As testament to how beloved Frank Gore is by his teammates, consider this:
Friday was a tough day for Alex Smith and the Chiefs. Kansas City is still in the hunt for a playoff spot. It was the day after Christmas and players were juggling family and football. And to top it off, Smith had just been diagnosed with a lacerated spleen, an injury that is sending him to the sideline for six weeks.
A call was placed to the Chiefs’ public relations office.
“The interview with Alex is off, right?”
“No, it’s still on. He wants to talk about Frank.”
When he got on the phone, Smith’s praise of Gore, with whom he entered the NFL in 2005, followed two themes: No one lives and breathes football like the 49ers running back and no one is as dedicated to his craft.
“He’d come back to the huddle and he’d have a big grin on his face,” said Smith, who spent eight seasons with Gore. “He loves football and he’s someone who’s not afraid of competition. He lives for it.”
The 49ers selected Gore with the first pick in the third round hoping he’d be able to overcome two major knee surgeries in college and add an element of toughness to the roster.
At the time, the 49ers’ most notable player on offense was tailback Kevan Barlow. On defense, it was cornerback Ahmed Plummer. Neither was exactly known for grit, tenacity and devotion, qualities incoming coach Mike Nolan and personnel man Scot McCloughan were eager to instill with their new team.
Gore had those traits in abundance.
Accustomed to winning at the University of Miami, he cried after losses with the 49ers. As a rookie, he told Barlow, who had rushed for 1,846 yards the previous two seasons, he was going to take his starting job. And just a year after Gore arrived, that’s exactly what happened.
McCloughan said he realized Gore was the superior running back midway through training camp in 2005.
“Just the way he approached practice,” McCloughan said. “He was no nonsense, just the competitiveness. It was all football. At that juncture, with our roster, we didn’t have many of those guys.”
The question for the 49ers as they head into today’s season finale is whether they will have those types of players – including Gore – on the roster in coming years.
The team’s all-time leading rusher is nearing the end of his contract with the team. He says he wants to return and that the 49ers have told him they want him back. But the details of a new deal – including whether Gore will remain the lead runner – still must be worked out. Gore also said he was interested in seeing what happens to the 49ers this offseason.
Some of the blue-collar players Gore said he admired the most, such as linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, will return. Others he mentioned may not.
One of the team’s defensive ends, Ray McDonald, already has been kicked off the team. Another, Justin Smith, must decide whether he wants to return for a 15th season. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree will be a free agent in March while tight end Vernon Davis’ salary may outstrip his sub-par performance this season.
Then there’s head coach Jim Harbaugh, whom Gore credited with turning a ho-hum franchise into an instant winner when he arrived in 2011. Harbaugh is expected to sit down with general manager Trent Baalke and CEO Jed York either late Monday or Tuesday and decide on a course of action through which Harbaugh would leave the 49ers with one year remaining on his contract.,
“He’s my best coach,” Gore said. “I didn’t enjoy it here until we started winning. And since he’s been here, I’ve won. ... I love the man. I love the way he coaches, I love the way he puts his staff together. He’s a great coach.”
Gore was wearing a tattered, gray 49ers sweatshirt as he spoke to reporters Wednesday. It was given to him shortly after he was drafted, which means it is nearly a decade old. It also is symbolic of the guy wearing it – the collar may be frayed, and there were a couple of holes in it, but it’s still quite functional in Gore’s mind.
How many years does the sweatshirt have in it, he was asked?
“It’s got a couple more,” Gore said.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.