Frank Gore had committed to play college football at Ole Miss, but his mom was sick, and Curtis Johnson, the assistant coach trying to convince him to stay and play in Miami, called and asked a question that shook the teenager to his core.
“He was like, ‘How are you supposed to be the best guy in Dade (County) or Florida, and you’re leaving the state? You’ve got one of the best schools right here, 5 minutes away from your house,’ ” Gore recalled. “He said, ‘Are you scared to compete?’
“It hit me, bro.”
The next day, Gore laid on his bed in his small home in Coconut Grove, thoughts of his family, future and his wounded pride churning in his head.
Gore, on the cusp of passing Barry Sanders for the third-most rushing yards in NFL history, recounted this story and the lasting impact of his decision to sign with the University of Miami after a practice this week. The Buffalo Bills will play the Miami Dolphins on Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium.
The 36-year-old knows this could be his final football game in his hometown.
“I’m happy to see my fam and all my high school friends who still root for me in Miami,” Gore said. “I’m happy my family will get to see me. I don’t know if it’s going to be my last year or not, so hopefully all my family comes and gets to see me and hopefully I make some plays for them.”
He’s been doing it for decades, first at Coral Gables High School, then at Miami.
The 2001 Hurricanes were loaded with talent like perhaps no team in the history of college football. They stormed through their schedule undefeated, trouncing Nebraska in the Rose Bowl to win the BCS national championship.
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) December 12, 2014
Thirty-eight players off that roster were drafted, including 17 in the first round, including Andre Johnson, Sean Taylor, Kellen Winslow II, Bryant McKinnie, Antrel Rolle, Jonathan Vilma, Jeremy Shockey, Phillip Buchanon, D.J. Williams, Vince Wilfork, Ed Reed, and the list continues.
“That was something like John Wooden’s UCLA teams, you know?” said longtime former Hurricanes running backs coach Don Soldinger. “All we did was win.”
But no position group was stacked quite like running back.
Gore joined a running backs room that included future NFL starters Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee and Najeh Davenport, as well as Jarrett Payton, the son of Walter Payton.
“If you threw a dart in that room in the dark, you would hit NFL talent,” Davenport said. “And after (Edgerrin James) left, everybody felt like the throne was up for grabs.”
The competition was brutal.
“It was like a fight every day just to get a rep in practice,” said Ken Dorsey, then the Hurricanes’ quarterback, now the Bills’ QB coach. “None of those guys really wanted to give it up to the other guys. It wasn’t like a jovial kind of deal. They were all friends and everything like that, but they all pushed each other hard, and they rode each other hard.”
Gore’s work ethic and abilities were already local legend when he first arrived on Miami’s campus, but the level of competition among those running backs set the bar for the rest of his career.
“In college, what was hard for me, hard for all of us, was practice,” Gore said. “Games were (expletive) easy. You know what I’m saying? We had so many top guys and so many guys competing, you had to be ready. Every day you had to come with it, or else you weren’t going to play on Saturday. Me making my decision to go to UM, even though they had guys already, that was big for me. And I’m being real. That’s why I still can play this game.”
The Buffalo News reached out to several of Gore’s college teammates and coaches to learn about their favorite memories of him as a teen, the atmosphere around the 2001 Hurricanes and their running backs room, the incubator that produced one of the most productive players at the position in NFL history.
None imagined that Gore, a kid who tore both of his anterior cruciate liagements in college, would have outlasted them all in the NFL, starring for a decade with the San Francisco 49ers before stints with the Indianapolis Colts, Dolphins and Bills.
And yet, 15 seasons into his pro career, none said he was surprised.
All said he belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And several offered their favorite stories and memories about Gore, one of just four players in NFL history to exceed 15,000 career rushing yards. He needs 73 yards to surpass Sanders for third on the all-time list. Only Emmitt Smith (18,355) and Walter Payton (16,726) have more. His NFL success followed a college career in which he ran for 17 touchdowns in three seasons and averaged 5.7 yards per carry.
“I competed with the best when I was in college,” Gore said, “so there can’t be nobody better than that, you know?”
The wrestling match
Jonathan Vilma (high school and college teammate; three-time Pro Bowl linebacker): “I was a freshman at University of Miami. Frank is getting all the pub. He’s a senior in high school at Coral Gables, and he’s just tearing it up, has a really good season. I ended up having a really good season, as well, my freshman year. Our high school coach, he always made us compete, whether it was run-blocking drills, pass-catching drills, tackling drills, whatever it was.
“So I come back and Frank is feeling himself, you know? He’s All-American, all this stuff, now he just got accepted to UM, blah, blah blah. And so I go back and I’m talking with my high school coach and Frank walks in, he’s like, ‘Oh, hey, Vilma.’
“I’m like, ‘What’s up, Frank?’
“Hey, Vilma, when I was over there, did you tell them how I used to beat you when we were doing one-on-ones?
“I was like, ‘Frank, you never beat me during one-on-ones.’
Gore raised his voice.
“Oh, I used to beat you,” he boomed. “What are you talking about? I told them that I used to beat you.”
