Tom Rathman on Frank Gore

SANTA CLARA – We were sitting in little school chairs facing each other, alone in the media tent, elbows resting on our wooden foldout desks.

I asked the coach, “If I say Frank Gore is a player with a great heart, do you know what I mean by that?”

The coach sat up in his chair, elbows off the desk now. He said, “Great heart?” as if he hadn’t heard me correctly. “Yeah, I know what great heart is. I only played the game for 9 years.”

Tom Rathman used to be a fullback in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He played 8 of his 9 seasons for the 49ers under legendary head coaches Bill Walsh and George Seifert. Now, Rathman is the 49ers’ running backs coach. He got the job in January, 2009, which means he’s worked with Gore for almost four years.

“He does have great heart,” Rathman said, getting back to Gore. “It means a lot to him. And that’s what you talk about when you talk about ‘great heart.’ It’s about what does the game mean to you? He puts everything that he has into those football games. You talk to him after the game and you know that he’s spilled it. He’s not going to have anything left in the tank when it’s all said and done. Those are the type of guys you love to coach.”

Gore is 29 years old, elderly for a running back, but he’s off to the best start of his professional career, averaging 6.1 yards per carry – third-best in the NFL. To put that in perspective, he averaged 2.5 yards per carry over the first two games last season.

I asked Rathman why Frank is having such a strong start this season. What factors go into that?

Rathman: “I think he’s got a better understanding of what we’re trying to do on the offensive side of the ball. With the new system in last year, I think players were trying to identify what it was. Now we’ve got one year under our belts and the players do understand what we’re trying to get accomplished.”

Flashback 15 minutes. I’m in the locker room. Here comes Gore, walking through slowly. Frank, why are you playing so well this season?

Before I could get the words out of my mouth, Gore said, “My O line’s doing a great job. Our coordinator puts us in great situations to have us be successful. I think that’s the reason.”

Gore, eager to pass praise onto his teammates.

Back to Rathman in the media tent. I asked him what skills does Frank have that are special?

Rathman said, “You talk about – and it’s really shown up this year – being able to set up a run and make a defender miss in space. He’s still got that creativity as a runner. You talk about his pass blocking. I don’t think there’s a better guy doing that. Frank does not have any weaknesses. Everything he does, he does it well.”

Is Gore still improving?

Gore thinks he is: “Yeah, I feel that. As long as you’re playing this game, you’ve got to keep improving. When you feel like you’re not getting better anymore, you shouldn’t play the game anymore.”

Rathman disagrees. He said: “I don’t think he’s improving, but I still think he’s got a lot left in the tank. When you’ve played in the league six, seven years, hopefully you’ve reached your peak. That was Bill Walsh’s big emphasis. I don’t think Frank’s an ascending player. I think he’s a consistent player, and that’s really all you ask for. Consistency.”

Would Bill Walsh have wanted the current Frank, the 29-year-old Frank, on his football team?

Rathman: “Sure he would have. You look at his performances, his consistency, what he brings to the table not only on the field but off the field – Frank has really grown up over the last four years. A very mature player now. Understands the game, understands big picture.”

Rathman had to go. I thanked him for his time and shook his hand. He lingered a beat and said, “Ask your dad if I know what heart is,” and then he left.