football then became a passion, a distraction and a way forward.
Gore developed a love for football at a young age, and that continues today. But there was an obstacle standing in the way of pursuing his gridiron dreams.
He had to adapt in the classroom at school because of a learning disability. Gore wasn't failing academically, but he was on track for a special diploma that wouldn't have qualified him for his dream of playing college football.
"He wasn't ready for the academic challenges at first," said Joe Montoya, Gore's high school football coach at Coral Gables. "Once I spoke to him and convinced him of what I can do to help him get into college, he just said, 'OK, Coach.'"
"So from there, with my coaching staff, the administration and the athletic director, we came up with a plan to get him out of the special diploma and into the regular diploma."
For two years, Gore then dug into his textbooks the same way he now devours playbooks. He logged extra tutoring time after school and even sacrificed some football practice time. Gore also did special one-on-one work for his SAT prep.
And he did it all while smashing Dade County records, rushing for an incredible 2,953 yards in 2000, his senior year.
Montoya now speaks glowingly about Gore, just as everyone does. But his reflections are a little different.
He thinks back to a time when the school would help Gore in every respect, including arranging rides to the hospital to see his mom. And he can recall a young man with a dream who Montoya now says was one of the most mature 16-year-olds he's ever met.
That maturity is clear to see in the video above. It shows a kid who has a goal and was aspiring to great football heights. That's ordinary for many high school stars.
But it also shows a teenager who was well aware of both the hurdle standing in front of him and the work he had to put in to overcome it. That's extraordinary.
"I told him I knew how to get him there as long as he did his part," Montoya said of Gore's classroom work. "He immediately said that wasn't a problem. He was ready."
The seeds for the Gore you see today—the running back who's quiet yet powerful, and feared but greatly respected—were planted in those days. His determination grew further when he tore both of his ACLs while playing for the Miami Hurricanes—injuries that would have crushed many young men both mentally and physically.
But Gore kept going. He pushed himself to recover and rise again.
We can point to the multiple lengthy knee recoveries he went through as the shining example of Gore's desire to outwork and outlast. Or we can do the same with his dedication in the classroom to even make college football possible.
Either works, but over the past few years, there's been another example of Gore's limitless work ethic to still keep chugging during what should be his running back golden years. He's a boxer now, too.
Frank Gore Is a Boxer
A hill sits about a half-hour drive south of San Francisco. It's in the Edgewood Park and Natural Preserve. You know, the one Jerry Rice made famous.
Gore didn't just run up and reach the mountaintop one day a few years ago during his offseason training. He did it with boxing gloves on, and every time he had to stop for a breather, his boxing trainer Brian Schwartz made him keep moving, hopping and boxing.
Then they hit the pads again at the top, with Gore letting loose a flurry of jabs before sprinting back down after several rounds.
"If you ask him now, he'll curse that hill," said Schwartz, the founder and owner of Undisputed Boxing Gym.
I did ask him, and Gore did laugh while also using some adult language. But he knows now what he maybe didn't at first: An unusual offseason training method has pushed his career that much further.
Gore has been training with Schwartz for five years, and that hill run took place during their first offseason together. It may have been among the most daunting tests Schwartz has put him through, but plenty of sweat has dripped to the floor of his gym.
Here's an example of a typical grueling offseason day for Gore when he was with the 49ers. He took part in the 49ers' weight training in the morning, then suited up for afternoon practice. After that, in the evening, he'd meet Schwartz at 8 p.m. in his gym, where he'd be put through boxing and agility workouts.
"He'd go practice with the team and then be with me that same night," Schwartz said. "And the workouts were hard. He didn't want to take any breaks. His work ethic is like nothing I've ever seen."
Gore started that routine during the 2012 offseason when he was 29 years old. That's the age when we assume a running back is wearing down or at best reaching the end of his peak.
Yet there was Gore running up hills in his boxing gear and logging two to three hours every day from June onward sparring under Schwartz's direction.
