Worth the wait: Gore finally where he belongs

Frank Gore and Ray Rice took different paths to the Super Bowl, but here they are in New Orleans – two elite running backs that are the driving engines on offense for the 49ers and Ravens. Gore's path has been one of resilience and determination that's finally giving a great warrior his just due as one of the NFL's best, while Rice has known nothing but success since he entered the league.

Rice has known nothing but winning since he came into the NFL.

For Gore, it took a while.

Two running backs with contrasting styles and story lines will be on display at this Super Bowl, but they have one thing in common – plenty of respect for each other.

''To battle through what he's been through? He's a warrior,'' Rice said shortly after the Baltimore Ravens arrived in New Orleans, the site of Super Bowl XLVII. ''Hats off to my man Frank.''

Gore, the 49ers leading rusher every season the past seven years and also the franchise's all-time leading rusher, also was generous with the praise.

''He does it all. I love to watch him,'' Gore said of his Ravens counterpart. ''When I saw him in college, I knew he was going to be a pretty good back in the league.''

They both are.

But, boy, they sure took different paths to get here.

The 29-year-old Gore has endured plenty of losses, personal heartache (losing his mother to kidney failure) and a startling string of injuries that might've broken a lesser man.

He tore up both knees in college at the University of Miami, prompting him to wonder if ''football wasn't for me.'' Shaking off the doubts, he was drafted by the 49ers, but needed major surgery on both shoulders after his rookie campaign. Later, he lost part of another season to a hip injury.

Even harder to take, Gore played on a series of bad teams. Really bad teams. His first six years in the league, the 49ers failed to post a winning record – which was especially hard for him to take, considering he had known nothing but winning with the Hurricanes.

''It was tough, real tough,'' Gore said. ''I would see some guys – who are not here anymore – after we lost, and they would just be like, 'Whatever.' I was not used to that. If we lost one game at Miami, it was like our season was over.''

Gore driven by steely-eyed determination

One of his teammates, fullback Bruce Miller, has noticed the determination in Gore's eyes as the team prepares to face the Baltimore Ravens in the title game Sunday.

''It means a lot to him,'' Miller said. ''In meetings and at practice, you can see how intense and focused he is. He's worked hard for it.''

For Rice, the road has been much smoother.

Since he was drafted in 2008 out of Rutgers, the Ravens have made the playoffs every season, including three trips to the ACC championship game. This season, they got over that hump with a major upset at New England.

''I've been blessed and fortunate,'' Rice said.

Rice is a slasher of a back, darting through the smallest of openings to break off big gains. He's rushed for more than 1,000 yards four years in a row and is just as valuable in the passing game, recording more than 60 receptions each of those seasons, as well.

In a November game at San Diego, he provided one of the most memorable plays of 2012. With the Ravens down by three and facing fourth-and-29, he hauled in a pass just past the line of scrimmage, swerved away from three defenders, broke a tackle that would have clinched the victory for the Chargers and lunged just beyond the first-down stripe for a 30-yard gain.

The Ravens kicked a tying field goal, then won the game in overtime.

Gore is a power back, someone who can churn out the tough yards between the tackles. That style has served him well; he's run for more than 1,000 yards six of the last seven seasons and become San Francisco's career leader in rushing touchdowns this season.

''We always credit Frank with the tough yards,'' Miller said. ''He doesn't get the easy runs. It's up the middle, three or four yards a carry. But he just continues to move the chains. That's why we're here.''

Despite their lofty numbers, both running backs are a bit overlooked heading into the title game.

In San Francisco, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the pistol offense are all the rage. For Baltimore, much of the attention is focused on retiring linebacker Ray Lewis and quarterback Joe Flacco, who has finally escaped his playoff demons.

''When you look at the criticism that Flacco has been through, and you see what a young quarterback like Kaepernick is doing, I would make them the headlines, too,'' Rice said. ''I'm just being honest.''

Different styles but the same big impact

But, chances are, Rice and Gore will have a significant impact on the outcome Sunday, especially since their rookie backups – LaMichael James in San Francisco, Bernard Pierce in Baltimore – emerged as major threats late in the season and playoffs, taking some of the load off the two starters.

''It keeps me fresh,'' Gore said. ''Early in my career, I probably wouldn't have liked it. Now, it gets me ready for the fourth quarter. When the defense is wearing down, that's when I get going.''

All the warm and fuzzy feelings will be put on hold in the Super Bowl.

But no matter who's hoisting the trophy at the end of the game, Gore and Rice will remain fans of each other.

''We don't have to hit each other,'' Rice quipped. ''I'd like to win on Sunday. I don't want to see him do good on our defense. But any other time I watch Frank Gore do well, I'm happy for him.''

On the surface, Gore and Rice are backs of contrasting styles. One guy is a bruiser, just as comfortable running through defenders as around them. The other is more of a slasher, darting this way and that to make people miss, requiring only the slightest opening to bust off a big gain.

''He's like a bull,'' Rice said. "He doesn't take the hits. He actually delivers them because of his low center of gravity.''

Gore was just as effusive with the praise when talking about his counterpart.

''He does it all. I love to watch him,'' Gore said. ''He doesn't have to hesitate to make moves, to make people miss. He can cut and go, cut and go. If you can cut and go, you can be pretty good in this league.''

Both backs aren't just pretty good in this league as they prepare for the NFL's biggest game – they are two of the very best.

And they are two big reasons the 49ers and Ravens are here in the Big Easy – and are likely to be key figures again in Sunday's game.

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