Before his body broke the first time, Frank Gore thought football was easy.
“I would just get out of the bed and play,” he said. “Even though I did work hard, in my head, I knew the game was easy.”
The violent game is anything but, as the running back would learn in college at the University of Miami. Gore had beaten out Willis McGahee in spring practice before his sophomore season, then tore his left anterior cruciate ligament. The next season, he tore his right ACL.
Gore wondered then if he would ever play again. NFL dreams seemed fleeting.
It’s nothing short of remarkable that Gore has endured for 12 years and is the NFL’s active rushing leader with 12,040 yards. Four days before the beginning of his second season with the Indianapolis Colts, the 33-year-old Floridian reflected on his challenging path, an arduous journey he’s convinced made him stronger and more appreciative of the game.
He grew up the dyslexic son of a drug-addicted mother. Football became his life, a game that provided an avenue to make something of himself. His senior year at Coral Gables (Fla.) High School was epic — a Miami-Dade County record 2,997 rushing yards and 39 TDs.
Gore wore a No. 3 jersey back then. His Colts practice jersey for Wednesday had the same number. He recalled a high school running backs coach who had always reminded, “Don’t let another man outwork you.”
That’s how Gore overcame his college injuries. He credits God first, but it’s also because the indefatigable one learned to grind, then keep grinding with buckets of sweat, especially in the offseason. That’s the easiest explanation for how he’s still playing the game today, that and the revelation he was deprived of a prolific college career.
“The injuries did help,” he said of learning a painful lesson. “It can be taken away just like that. I try to leave it on the field.
“I was thinking, like, man, I never really played a full year in college. My freshman year, I played but (Clinton) Portis was the man. My sophomore year, I was supposed to start but I got hurt in spring. My junior year, I came back and played five games and was off to a good start and I got hurt. Then my redshirt junior year, I came back again and split time, then I left.”
In a 10-minute interview, he repeatedly reiterates how fortunate he is to still be playing. But he’s also well aware of those who have been quick to count him out. They did back in college. They do now in the NFL.
“I shouldn’t be here right now. That’s what TV people said. They were knocking me because of the injuries,” he said. “I’ve been hearing that my whole career. I love it. That’s what has got me still going, the man up above and the doubters. When it’s time for it to be over, the man up above will let me know. I’m blessed, man. That’s why I go out there and try to show the young guys, ‘I don’t care what I’ve done.’ I want to prove to these guys that I can still help be that difference maker in the run game and help the team win games.”
Gore saw just a few snaps in one game of preseason action in preparation for Sunday’s regular season opener against Detroit at Lucas Oil Stadium. Head coach Chuck Pagano, a former Hurricanes assistant, is all about keeping his No. 1 back rested and trying to be smart about playing time. An old-school workhorse, Gore would play every down if allowed. The Colts insist they will be careful with him so he’s still fresh when the weather turns cold.
But he prepared to carry the load. Teammates and coaches are aware of Gore’s exhausting offseason workouts in the Miami suburbs. His weekly goal was two workouts per day, three times a week. Workouts often lasted more than three hours.
“He is the hardest worker of anybody I’ve ever played with,” said quarterback Andrew Luck. “I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who cares more about football and the team. Everything that is awesome about football, Frank embodies.
“His production still at this age is incredible. I think we probably talk too much about age. He is young at heart and he just goes out and plays hard. He’s smart. He is an incredibly smart football player.”
Pagano compares Gore to former Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
“He comes to work every single day and puts the time in necessary to play at the level he’s played at and to continue to play at that level,” Pagano said. “He’s relentless in the classroom and relentless on the practice field. We try to manage our plus-30 (year-old) guys from a rep standpoint, we want them fresh on Sunday.
“He’s a guy that does not want to come out, very reminiscent of Ray Lewis going into year 15, 16, whatever it was. Ray did not want to take any plays off. Ray did not want to take any days off. He felt like in order to play really well on Sunday, you needed to put the time in during the week: Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. He wasn’t afraid to go take reps on the card team and the look team. When he’s out there, nobody else came out, and Frank is no different. He’s wired the same way and he’s got the same mindset. He pushes the young guys. He does a great job. It’s like having another coach on the field.”
Gore began his pro career in San Francisco, where the third-round pick spent a decade and set the 49ers career rushing record. But the five-time Pro Bowl selection wasn’t ready to quit after the 49ers decided it was time to move on. When Gore signed a three-year, $12-million contract to join the Colts in 2015, general manager Ryan Grigson gave him a list of older NFL running backs who had excelled in their advancing years.
“You’ll be next,” Grigson said.
Gore was bitterly disappointed to come 33 rushing yards short of 1,000 last season. Critics were already saying he was too old and now they had more ammunition to suggest he had lost a step. But another case can be made for Gore — he didn’t have a strong offensive line, he got hit in the backfield too many times and the offense sputtered after Luck got hurt and missed nine games.
Gore chose the Colts because he was convinced playing with Luck gave him the best chance at an elusive Super Bowl ring. Gore is still convinced he can provide a missing piece to an offense that hasn’t had a 100-yard rusher in 50 games and a 1,000-yard rusher in a season since 2007.
The “old man” responds quickly to a reference to John Riggins.
“Yeah, he was a great back,” Gore said. “Washington, right? He was the last one.”
As in, he was the last running back 33 years of age or older to run for 1,000 yards in an NFL season. That was back in 1984, when Riggins was 35 and rushed for 1,239 yards. Not that Gore ever needed added motivation, but doing something that hasn’t been done in 32 years makes the man sound even more determined.
If Gore rushes for 1,000 yards this season, he’ll climb to eighth on the NFL’s all-time list, surpassing Thurman Thomas, Franco Harris, Marcus Allen, all-time Colts leading rusher Edgerrin James, Marshall Faulk, Jim Brown and Tony Dorsett. He needs just 240 yards to pass Faulk for 10th.
“I want to be successful. I still love it. I know I can still play this game or I wouldn’t be here,” Gore said. “This year, I really want to prove a lot of people wrong.
“I’ve still got stuff to prove.”