Gore said the quick but highly intense bursts of energy required in boxing have improved his cardio fitness and helped him to stay fresh in the fourth quarter when others might be gasping for air.
Mostly, though, boxing provides another outlet for him to silence outside voices—the ones that echo through his head, teasing and saying, "You can't do that, old man."
"It helps my mindset," Gore said. "Even though I try not to care or pay attention, I often hear that, 'Oh, he can't do this because he's old.' Well, I'm training and thinking about that, and it makes me go that much harder.
"I've been boxing for a while now, and I probably could fight a little bit if I wanted to."
Schwartz said there's another benefit to Gore's boxing workouts beyond the clear cardio element and the mental boost he gets from conquering the ring.
Boxing isn't nicknamed the sweet science because it's a cool, catchy title. The sport is rooted in angles and manipulating the opponent to find the right opening while also avoiding haymakers coming your way.
Which is why summer hours spent with gloves on have kept Gore's vision sharp, enhancing his ability to anticipate movement.
"Frank has incredible vision, and that's contributed to his longevity in football," Schwartz said. "He doesn't take many shots flush on. He's hitting those little tiny holes, and if you're getting him, you'll wrap up, but you'll rarely get a full lick on him. That's the same with good boxers. They're always moving and looking for those little holes. They have great vision.
"If you watch guys like Floyd Mayweather, they're masters of distance and angles. And that's the same approach Frank has with football. I kind of feel like he's the Floyd Mayweather of football."
We often concentrate solely on the physical aspects of football, which is understandable, because it's a brutal and punishing game. Gore has been blessed with plenty of physical gifts that he's worked tirelessly to maintain.
What truly sets him apart, though, can't be built up in any weight room or maintained through sweat equity. That's because Gore's greatest gift might be his football mind.
Frank Gore Is a Football Savant
During lunch hour, most high school kids in the 90s would be listening to jams on their wicked-awesome Discmans. Gore used another source of now-dated technology for his entertainment: the VCR, to watch game film with Montoya.
"We'd talk about the next game and what he needed to do," Montoya said. "He'd love to be in that office during coaches' meetings to listen and to watch what the blocking schemes would be for the next game. He was more into that than anything else."
"He'd spend more time in our office than out in the hallways with the kids."
A natural curiosity about the intricacies of football had the game hovering in Gore's young mind constantly then. That continued throughout his time with the Miami Hurricanes.
"On the field, we had a lot of different run checks I had to teach the quarterback, and he knew all of them," said Dan Werner, the offensive coordinator during most of Gore's time in Miami. "Usually a tailback just sort of stands back there, and the quarterback will say, 'Hey, we're checking to this.' But Frank knew every check and sometimes would even have to correct the quarterback."
Matt Maiocco, who has been covering the 49ers for 22 years and most recently for CSN Bay Area since 2010, called Gore a "football savant" because his knowledge goes so deep. He functions as a living and breathing playbook, and is capable of deciphering the game quickly.
He craves feedback, and heard plenty from his coaches and teammates. But oftentimes, he'd seek a different source.
"My favorite memories of him are when he's alone in a quiet locker room during the middle of the week, and he'd call me over," said Maiocco. "Then he'd say, 'Hey man, how do you think I'm playing? What do you think is wrong with the run game? What do we need to do to get better? What running backs around the league have you been impressed with?' It was always stuff like that, and he wanted to pick your brain.
"He was always curious about other people's views and wanted to spark a conversation. It was neat, because he's very inquisitive. He wanted to get the view of an outsider."
Gore takes everything he hears, watches and studies, and then translates it into a nearly unparalleled feel for space and the flow of a play. That football intellect has separated him over the years and led to his standing as a top-10 rusher.
"I remember a few times we were trying to reach guys and set up blocks, and he would make it look like we were doing it so well, and we really weren't," Boone said. "You'd watch the film after and think, 'Man, I had such a struggle with that guy,' but there comes Frank making me look just so good at what I'm doing. I don't know how he does it, but somehow I actually look like a real football player right there."