“I’m like, ‘Frank, you never beat me one-one-ones. What are you talking about?’
“He literally gets upset and wants to wrestle with me. I’m like, ‘Frank, if you don’t get your high school senior self up off me right now, man.’
“And so we were literally wrestling in the middle of my high school coach’s office, because he got mad that I didn’t tell them that he used to beat me all the time. I’m like, ‘This guy’s crazy.’ And, of course, we were great friends. It never got past that and it was never anything personal. It’s just how competitive he was, and I always enjoyed that. It’ll never change, that competitive drive. That’s Frank in a nutshell.”
Who won the wrestling match?
“Oh, you know I won,” Vilma said. “C’mon now.”
Don Soldinger (former longtime UM running backs coach): “His first practice as a freshman he comes to me, and he’s real soft-spoken, and he says, ‘I want to play. I want to start.’
“I said, ‘Frankie, you can run the ball as well as anybody.’ When he came in he was phenomenal running the football. But I said, ‘It’s going to be your pass protection. That’s going to be a big key.’
“Kids coming in from high school usually can’t pick up the protections that quick. They run the ball, but they don’t pass protect a lot in high school.
“I said, ‘You’re going to have to really work on that.’ And we had a lot of protections. We didn’t have one or two protections. We had like 17 different protections with play action and dual reads. We had a lot of pro stuff. Probably too much, we had.
“And he says, ‘OK, coach.’
“First day, I gave out the playbooks.
“He says, ‘Coach, I’ll learn the protections.’
“I said, ‘OK. Good. Good.’
“And that night, I’m sleeping, and it’s like 2:30, 3 in the morning, and the phone rings.
“I’m going, ‘What? Who’s this?’
“He says, ‘This is Frank.’
“Are you OK, man? Did you get hurt or something?
“He said, ‘No, coach. I just finished reading all the protections. I’ve got them down cold. Quiz me.’
“I said, ‘I don’t think so. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.’
“And I hung up.
“That’s the type of guy he was.”
Clinton Portis (UM running back 1999-2001; two-time Pro Bowler): “I used to tell Frank, ‘Man, I’m coming out at halftime. I don’t care who we’re playing, I’m coming out at halftime and you’re going to get your opportunity.’
“He would always look like, ‘Man, you’re not coming out of the game.’
“I’m like, ‘Frank, look, I’m coming out of the game at halftime. I’ll have my 100 yards.’
“And halftime comes and we always played the same trick.
“I don’t know at what point Coach Soldinger finally acknowledged that we were pulling a fast one on him, but after I got my 100 yards, I would always kind of untie my shoe and step on the back of it before I ran on the field, so Frank could come in.
“I’d be like, ‘Frank! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!’
“And Frank would run on the field and coach would be looking at me, and I’d be like fiddling around with my shoe, trying to get it on, and all of a sudden, Frank busts one or picks up a big gain.
“And I’m like, ‘What do I need to go back in for? He got it.’
“That was just the relationship we had. And he’s still got it.”
This didn’t necessarily sit well with the other running backs.
“Najeh used to be upset,” Portis said. “I’m not sure at what point everybody caught on to me and Frank having the relationship that we had, and me sliding out his way so he could get his shine on, but we weren’t playing around.
“Me and Frankie G had a good little system and a good little bond. And we were doing good. I think coach Soldinger kind of caught on, but by the time he caught on, Frank had already proved that he was capable of holding it down.”
Soldinger: “Yeah, they would do that. I knew what they were doing, but I didn’t care because I knew Frank would do well. If you looked at the room I had, it didn’t matter who was in there, really. They all did well, whoever you put in.”
Portis: “He was such a sponge and so eager, just the excitement that came from Frank and the excitement that still comes from Frank and talking football, and I was the same way. I loved football. And Frank loves football. So the excitement, being able to relate, it was like he was my little brother.”
Gore: “That’s why I respect him so much. That’s one of the guys who’s very confident in himself, and I respected that, because a lot of guys get scared of guys who can really play.
“When I got to the league and my team drafted other running backs, I didn’t care, because I know God blessed me and I know what I can do. That’s why I never do the hazing with the rookies. I think a lot of guys, especially at our position, who do it, they’re scared of the young kid. Because they know the guy can play, so they do their best to mess with them.
“I don’t do that. I don’t make guys do this or that. Nah. I want a young guy to get in here and learn and be the best that they can be.”
Portis taught Gore that tearing somebody else down doesn't make him any better.
“He’s the one that showed me that just because another guy’s good, you don’t have to try to mess with them in a bad way.”
Najeh Davenport (UM running back 1998-2001; played with Packers, Steelers and Colts): “After a game, in like a Sunday or Monday meeting, we’d be looking at the stats. We couldn’t compare the yardage, because everybody wasn’t getting the same carries, but we were doing the averages. And Frank’s freshman year, he was doing like 9.6 yards per carry.
“So then all type of rules came out.
“Well, it can’t be in a blowout game. Or all type of (stipulations) we were coming up with, just to see who had the best game.
