Gore to the Fore, Part I

Frank Gore is going where no running back in 49ers history ever has gone before. And, boy, did he ever take the hard way to get there. But life's hardships - both the personal kind and the football kind - have only made Gore stronger. Have only made him tougher. And have only made him better as he chases history in Sunday's season finale against the Denver Broncos.

In just his second season with the 49ers, Gore already is just about as good as it gets among NFL running backs. He has proven that repeatedly during a breakout sophomore season that has thrust him among the NFL elite.

Entering Sunday's game at Denver's Invesco Field, where the 49ers will conclude their 2006 season of thrills and spills, Gore needs just 29 yards rushing to break the franchise single-season record held by Garrison Hearst, a guy whose team rushing records Gore has been leaving in the rear-view mirror throughout this season.

Gore also needs just five yards rushing or receiving to become the 53rd player in NFL history to finish a season with 2,000 yards or more from scrimmage. Only two players have done that for the 49ers - Hearst and Roger Craig (twice) - and Gore needs 111 combined yards Sunday to break Hearst's franchise record of 2,105 set in 1998, the same season Hearst set the team's current rushing standard with 1,570 yards.

Gore currently leads the NFC and is third in the NFL with 1,542 rushing yards, and he also leads the 49ers in receiving with 59 receptions for 453 yards - hard-earned numbers that have contributed to Gore's quick rise to prominence and put him in the Pro Bowl as the NFC's starting running back.

But Gore is only getting started. As he rumbles for big yardage on a weekly basis, often carrying a developing San Francisco offense along with him, Gore plays with a grateful determination that he has survived to put himself in this position.

"This is my opportunity to do what I always wanted," Gore said in an interview with SFI. "This is my opportunity to show people what I can do. Now is the time, right here. It's always been a big goal to be among the (NFL's) top backs. Now I want to be the best. If I always try to better myself, I feel I can reach that level."

Gore won't get much argument from anybody who has gotten in his path or felt his rushing wrath this season.

Gore has eight 100-yard rushing performances this season, shattering the franchise record of six held by Hearst and Roger Craig. One of those efforts was a 212-yard outburst against Seattle in November, shattering Charlie Garner's previous team single-season record.

With his combination of power and explosiveness anchored by a low center of gravity, Gore has progressed this season from promising runner to elite rusher to franchise back in the space of three whirlwind months.

"Frank's a great running back," said Leonard Little, the St. Louis Rams' Pro Bowl defensive end. "He's just getting better and better. I'd put him in the top five in the league right now because of the way he's running the ball, making people miss, breaking a lot of tackles, getting those long gains. He's a downhill runner, but he has the cutback ability you need as a running back if he doesn't see anything downhill. He's doing the things that a great running back has to do."

All Gore needed was the opportunity. The 49ers made sure to give it to him this summer by shipping incumbent starter Kevan Barlow to the New York Jets in August for a fourth-round draft pick.

Gore shared carries with Barlow in his first NFL season last year, but still became the first rookie in 15 seasons to lead the 49ers in rushing with 608 yards, even though he started only one game and carried the ball 49 fewer times than Barlow.

But that sharing system wasn't going to happen again after the 49ers took a gander at Gore in training camp, where he consistently flashed the big-time ability he has carried onto the field in a featured role this season.

While the rest of the NFL is just now catching on to Gore's exploits, it's old news to 49ers coach Mike Nolan, who has believed in Gore since the Niners selected him with the first pick of the third round in the 2005 draft.

"Frank is a baller," Nolan said. "He's got great vision, great quickness. He's a north-south guy and he's a tough guy. Frank is showing now what he's capable of doing, showing what we expected of him when we drafted him. I think the way Frank plays, Frank wants to be real good and be known for being good."

Gore quickly is developing into the complete package as a dual threat in the backfield.

"There's not a weak part of Frank's game," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. "He does a lot of everything, which is why he's pretty special. You run him between the tackles, and he's breaking tackles. You put him out on the edge, and he's turning the corner and breaking long plays. You put him out of the backfield, and he's catching balls. And he blocks well."

Anything else?

"He works hard at every facet of the game," Smith continued. "Frank's an extremely passionate player who's very passionate about football. He loves what he does. Frank's all ball, in a sense. It's something he deeply cares about. In a sense, it's kind of like all he cares about. He lives and dies with this."

That might be because Gore has had to pay his dues in full to get where he is today and overcome the kind of adversity many athletes can't even imagine.

Gore grew up living with seven others in a one-bedroom apartment in inner-city Miami, where the dream was born to someday play in the NFL and have the financial means to help his mother's battle with kidney disease and help the rest of his impoverished family.

If Gore wasn't born to play running back, he came pretty close to it.

Part II: After an early indoctrination to football led to Gore becoming perhaps the greatest prep running back South Florida ever has seen, Gore had to spend countless hours overcoming a learning disability just to continue playing football in college, where a series of major injuries threatened his career and pro future. But Gore overcame all that adversity to become one of the unique running backs in the NFL today as he boldly rushes into a future that holds limitless possibilities.

Getting Gore was big score for 49ers: The 49ers knew what they were doing when they made the steal of 2005 draft by selecting running back Frank Gore in the third round. Gore so far has been one of the most productive players to emerge from that draft, displaying top-of-the-first-round talent this season on his way to becoming one of the NFL's leading rushers and challenging for the league's 2006 rushing title. Scot McCloughan, the 49ers' vice president of player personnel, had been following Gore's career closely since his freshman season at the University of Miami. Like many other NFL personnel gurus, McCloughan became wary of Gore's NFL viability after he suffered torn anterior cruciate ligaments in each of his knees a year apart, with both injuries requiring major reconstructive surgery. But McCloughan wasn't quite as wary as others. See www.sfillustrated.com for full story

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