That high football IQ can't accurately be quantified to fit neatly into Gore's Hall of Fame resume. But let's be clear: Gore's career journey—whenever he finally stops beating time—needs to go from Coconut Grove to Canton.
Frank Gore Is a Hall of Famer
Nearly every running back who's recorded 12,000-plus rushing yards has been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Go ahead and take the wider view on the list highlighted above. If we make the safe assumption that LaDainian Tomlinson is set to be honored one day soon—and likely in August 2017—then only one other inactive player among the top 15 will be left excluded from Canton (Edgerrin James).
Maiocco was just placed on the 48-person Hall of Fame selection committee. He's already thinking about his speech advocating for Gore.
"In six or seven years, I'll have to give an argument for Frank Gore in front of that group, and believe me—that's something I'm really looking forward to doing," he said. "I can't give a higher recommendation for a guy to be a Hall of Famer than Frank Gore."
"He's been the absolute model of consistency even at a time when everyone would have expected him to fall off."
Gore's case is boosted by a vital but often overlooked skill every well-rounded running back needs. He's one of the most effective and willing pass-blockers you could ever ask for in the backfield.
"He's one of the best I've been around," said Shaun Hill, who Gore was tasked with protecting during the quarterback's three years in San Francisco. "He's very physical and plays with great leverage. More times than not, he won, and he won big. He'd put a lot of guys on their back. It was impressive to see and to play with him. Then you'd turn on the film and be amazed again."
Anthony Dixon agrees after being Gore's backfield teammate for four seasons. Or in this case, his younger pass-blocking student:
The only argument you could possibly make against Gore's Hall of Fame induction is a feeble one.
It would be centered around the reality that he hasn't had many truly booming seasons. During his second NFL season and first as the full-time starter, Gore exploded for 1,695 rushing yards and 2,180 yards from scrimmage. But he hasn't reached the 1,300-yard rushing or 1,600-yard total plateau since.
That argument fades quickly, though, when it's trumped by Gore's consistency, which in turn has been powered by his absurd durability. He's never been limited to a single-digit game total in any season. At the ages of 30 and 31, he posted two more 1,000-plus-yard years (1,128 in 2013 and 1,106 in 2014), giving him eight total in his career. Then he came just short during his age-32 year (967 yards in 2015).
Now, in 2016, Gore is still moving along just fine through 10 games at the age of 33. He has scored seven touchdowns and is averaging 84.3 yards from scrimmage per game. And he could be the first running back who's 33 or older to hit the 1,000-yard mark on the ground since 1984, according to Kevin Bowen from Colts.com.
He doesn't really acknowledge age. It's not as if he's hiding from the number of candles on his birthday cake. But in football terms, that number doesn't register mentally. And why would it? He's blinded by a deep passion, so Gore just keeps preparing, working, boxing, running and studying. Then he does it all again the next day or the next offseason.
"I'm healthy, and I'm training the same way in the offseason with younger guys who are keeping me honest," Gore said. "They're pushing me, and I'm competing against them and still look good. And I still love it. So why not go out there and have fun, and put it in your head that you're a young guy, and I'm still 22 or 23? Why not?"
Why not indeed.
That statement is the essence of Gore. He pushes himself to look, feel and play like a much younger running back because of his love for the game. But also because he doesn't know any other way to approach his profession.
That's the core fabric of Gore as a person. He learned his work ethic from a caring and giving mother, even during difficult times. That carried over to the classroom, and to his rehabbing after injuries that could have derailed an NFL career. And he kept digging throughout a lot of losing seasons in San Francisco.
It all adds up to both the Frank Gore story and why his story keeps going.
"I saw Frank work every single day," Boone said. "Not a day went by when he wasn't working his ass off. I remember he told me the only reason he was good and the only reason he's in this league is because he worked his ass off.
"He said it's going to pay off someday. And he was right."
All quotes obtained firsthand by the author.