Scot McCloughan and Mike Nolan were having a barbecue dinner at Nolan’s house the day before the 2005 draft when McCloughan’s phone rang.
On the other end was a 21-year-old running back from the University of Miami named Frank Gore. He was emotional, distraught and talking a mile a minute about what would happen the next day. Five teams had told Gore they were looking at him in the first or second round. Others had crossed him off their list. Gore didn’t know what to believe.
“I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down, Frank,’ ” McCloughan recalled. “Eventually he said, ‘What do you think?’ ”
McCloughan, who would run his first NFL draft for the 49ers the next day, was skeptical Gore would be selected early.
For one, the running back had scored an alarmingly low number on his Wonderlic intelligence test and teams wondered whether he would be able to digest an NFL-size playbook. He also showed up at the scouting combine at a fleshy 230 pounds, well above his ideal playing weight.
“He looked like a Division III guard,” McCloughan said.
Scariest of all was his medical report. Gore suffered ACL tears to his right and left knees in college and also had shoulder issues. He would need further rehabilitation on his left knee before he could get on the field as a rookie. And even then, teams were leery of how long someone with his medical background and who played such a punishing position would play in the NFL.
“Really, the biggest question was: With his injury history, would he have the durability to last?” recalled Todd Lazenby, the 49ers’ head athletic trainer in 2005.
Gore, however, also had some details in his favor.
His surgeries had been performed in Miami by John Uribe, then the team doctor for the University of Miami and the Miami Dolphins who was well-respected among orthopedic surgeons. Gore became very close to Uribe and his rehabilitation therapist, Ed Garabedian, a relationship that continues today.
The 49ers also had a draft philosophy, which began under coach Bill Walsh, that put talent above all else, even a dubious medical background. Some teams gave Gore a failing draft grade. San Francisco put a big, red asterisk next to his name but didn’t remove him from their board.
“The team had a lot of faith in the medical staff to take players, rehab them and get them to be able to play,” said Michael Dillingham, the 49ers’ orthopedic surgeon at the time. “That may be reasonably common now. But I promise you it wasn’t common then. Bill was doing that way earlier than most head coaches. And this was sort of carried forward in the organization.”
Most of all, Gore had McCloughan and then-running back coach Bishop Harris pushing hard for him during draft meetings in spring 2005.
McCloughan had been the southeast region scout for the Seattle Seahawks four years earlier. When he dropped in on Miami to look at running backs Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee, it was the team’s third tailback, an 18-year-old Gore, who cast a spell.
“He had so much power in his lower body,” McCloughan said. “He was the guy who stood out.”
Harris saw the same gift.
“He was a leverage runner with great instincts,” he said. “He had great legs – tremendous legs – and balance.”
“I said, ‘I understand we can’t take him first or second,’ ” Harris continued. “ ‘But if we can get him in the third round, we’ve got a first-round back in the third round. It’s going to save you a little money for two years. After the first year, you’re going to give him a new contract.’ ”
Norv Turner was the 49ers’ offensive coordinator in 2006 when Gore ran for a career-high 1,695 yards. As Harris predicted, the 49ers already were discussing a contract extension a year into Gore’s career and were asking themselves the same question they had in 2005: How long could he possibly last?
Turner noted he coached a runner in Washington, Terry Allen, who had two surgically repaired knees and who had three seasons of 1,000-plus rushing yards following the second ACL tear. A better comparison to Gore, Turner said, was Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time rushing leader who played 15 seasons and who Turner coached with the Dallas Cowboys.
“He gets in behind those big offensive linemen and kind of almost disappears on defenders,” Turner said of Gore. “That’s the quality that most reminds me of Emmitt. They had a very similar style. And I think people would say the same thing about him – you never saw him take those big hits. And both of those guys have had unbelievable longevity.”
Gore, of course, hasn’t avoided injuries entirely. But he’s played through issues that would have sent most running backs to the sideline. In 13 seasons he’s missed 12 potential games with injuries; his replacement in San Francisco, Carlos Hyde, has missed 14 games in four seasons.
In the third game of the 2011 season, Gore sprained his right ankle against the Cincinnati Bengals then watched as his backup, rookie Kendall Hunter, scored the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Gore hardly practiced in the run-up to the next game against the Philadelphia Eagles and his coach at the time, Jim Harbaugh, said it seemed as if Hunter would be the team’s starting tailback in Week 4.
“We were going to make him inactive for the game,” Harbaugh said of Gore, “but he wanted to go out early and see if he could warm it up. He said he’d go and I had my doubts.”
Gore not only played on his bad ankle, he had 127 yards and a touchdown in a game the 49ers won 24-23. He didn’t miss any games that year and hasn’t since.
“After that game I never doubted Frank Gore again,” Harbaugh said.
Back at Nolan’s house in 2005, McCloughan explained to Gore that his medical history meant that there was no way he could draft him in the first or second rounds.
“I can ball, though!” Gore urged into the phone.
“Frank, I know you can,” McCloughan replied. “I’ve watched you for three years. But I promise you this: If you’re there with the first pick in the third round, I’m going to take you.”
McCloughan followed through the next day, which earned him lifelong loyalty from Gore, who still regularly exchanges texts with McCloughan and Harris and who has been doing so this week.
Others haven’t been as lucky. Gore took note of which general managers and scouts misled him that spring. He also memorized the five running backs who were selected ahead of him that year, a list he constantly recited in his head early in his career. The most enduring of that group, Ronnie Brown, last played in 2014.
“I’m the last one now,” Gore, 34, noted on Wednesday.
These days Gore has his sights set on a different list of runners. He needs four yards Sunday against his former team to pass Eric Dickerson for seventh place in all-time rushing yards. The next three – Jerome Bettis, LaDainian Tomlinson and Curtis Martin – also are in his sights in 2017.
Said Dillingham, the team’s orthopedist in 2005: “I would be a liar if I told you I would have ever guessed he’d make 13 years. What talent. What focus. Whatever it takes, it’s just amazing.”
Said Harris: “I don’t know how many years he has left. But the way he’s running, I think they may be able to squeeze another year or two out of him.”