Harris, Gore take different roads to Pro Bowl

Larry Allen, the NFL knows all about. But Frank Gore and Walt Harris? One was a second-year running back coming off multiple shoulder surgeries, and the other was an 11th-year veteran who entered the 2006 season closer to journeyman status than star status. But now here they are, on stage with Allen in Hawaii as the first position players to represent the 49ers in the Pro Bowl since 2003.

The youngster and the wily veteran both took divergent paths to get there.

Gore did it by flashing into the NFL consciousness and durably blasting through NFL defenses for a franchise-record 1,695 rushing yards in 2006, a figure that led the NFC and has him pegged as the conference's starting running back in today's game at Aloha Stadium.

Harris did it by turning back the clock and answering the naysayers who said he was finished as a productive NFL player. Harris wasn't just productive in his debut season with the 49ers, he was a difference-maker who had his best season while leading the NFC with eight interceptions.

Even though he later was named by professional football writers as one of two All-NFC cornerbacks along with Philadelphia's Lito Sheppard, Harris wasn't originally named to the NFC Pro Bowl squad. He was saddled with first-alternate status in December behind Sheppard and designated starters DeAngelo Hall of Atlanta and Ronde Barber.

But Sheppard injured his shoulder in Philadelphia's wild-card playoff victory over the Giants last month, and he later pulled out of the game, allowing Harris to slide into a much-deserved spot in the Hawaiian limelight.

Allen, Gore and Harris are the first players to represent the 49ers in the Pro Bowl since long-snapper Brian Jennings was added to the game as a need player in 2004. The 49ers didn't have a player named to the Pro Bowl last season for the first time since 1980.

It provided the punctuation for a season of firsts for Harris, who had been a starter throughout his career with three previous NFL teams but didn't start gaining league-wide recognition until he came to the 49ers, where he earned NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors in November and also earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors in Week 17.

"Personally, I can say I achieved some goals I really wanted to achieve this year," Harris said. "I just wanted to perform well and have a great all-around season from start to finish. I didn't want to have any lapses in ups and downs - I really wanted to be consistent. Consistency is always the key with me, and I really wanted to finish well."

There's not much better way to finish a season than playing in the Pro Bowl, and Harris says he goes to the game with his career in flight rather than in decline at age 32.

"I'm feeling good," said Harris, who also led the 49ers in passes defensed (17), forced fumbles (5) and fumble recoveries (2) while recording statistically one of the best seasons ever by a San Francisco cornerback. "Over my last couple of years, just training and making sure I'm really looking out for my body and making sure I'm doing the right things that I need to do to stay healthy, to stay strong, just to be able to keep up with the younger guys, as long as I can do that and feel good, I'm happy.

"The type of training I've had - it's key. When you get older guys at this time in their career, you see a lot of guys just fall off. I think it has a lot to do with them (not) being aware of their training, their bodies and that type of thing. Some guys just kind of maybe take it for granted. And I was very adamant about doing whatever I needed to do to maximize my ability to be able to be successful in this league."

That sounds a lot like the same approach taken by Gore, who certainly hasn't taken anything for granted to get to this point where he's now considered as one of the best young running backs in the league.

Since his early days in college, Gore's football career has been checkered by serious injuries, but he displayed glimpses of great ability in 2005 while becoming the first rookie in 15 seasons to lead the 49ers in rushing.

Gore accomplished that while starting just one game as Kevan Barlow's understudy. But after Gore beat out Barlow early in training camp, and a vanquished Barlow was traded to the New York Jets in mid August, Gore finally got his chance to shine.

And, boy, did he ever shine.

"I knew as long as I got an opportunity, I was just going to try my best and run with it," Gore said. "Coach gave me the opportunity, I kept working hard, and God blessed me."

Gore is taking his role in the Pro Bowl seriously, and probably is out to show people something more than many of the other established veterans in the game. Gore said he took only about 10 days off after the season before he started training for the game.

"I still got some stuff to prove," he said. "This is only my first year (as a starter). I know a lot of people thought coach (Mike) Nolan was crazy when he made me the starting back because of my past and my injuries and stuff, but I proved a lot of people wrong. And now I hope people know that I can do it now."

Look for no further proof than where Gore stands today, playing in a distinguished all-star game among the NFL elite. And the same holds true for Harris. Allen? Well, everybody already knew he could do it long before he came to the 49ers.

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