NEW ORLEANS — The 49er players, they know, even though some of them weren’t
around at the time. Word like this travels through a team like a hot blaze, stopping those who don’t know in their tracks. No one continues walking, when they are told they must listen to what happened to Frank Gore on Sept. 13, 2007.
Every time before every game the 49ers running back ever played, whether it was for the University of Miami or for San Francisco, Gore would receive a phone call from his mom, Liz.
Liz would do the things that all mothers do. She’d be taking care of her child. She’d wish him good luck, be safe, tell him: I’m thinking of you baby. It was a ritual as predictable and welcome as a sunrise. And Gore would exhale afterwards. His mom was alive.
Liz had been battling kidney disease for years, finally getting a kidney transplant. Gore made it happen, using his signing bonus as a third-round draft choice with the 49ers in 2005. But on that September morning in 2007 the call never came.
“I just started crying,” Gore said. In the locker-room before the 49ers would play the Rams in St. Louis, Gore broke down. Before she received that transplant in 2005, Liz had been on dialysis for four years. She was only 46 at the time of her passing but her son will tell you his mom was forced to go through two lifetimes, that those lifetimes are what brought Gore to his knees in the 49er locker room.
“I didn’t know if I would have a bed to sleep in at night,” Gore said of his childhood in Coral Gables, Florida, “or if the light would come in the morning.”
It’s a story we have heard much too often: A single mom raising four kids in tough neighborhood. Liz didn’t complain about it and — here’s a story you have heard infrequently if at all — she took in boarders, other kids, some with anger management issues or drug issues or simply needing a place to stay. Most of the time, Gore remembers, Liz had at least 11 other people in a single room apartment.
Her determination was only exceeded by her heart, attributes that would serve her 5-foot-9 son well in the NFL.
“She was always coaching me,” Gore said. “She knew how much I loved football. She’d catch a bus to see me play in high school.”
In the middle of those tears Gore never thought about passing on playing against the Rams. Football always had been his release from a hardscrabble childhood. Football always was a place to go when everything else was falling apart. So Gore went out that day against St. Louis, ran for 81 yards and his team’s only two touchdowns in a 17-16 49er win.
Which just begins to explain the most compelling emotional hook to the 47th Super Bowl. Just as the Ravens want to win for Ray Lewis, the 49ers want to win for Gore.
“We always play for each other,” said tackle Alex Boone, “but this is a guy who really deserves it.”
Gore was dyslexic as a kid. He entered Coral Gables High School with a reported third grade reading level. He went to special education classes in English and math. He had tutors for his learning disability. After two years in high school her reading retention and understanding was that of a sophomore. Still, at the end of his senior year, Gore failed twice to pass the minimum SAT score to enter college. He then was given the SAT verbally and passed.
One of the most sought-after preps in history, Gore tore the ACL in his right knee his freshman year in Miami. The next year he tore the ACL in his left knee. For any football player, but especially for a running back who will meet contact on every play be it through a run, pass or block, two bad knees doesn’t get that player out of college, much less drafted by the pros.
By the time he was draft-ready after his junior year at Miami, Gore had gone from a 4.4 sprinter to a 4.65 guy. NFL scouts were timid. If Gore hadn’t been injured he was a first-round draft choice. But a running back with knee problems, Gore dropped to the third.
“But God blessed me with talent,” Gore said. The man also blessed Gore with something else: heart.
“I’ll do whatever it takes,” Gore said.
So when Gore, then a rookie, sat in his car in the Candlestick Stadium parking lot after a 34-31 loss to Dallas, he noticed teammates laughing and joking as they approached their vehicles. Gore was stunned. How could they be so cavalier about something so important. And so Gore cried then as well. Remember, football was his outlet from the real world.
So Gore did whatever it took. For his first six years with the 49ers, that meant keeping hope where there was none. The 49ers had a cumulative 50-63 record those first six years. Six years of not posting a winning record.
To that add surgeries on both of his shoulders, surgery to his right hand, abdominal strains, ankle and shoulder sprains, bruised ribs and a hip pointer. Those injuries led to 12 missed games.
Yet, Gore never took the easy way out, never went half-speed, never missed a practice. He didn’t want to betray his mom. “She always made sure that we had food on the table,” he said, “clothes on our backs.”
Don’t complain. Do something about it. Persevere. She led by example, and Gore pledged this: If my mom didn’t give up, how can I? So what if I am almost a 30-year old running back (May 14) with 1,911 rushing attempts and shoulder, knee, hip and abdominal issues? So what if people say I should be long gone from this game?
So what indeed! Here Frank Gore is, eight years later, having rushed for more yards (8,839) and scored more rushing touchdowns (51) than any other 49er, including Hall of Famers like Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny, and someone who should be in the Hall of Fame, Roger Craig. Niner coach Jim Harbaugh said Gore has earned his way to Canton.
And he was most definitely has earned his way to what he considers the ultimate compliment: That they want to win the Super Bowl for Frank Gore, to repay him for everything he went through.What could Gore say?
“Every time I score a touchdown,” Gore said, “I point to her (skyward) and tell her ‘This one is for you’.”
(You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)