Was Frank Gore the Last NFL Running Back?

ByTom Junod ESPN logo
Wednesday, December 20, 2023


It's late in the game, late in the season, late in his career, but he's still hungry for the ball, so he gets it one more time. He's a Jet now, his uniform the color of algae, but his jersey number, 21, is what he started with five teams ago, and it still means something. The play calls for him to go off-tackle, such a signature play it might as well be designed for him. There is no hole, but that's nothing new -- he has played for at least as many bad teams as good ones. There is no hole, but Frank Gore knows exactly what to do.

It's 2020, and Gore signed his one-year deal with the Jets to back up Le'Veon Bell and to mentor the Jets' young backs. But Gore has never backed up anybody. So he did what he always did, show up sharp at training camp and go to work. Bell is long gone. Now Gore leads what might be the worst team in the NFL in rushing. The Jets won their first game 14 games into the season, against the Rams. His coach, Adam Gase, is facing criticism for giving an old man like Gore all the carries. Shouldn't he be developing his younger backs? Why Frank Gore? Gase has a simple answer: "I hate to say this, but Frank was 37 years old and the best player on the team."

He's hurt when he gets the ball. Like, really hurt. Like, he has suffered a lung contusion and should be going to the hospital. But he has already carried the ball 13 times for a hard-won 44 yards and there's no way he's coming out now, not with the Jets ahead by four points. He has practically gained his yards by inches -- 1, zero, 6, 5, 7, 2, 7, 2, 3, 5. He has lost 2. He has gained 3, 4, 3, 7. Now, on second-and-9, with eight minutes and 51 seconds to go in the game, he gains 4. He doesn't so much run as burrow -- 3 of those yards seem to be on his belly. But it's 4, all right, and he takes himself out, a few players on the sideline greeting him and patting him on the pads.

No, it hasn't been much of a season; but then again, it's his 16th season. It hasn't been much of a game; but then again, it's his 241st game. And it isn't even much of a run; but then again, it's his 3,735th run, and by God it's in the books. He wants to go back in, but the doctors won't let him. Nor will Gase, no matter how much Gore pleads and cajoles. "I'm like, 'Bro, you have the greatest career stat line ever,'" Gase says. "I'm like, Bro, you're not going back in -- this is the football gods saying you did it right.'"

The season before -- with the Bills, his 15th -- he had become the third-leading rusher in the history of the NFL, behind only Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton. He began the game against the Browns with 15,952 yards. The 4-yard run with 8:51 on the clock gave him 16,000 yards "on the nuts," as Gase says -- the greatest final stat line ever. And it stays that way. Indeed, it will stay that way forever, for almost certainly the third man to amass at least 16,000 yards on the ground will also be the last.

The realities of the modern NFL have conspired to discount the value of running backs across the league and across the entire culture of American sports. It's not just that there are no active running backs who can keep running for 16 seasons; there are no teams that will pay them to do such a thing. Gore is the last of his kind -- the Last Running Back because running backs, once gods, are now considered mere foot soldiers. But that proposition raises a host of questions. Is he the last of his kind because he was actually one of a kind? Was he one of the gods or just the ultimate foot soldier, a grinder who never transcended the trenches? And if he is, in fact, singular, what's that like for his successors? And what's that like for his namesake -- Frank Gore Jr.?

IF YOU WATCHED FOOTBALL over the past 20 years, you probably had the Frank Gore Experience. It probably came when football was just what's on, when you were watching an off-market game on a Sunday afternoon without knowing why. Someone caught your eye, a hammer of a man, a relentless runner who pumped his knees high yet stayed low, making his living running the ball between the tackles and catching it in the flat, not so much gaining yards as accumulating them -- 3, 2, 3, 5, 16, 8, 8, first down, touchdown. When the play-by-play announcer mentioned his name -- often calling him "ageless" or just "well-traveled" -- you sat up. "Frank Gore? Frank Gore is still playing? I didn't know he was still alive."

Last December, I was in a hotel room, away from home, working, just watching what's on, and what's on was the LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. The game pitted Southern Mississippi against Rice, and Southern Mississippi had a back Rice couldn't stop. He was short and squat, but his hips had swivel and his legs had spring and he found wayward angles, and he ran low and when all else failed he ran into the tacklers who were trying to run into him. He was in the process of gaining 329 yards on 21 carries, and his name was Frank Gore Jr. I sat up. "Wait -- Frank Gore ... Jr.?"

He could only be Frank Gore's son. But that seemed impossible, for there is no such thing as generational overlap in the lives of running backs. This was 2022. Gore finally retired in 2022. He was 39 years old. He began his career in 2005, his counterparts lifers such asLarry Johnson, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, Jamal Lewis and Corey Dillon, or else Hall of Famers such asCurtis Martin, LaDainian Tomlinson and Edgerrin James. He ended his career as the emblem of an unlikely and nearly outdated ideal -- the running back who sacrificed his body for a body of work and whose fame rests in the fact that he never rested.

