Asked how he’ll deal with a challenge from a phalanx of young and talented running backs this year, the 49ers’ Frank Gore turned toward his questioner, smiled and said, “I’m from Miami, man.”
He could have left it at that.
Gore, the 49ers’ all-time leading rusher, sharpened his skills and hardened his resolve by fighting for carries as a younger man, especially at the talent-laden University of Miami, where he first competed with Clinton Portis for a role in the Hurricanes’ backfield and later did the same with Willis McGahee. Portis, now retired, is 30th on the all-time NFL rushing list; McGahee, a free agent, is 37th. Gore is 29th.
After the 49ers drafted him in 2005, Gore quickly wrestled the starting job from incumbent Kevan Barlow, and he has been dispatching challengers since. Whether it’s been Barlow, Brian Westbrook, Brandon Jacobs or LaMichael James, the common thread of playing running back for the 49ers over the past decade has been frustration and a lack of playing time. Gore hardly ever leaves the playing field.
“I’ve been out there competing ever since I left high school,” Gore said. “I’ve been with top guys who have been in the league. … One day, (the young running backs) are going to have to get this role. But while I’m here, I’m going to look at it as a challenge.”
This year is shaping up as Gore’s biggest battle since he played for the Hurricanes.
He’s 31 – ancient in running back years – and is surrounded by younger players, including two of the most highly regarded runners in the last two drafts, Marcus Lattimore and Carlos Hyde. Lattimore’s challenge of Gore may be delayed. When the 49ers’ first practice of training camp began Thursday, he was on the physically-unable-to-perform list as he continues to come back from his 2012 knee injury.
The group also includes Kendall Hunter, Gore’s top backup the past three seasons, James and Jewel Hampton.
If the 49ers are eying a running-back-by-committee approach this season, they’re not letting on.
“I don’t know,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We could be talking about the wide receiver position same as the running back position. A very talented group of running backs, there’s no question about it.”
It’s clear Gore is not the same runner he was when he out-dueled Barlow as a rookie.
His breakaway speed, which helped him gain a career-high 1,695 yards in 2006, is gone, and plays that call for Gore to run to the outside have been avoided. Still, he’s started every game for the last two seasons, and last year, including the playoffs, he had 324 carries, the most of his career.
“When my number’s called to be out there, I’m out there,” he said.
An added motivation for 2014: Gore is going into the final year of his contract, which also happens to be his 10th season with the 49ers. A decade with one team is a major milestone, especially for a running back. One of the walls inside 49ers headquarters is dedicated to the men who have played 10 or more years with them. It’s a small group of mostly household names – Montana, Rice, Lott, Young, etc. – but only one running back, Joe Perry, has his portrait on that wall.
Perry is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the 49ers have retired his number. When the season ends, Gore will be the 49th player on the wall – a fitting number for a player who propped up the offense during its darkest years.
As far as sharing the backfield with his young teammates, Gore didn’t dance around the question like Harbaugh. He’s been protective of his status as the team’s top back all of his career, and he’s hungry for most of the carries this season, too.
Said Gore: “I’m here. I’m still here. So why not?”