A team and a star with heart

Frank Gore is going to be OK. And so are the 49ers. After an emotional week following an emotional victory in their Monday night opener, the 49ers rolled into St. Louis with heavy hearts Sunday, the heaviest belonging to their Pro Bowl RB. But it was Gore who pointed to the heavens after scoring two TDs to push San Francisco to its first 2-0 start in nine seasons and first place in the NFC West.

Even though there's an enclosed roof covering the top of the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Gore could look up and see through it as the 49ers went out and captured another comeback victory to start the season with an ugly but thrilling 17-16 win over the Rams.

As Gore looked up through that roof, he knew somebody special was looking down upon him.

This NFL Sunday was unlike any other Gore had experienced in his young professional career. It was different, because a big part of him was gone forever. His beloved mother Lizzie - the woman who had pushed Gore to be both the person and Pro Bowl player he is today - died Wednesday at age 46 after a long battle with kidney disease.

Gore arrived at the stadium Sunday morning and there was emptiness. A meaningful part of his pre-game ritual would never be the same.

"It was tough, especially coming out to play, because every morning, when I come to the stadium, I always call and talk to my mom," Gore said. "So that was important - she always got a call from her son."

Her son who made good and made it big in the NFL to have the resources to take care of both Lizzie and the rest of his family. Her son who, with Lizzie's prodding and nurturing, persevered through an impoverished upbringing and a difficult road to stardom. Her son, who Lizzie fought for to be included in regular classes in high school after he was placed in special-education classes his freshman and sophomore years because of a learning disability.

Her son, who fought through major, career-threatening injuries to both his knees in college to become a NFC rushing champion and the most prolific single-season rusher in 49ers history in just his second pro season.

"Ever since I was a little boy, I always felt that one day I'd be a NFL player," Gore said. "So even though she's not here anymore, I know she's watching. I looked up and told her, 'Mom, I know you're watching me, I know you're over me, I know you're laying your love on me.' Me and my mom were very tight. So that's why I had to come out here, and play hard, and let her know her son is going to be all right."

Yeah, Gore is all right, and the 49ers got off to their best start since 1998 in large part because of him.

With defenses stacked to stop him, Gore scored three of San Francisco's four total touchdowns in nail-biting squeakers over the Rams and Arizona Cardinals six days ago. Those come-from-behind victories gave the Niners two wins over division opponents to kick off the season and left San Francisco all alone in first place in the NFC West heading into the backside of September after three-time defending division champion Seattle was upset 23-20 in Arizona.

Gore is the heart and soul of this team. And he is a reflection of the team around him, personifying the heart of the squad Mike Nolan has pieced together and turned into a contender in the third year of his reclamation project after taking over the NFL's worst team in 2005.

The 49ers, expecting their juiced-up offense to lead them this year, opened the season by finishing with 194 total yards against Arizona. It was even worse Sunday, wen they managed just 186 total yards against the Rams. That, in a word, is terrible.

But they won both games. They pulled out victories by coming through in the clutch and making plays when it counted. They did it by showing the heart and moxie to win when victory seemed unlikely.

It's that little something extra that winners have inside them.

"Team-wise, the character is huge, and this is what our team is made of," Nolan said.

But what about that sucky offense, coach? The 49ers managed only eight first downs Sunday, were out-gained by 206 yards, and only had one offensive drive that produced more than 39 yards. They had nine offensive possessions on which they didn't record a single first down.

But they rallied from a 13-7 halftime deficit and got it done with Gore, of course, scoring both San Francisco touchdowns while rushing for a game-high 81 yards on 20 carries.

"Our guys continue to fight hard to the very end," Nolan said. "It's important for us to do that. I think I'd rather take the first two victories we've had the way we've had them than kick somebody's tail two weeks in a row, because this is a long season, and you've got to not only build on what you're doing on offense and defense, but build that character."

The 49ers built a two-story building of character in that whirlwind, season-opening six-day period that pushed them to the top of the NFC West. In the weeks and months to come, they need to add another seven or eight stories to get where they want to go this season and realize their playoff goals.

And, to be sure, they will have to get better on both sides of the football to make that happen.

But they've already proven they've got one of the most important ingredients of what it takes. It's that passion that pumps from within. It's that valor and fortitude that can't be taught or bought or learned.

It's heart.

It's also guts. The 49ers have that, too. Nolan, who was derided for settling for a field goal on fourth-and-1 late in the game last year at St. Louis - a decision that ultimately may have cost San Francisco a momentous victory - faced another consequential fourth-and-1 decision Sunday in St. Louis, and this one was tougher.

Trailing by six points late in the third quarter, the 49ers faced fourth-and-1 from the St. Louis 43-yard line with the Rams poised to take command of the game. A field goal wasn't an option this time. It was take a big risk of giving the Rams the ball near midfield or punt it back to them.

Nolan went for it. He gave the ball to Gore, who was stopped behind the line of scrimmage, then bounced off defenders to get the first down, then broke another tackle, then burst into the secondary, then turned up the field and blew past another tackle attempt before completing a stunning 43-yard touchdown run that put the Niners ahead 14-13.

When he got to the end zone, Gore looked up and pointed toward the heavens. There is someone up there watching over him, and it looks like it might be the same thing this season for the 49ers.


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