NEW ORLEANS - Watching the New York Giants hoist the Lombardi Trophy last season wasn't the happy ending the San Francisco 49ers had in mind. It's driving their focus preparing for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, where the team buzzword is everywhere.
"Finish," said running back Frank Gore. "We finish. And last year we didn't finish. So we say we have to finish this year."
The 49ers lost the 2011 NFC Championship Game in overtime to the Giants, who beat the Patriots in Indianapolis to win Super Bowl XLVI. Presented a second conference title shot in coach Jim Harbaugh's two seasons with the franchise, the 49ers took care of the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1994.
Athletes are often driven by their most recent, or most memorable, defeat. Gore remains driven by competition - for his carries as the featured back in the 49ers' offense, and for attention in the pecking order of the top backs in the NFL. In pro football terms, Gore is near the end of the line at his position. On the doorstep of this 30th birthday in May - the hallmark age of diminishing skills for running backs - Gore doesn't feel like he's slowing down. But he also understands why he's in the minority in that thinking.
He's never been one to back down from a fight.
Gore grew up in a rough neighborhood and fatherless household with many of his siblings and cousins. His mother raised several kids, only some of them her own, to help other members of her family get by.
"My mom had to take care of her sister's kids, my brother, and that's how it happened," Gore said. "It was tough, it was tough. Sometimes you don't know if you don't get the bed, (if) you have to go on the floor or the mat. It was tough, but my mom, we got through it, and it helped me make the person (I am) today."
Gore said he made it out of the neighborhood where Lizzie Gore, his late mother who died in 2007, often housed more than 10 people and as many as a dozen in a one-bedroom apartment.
Gore was successful at Miami (Fla.), which is almost a miracle in its own right. He broke an ankle at Coral Gables (Fla.) High before Curtis Johnson, running backs coach at Miami and currently the wide receivers coach with the New Orleans Saints, convinced him to take on the challenge of the Hurricanes' well-stocked depth chart.
"He told me, 'If you want to be the best, why not play with the best?"
Gore never starred at Miami and was a third-round pick in part because of his injury history that included two torn ACLs during his college days. He has also had two shoulder surgeries. But he's the ideal fit for a workmanlike coach and an offense that was first built to thrive behind a power running scheme before Colin Kaepernick's emergence helping add spice to offensive coordinator Greg Roman's play sheet.
"Frank Gore will tell you," Roman said of the new wrinkles in play-calling. "He was like, 'I can't believe this stuff.' So, that's exciting as a coach when you have that kind of freshness and you can bring that to the group. There's definitely some things that we try to do that you hope nobody sees or nobody has seen before. It just keeps them off your trail a little bit."
The trail, however winding for the soft-spoken veteran Gore, is no longer a concern. This week is about the destination - and finishing.
"Knowing last year, it hurt. We didn't get where we wanted to go, but when we got the opportunity to get back in the tournament, we looked at each other and told each other that we (have) got to walk in the door this year," Gore said. "And we did."