We hear again and again that the average career of an NFL running back lasts less than five years, the bleak actuarial reality becoming such an article of faith that we lose faith in the backs themselves -- witness the annual outcry of fans whose team chooses a running back in the first round of the NFL draft. We are told that the job is short-lived as a result of the punishment each running back must absorb as well as the game's relentless movement from the ground to the air. But the position-wide devaluation is also a matter of money, an economic model that deems running backs not just injury-prone but expendable. There are no old running backs in the NFL anymore, and precious few in midcareer. There are mostly young backs -- fresh legs -- who are increasingly unlikely to receive contract extensions, increasingly unlikely to get paid. Last summer even some of the greatest backs of our time, Josh Jacobs and Saquon Barkley, received franchise tags instead of long-term contracts, leading their peers to take to Twitter in aggrieved solidarity: "At this point, just take the RB position out the game then," wrote the Titans' Derrick Henry. "The ones that want to be great & work as hard as they can to give their all to an organization, just seems like it don't even matter. I'm with every RB that's fighting to get what they deserve."

Gore fought against economic obsolescence just as tirelessly as he fought against opposing defenses and the inevitable injuries. "When you turn 28, you're going to hear as a running back, you're declining," he says. "You can have a f---ing 1,300-yard season, you declining." As a young back, Gore had a 1,695-yard season with the 49ers. As a midcareer back, he gave the 49ers four straight seasons of more than 1,100 yards and excelled in the playoffs and the Super Bowl. And as an old back ... well, a lot of backs get better as games go on. Gore got better as his career went on. If he was one of the best backs ever to play the game over the age of 30, he has that distinction all to himself over the age of 35, averaging 4.6 yards a carry with the Dolphins in 2018. If Derrick Henry, the John Henry of today's NFL running backs, wanted to match Gore's yardage totals, he'd have to gain almost 7,000 more yards. When Christian McCaffrey, now the highest-paid back in football, recently became the first 49er to gain 1,000 yards since 2014, the back whose milestone he matched was Gore, who gained 1,106 yards in his 10th freaking season.

How did he do it? In a world where billions of people wonder how to get out of bed in the morning, how did he keep hurling himself into the breach, not quite an immortal but simply a man intent on facing down his own mortality? When asked that question, even people who know Gore best struggle to answer, settling again and again on the same word: "Frank is unique." But even as a casual fan I could see that, which is why it was so startling to turn on the LendingTree Bowl and see Frank Gore Jr. tearing up the Rice Owls.

Wait -- there's another Frank Gore? To say that Frank Gore is unique -- a singular figure who had a singular career -- is to say that following in his footsteps is futile; to realize that he's, well, a dad, tells a completely different story, because footsteps, by nature, demand to be followed. His son not only saw his father from the stands and on television. He sees him every time he looks in the mirror, and so his tutelage gains a special force. "I understand where he's coming from, and I also see it in my face," says Frank Gore Jr. "So, it's like I know it's just not something he's making up because it's in my face as well." The question of how Gore did it now sits alongside the question of how he teaches it, and what can and can't be learned, and what can and can't be passed on from father to son. Gore had to know something to have had the career he had in the most perilous position in sports -- he had to have trade secrets, a body of knowledge, a Tao. But, like all predecessors -- like all fathers -- he had to have ...secrets, unspoken mysteries that informed the mystery at hand. And watching Frank Gore Jr. run roughshod over Rice, I wanted to know what they were.

THAT'S FRANK GORE, all right, at a restaurant near his home west of Fort Lauderdale. He's wearing a gray hoodie, and he has both forearms planted on the bar. His elbows flank him, as if he's clearing space for himself, and his hunched shoulders are low, about the same level as the bar rail. His thumbs might be working the iPhone propped in front of him and the light from the screen might be shining on his face, but you couldn't get a clean shot at him if you tried.

I take a seat at the corner of the bar, between him and his agent. I have been told he's quiet; I have been told he's very serious; I have been told he can even be sullen. He is an imposing man, although not physically -- he was listed, when he played, as 5-foot-9; his body is described by his high school coach as "roly-poly"; and the way he compresses himself, keeps himself coiled, makes him appear almost shy, self-effacing. What's imposing about him is his watchfulness, his wariness and his patience. He holds his phone as close as a guy playing high-stakes poker holds his cards, and I get the feeling he'd be comfortable sitting for the next two hours without saying a word.

But that's not what happens. Although he's been retired an entire year, in the mornings he is still training hard, as though holding out for the prospect of more -- one more run, somewhere. He's going back to the University of Miami to get his degree and fulfill his late mother's dream for him. There, he's taking a course on autobiography. He has already started telling his story to a friend for the purpose of writing a book, and his coursework has sharpened his interest and his determination. I ask him if he has a title. He doesn't know yet. "Nine Miles," I say. "What?" he asks. "You ran for 16,000 yards in the NFL," I say. "That's 9.09 miles."

