SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The reminders are tucked away in the front room of Frank Gore's home, on VHS tapes he has worn silly. Grainy, wobbly images of a gifted high school kid seemingly forgotten. Once, twice, maybe three times a week, Gore slides one of the tapes into his VCR and stretches himself across his couch.
Like an adult who obsesses over a faded scrapbook of their lives, the tapes – rife with Gore's highlights at Florida's Coral Gables High School – are the snapshots the San Francisco 49ers running back clings to the most.
"Sometimes," Gore says, "it's just cool to sit back and remember how it used to be."
How it used to be? It's an odd thing for Gore to say, considering that after seven games, he's positioned himself in the league's top five in rushing yards and is once again creating a buzz as one of football's bright young stars. But then, Gore hunches forward on a stool when he talks about how it used to be, and he rests his hands atop his kneecaps. And anyone who knows this man's history realizes you can't talk about those high school tapes without considering what happened under those two kneecaps.
These were knees that once split time in a University of Miami backfield with Clinton Portis and kept Willis McGahee buried on the Hurricanes' bench. But those same knees bested Gore, too, and left him to watch both of those teammates rise to NFL stardom without him. All the while, the voices that hailed Gore as the best running back in college football seemed to abandon him, too.
He often talks about that experience metaphorically – about getting placed in the back of a room and forgotten.
"I never thought I was going to be a failure because of what happened to me," Gore says of ACL injuries he suffered in his both knees while at Miami. "But I know other people did."
He doesn't hear about failure as much anymore, and the negative memories have slowly started to collect cobwebs in his consciousness. Ask him, and he'll shrug off his humbling experiences before the 2005 NFL draft, when so many league executives were panning him because of his injuries and dyslexia. The exclamation point at that year's scouting combine in Indianapolis was when Gore got interviewed by a few straggling media members while former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett presided over a crowd in another room that could have easily been mistaken for the Democratic National Convention.
Now that was a slap in the face. Here you had a piercing, unending spotlight on Clarett, who had done nothing but burn bridges and butcher countless second chances. Meanwhile, Gore became the afterthought. Maybe it was the injuries. Or maybe it was because he was a kid who refused flash over substance.
Few wanted to talk about a kid who decided to live at home with his mother Liz in college because she needed his help after being diagnosed with kidney disease. And even fewer noticed when that kid spent draft day with that very same woman, sitting on a couch and holding hands in the tiny two bedroom house they shared with seven other family members. Clarett was the stuff of magazine covers. Gore was the guy who spoke so softly, you had to tilt your ear in just to make the words out.
"Priorities get screwed up sometimes in that environment," said an NFC North coach who scouted Gore before the draft. "I think a lot of people knew he was a good player and would probably work hard on the NFL level. But he was really quiet – sort of painfully, sometimes – and that can be mistaken for passivity. And let's just say it: sometimes you refuse to see anything past two knee injuries."
Yet, any of Gore's lament rarely comes out unless he's pressed. He rarely volunteers hard feelings about having to watch Portis or McGahee leave him behind. He doesn't even talk about how, in hindsight, he just might be the best running back to come out of that 2005 draft, despite seeing the likes of Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, Cadillac Williams – and even J.J. Arrington and Eric Shelton – plucked in front of him.
"That's not me, man," he says. "You know, all that other stuff, I don't know. I just love football. I've been playing football since I was five years old, and a running back since I was six. I've never been a flashy guy. I've never been a guy to raise my voice to get people to look my way. When they mention running backs, I want people to say my name in there because of what I've done. I don't want people to talk about me because of what I say. All I want is to be recognized for what I'm doing. That, and to help this team get back to what it used to be."
So he works and studies and watches tape. Then he goes home and gets bored and starts thinking about claiming his place. If he's not making his daily call to his mother, or at the 49ers training complex, he's typically thinking about one of the two.
"I went to get a work out last week at about 10:00 p.m., after we were done meeting, and I'll be darned, he was in there talking to Fergie [Athletic trainer Jeff Ferguson] in the training room," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "I went in there and said, 'You're not hurt.' And he said, 'I came back over. I was at home and didn't have anything to do.'"
Despite an offensive line that was shuffled early on because of injuries to tackle Jonas Jennings and guard Larry Allen, Gore has opened eyes across the league by becoming a workhorse back for the 49ers. And he's done it looking more like the fluttering freshman at Miami who weighed 215 pounds than the bulky 237 pound junior who was still recovering from the knee injuries.
Through seven games, his 5.1 yards per carry average is higher than anyone in the league's top 15 in rushing. And the stats haven't come cheaply, either. His last two games out, he has churned out 166 yards on 22 carries (7.5 yards per carry) against the Chicago Bears and San Diego Chargers – the NFL's fifth and sixth ranked rushing defenses, respectively.
"He certainly plays very fast," Nolan says. "Frank is a baller. Frank is a very good running back. He's got great vision, great quickness. He's a north-south guy. He's tough. … He is very intelligent about football and on the field and what he sees in players' eyes. Good players are that way. When you're in the hole with somebody, as you and I are making eye contact right now, if you're carrying the ball and it's the pace of the game, I also see your eyes, as a good player."
Nolan says Gore has that type of recognition. A skill that Gore says he's had dating back to his days in high school, when he rushed for 2,953 yards and 34 touchdowns as a senior. And slowly, he's starting to regain all of the faculties that made him one of the best high school and college running backs in the country. He's already displayed his power between the tackles, something that has been honed in past summers by running hills in Miami with a truck tire tethered to his torso. And he's regaining his speed, too, thanks in part to the notorious offseason training that current and former Miami Hurricanes players undertake.
And though he dances around the issue, those offseason workouts – with McGahee, Portis and Edgerrin James – have given him some added motivation. Because seeing those players tends to open old wounds and refresh his sense of being overlooked.
"I bet that would be so frustrating," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith says. "Clinton Portis is at Miami and they're splitting time and Clinton goes in the (second) round of the draft. Then Frank's all set to come in and be a starter the next year and he's going to be the man. He can see his future ahead of him, then the next thing he knows, he's hurt and he sees his backup, Willis McGahee, go in and all of the sudden he's getting drafted in the first round. And then the next year, a knee injury happens again."
This is the scenario Gore revisited in the summer, when he saw his former Miami teammates strut through workouts, knowing they had established themselves in a place he wanted to be.
"It reminds me that everybody forgot about me," Gore says. "You know, they just forgot about me. They forgot what I could do. Those guys [McGahee and Portis] and everybody else. All of those guys had their big games and had proven themselves. That's the way I look at them. And at the same time, I keep telling myself that I have to work hard and show people I can still do it. I can still be one of the top backs in the league."
With the season at the midway point, he's on his way.