“When Frank was a rookie, we were beating people in the first half like 40-to-(nothing). You know what I mean? So he got to play more, and by the time Frank got in the game, they had laid down. That was one of the arguments. We were already beating them 40-to-zip. They had gave up. You come in and run for like 80 yards on Pittsburgh, it don’t count.
“He definitely broke the mold on freshman running backs, what you were expected to do and what you did.”
Destined for greatness
Jarrett Payton (Miami running back, 1999-2003; Walter Payton’s son): “I expected this output from him, to be where he’s at on the rushing list. I have a hard time explaining this, because when you go back to that time, just watching that film – I just got chills talking about it – I just knew he was different.
“The way his hips shook when he came through, once he got to the second level, he had something.
"He had those moves like Barry Sanders and he had that power when he wanted to use that power like my dad. He had the best of both worlds. And I’d never seen anything like that before. So I always knew that he was destined for greatness.”
Rob Chudzinski (Miami offensive coordinator, 2001-03): “He’s got incredible vision, he’s got incredible instincts, he can see and feel holes open up and get through holes that you run the clicker back, watching the film, you run it back 20 times and you’re like, ‘What did he see there to go there? And then how did he fit through there?’
“He’s got incredible balance. He ran low. He’s got really good feet and a burst. Everything, if you’d draw up a running back, or what the personnel people are writing what you would want in a running back, all of those attributes he’s going to have and then all the other things, too.
“The intangibles, the work ethic, the toughness to stand in there and want to protect his quarterback and work on becoming a better receiver. You can’t say enough good things about Frank Gore.”
Larry Coker (Miami head coach, 2001-06): “He could take a two-yard loss and make a four-yard gain out of it. He’s amazing. He didn’t have great speed, but he had the ability to make people miss and was a very tough runner.”
Soldinger: “Early in his career, he’d come out of things and I’d say, ‘How did you see that, Frank?’ And he says, ‘I don’t know. I saw it kinda before the snap. I could tell where people were going.’
“When he got hurt the second time, he said, ‘I’m not playing anymore.’ And I said, ‘Bro, you’ve got to play. God gave you a gift, man. You’re really special.’
“He said, ‘Ah, He don’t want me to play.’
And I said, ‘You’ve got to come back off the thing.’
“He went through a long rehab and then (tore a knee ligament) in a game again. He was down in the dumps. He just didn’t think it was for him. And I kind of talked him into it and he came out and the rest is history.”
Gore: “I wanted to quit. He told me I was the most natural guy he ever coached. And the guys who he coached were all top guys, man.
“Before my ACLs, I was different. I could take it the distance. I was blessed. But I’m happy God made me deal with what I had to deal with. Even though I always was a hard worker, but when you’re good, you take some stuff for granted.
“Now, my mindset’s like, ‘I’m going to go out here every day and give it my all.’ Just because I know that this could get taken away, because it got taken away from me. And I didn’t know that I’d get to this point. So that’s why I try my best when I’m out there on the field or in the building, period. Try my best to do everything the right way.”
Still competing in the league
Mike Rumph (Miami cornerback 1998-2001; Gore’s teammate with 49ers in 2005): “When Frank came to the Niners his rookie year, we had an evening game and the Washington Redskins played a little earlier. So we’re sitting in the locker room preparing for our game and Clinton Portis is playing for Washington and he has like 130 yards.
“And Frank looks at me and he goes, ‘Man, look at that. Clint’s balling, man. He’s got 130 yards.’
“He goes, ‘Well, that means I’ve got to get 150 or better.’”
“And I’m like, ‘Bro, we’re not in college no more. Nobody’s competing like that.’
“But that running back room was still doing that in the NFL. They would call each other and talk trash. We weren’t in college anymore, but they were still competing as if they were. And I think that’s what really brought the best out of those guys.
“They found any reason to compete, and that was instilled in them at UM.”
How much longer?
Gore: “When you love this game and when you can’t really go out and be you, it’s kind of tough to keep going. You’ve got to understand, it’s a young guy’s league, and you know how it is.
“When they have a young guy who can play, they want the ball to be in that young guy’s hands. And as you get older, you understand it. It gets tougher. Because when you know that you can play the game still and you can’t be out there like you want, it’s kind of tough. But you’re also happy that you’re still doing something you love.
“I don’t even think about it, man. It won’t be about the football, what I can’t do on the field. It won’t be about my body. It won’t be because I feel like I can’t do it no more.
“It’ll be me talking to my son and talking to my family about if I want to deal with getting in a certain amount of (limited) snaps. I feel great. I’m happy and I’m blessed.
“I’m not getting opportunities like I want to, but I still get the respect when I’m playing other teams. They know I still can play the game.”
But for how much longer?
Those who know Gore best won’t believe he’s finished until it’s official.
Payton: “It’s just amazing to see how everybody’s career kind of went, and Frank’s the last one standing.”
Portis: “I think he has at least two more years left. And just the want to. Knowing Frankie G and how he enjoys football and his football knowledge, I don’t think he’s ready to give it up.”
Chudzinski: “I remember being asked that question about four or five years ago and I think my answer now is the same as it was then: I’d never bet against Frank Gore.”