This is news to him, but he doesn't move a muscle and his smile is barely visible. He still holds his phone close, with his elbows out. Yet something passes through him, and suddenly it's as if he has gone from playing poker to rolling dice. "Those 9 miles -- I had the will, man," he says. "I wasn't going to let no one break me. If I set out to do something, I'm going to do it." Now he wants to share the video clips he has on his phone, and he uses his elbows to signal when I should take a look. He has a lot of video clips, not just of him and his son but also of other backs, whose work he examines with a jeweler's eye. Derrick Henry? "He so big, he just lean on people. He's a baller, though." Bijan Robinson?"A little stiff in the hips, but he got good feet. He gonna be a good back." Najee Harris? "He never got 4 yards a carry. How do you not get 4 with that team?" The man who is supposed to be so quiet has an opinion about everything and everyone, and when I ask him how he did it -- how he ran for 9 brutally contested miles -- he talks for two hours straight.

First of all, he had what he regards as the two indispensable ingredients for success as a running back, neither of which is speed or power. "Vision and feet," he says. "They're everything."

Second, he lowered his shoulder. Anyone who was trying to hit him, he hit first. Asked to name the defender who hit him hardest, he answers thusly: "S---, I don't know, man. Because I don't really get hit."

Third, he studied with a kind of mania. When he was a freshman at the University of Miami, he asked his running backs coach, Don Soldinger, what he needed to do to compete with the likes of the players The U had in the backfield in those days -- with Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee. Soldinger gave Frank the playbook, and 3:30 that morning his phone rang. "Coach, this is Frank." "Frank? Are you OK? Is anything wrong?" "No, Coach. I learned all the pass protections, and I want you to quiz me."

Fourth, he learned about himself. "I feel like every great player study themself," he says. "If they love the game, they study themself, and every year, when you get older, you're going to know what you're losing. I knew what I was losing. I knew I couldn't get in and out of everything, so I had to put myself in position. I had to be more patient. I used to make sure I knew my aiming points. If the coach said, 'You have to be outside the tight end,' I have to make sure I'm there, so if anything break down, I can get out of it. When you're young, it don't matter. Your quick twist, it's there. When you're young and don't know the blocking schemes, you run on instinct. Then you get older, it slow you down. You want to know the defenses so you can predetermine stuff. Sometimes it f---s with you. But most of the time, that s---'s going to hit."

Fifth, he worked. He didn't just stay in shape, eat right, show up early and leave late. He did "game-specific" workouts, forcing himself to move his feet faster and faster through smaller and smaller spaces; as he got older, he did them with younger backs, surrounding himself with the freshest legs. But he was also teaching himself how to compete with them, while at the same time putting them on notice. It didn't matter how old he was, or how young they were. They still had to beat him.

And sixth, he conceded no carries. He claimed them and he was greedy for them and he didn't care whose feelings he hurt. "Yeah, bro, I ain't want nobody taking none of my reps," Gore says. "Nah, f--- that, that's my s---, bro. That's why I wasn't scared of nobody, like competition. I ain't scared of s---. As long as I can compete every day, I'm going to win. I'm going to win."

EVERY DRAFT DAY, there is a lot of excruciating analysis about the "length" of certain prospects, their times in the 40-yard dash. There is also an almost diagnostic measurement of their motivation -- of the size of "the chips on their shoulders." Well, Gore didn't have a lot of length. But his chip was about 5-9 and 212, and when he arrived in San Francisco in 2005 as a third-round draft pick, he met Kevan Barlow, the 49ers' starting back. "Hey, my backup," Barlow said. Gore could do a lot of things as a football player, but showing deference to an established teammate wasn't one of them. "I said, 'Backup, bro?' I said, 'Bro, I've never sat the bench playing football. And I hope you not thinking I'm coming to sit the bench. I'm dead serious.'"

He was dead serious. Gore led the woebegone 2005 49ers in rushing as Barlow's backup. "Second year come, I'm like, Man, f--- that. I'm already thinking in my mind, 'This my s---.' But you know I'm playing backup. So we in preseason, we play Chicago, right? And Kevan, he don't play because you know he saying he hurt, so I get to start. So first time we go down, I f---ing score, boom. So that next week come, and we go to practice. They call the starting lineup and it's 12 people in the huddle. I went in the huddle, I'm like, f--- that. I don't got time. I'm like, This motherf---er faking, man. This my s---, and I'm 12 people in the huddle, bro.

"It took awhile for me to get out the huddle," he says. "The coach is all like, 'All right, just get out.' But Norv Turner was the coordinator at the time, and he liked that s--. So that f---ing next week, Barlow f---ing traded, bro.

"F---ing traded," Gore says.

Fifteen years later, he arrived in Buffalo as an NFL warhorse. He was 36. The Bills were his fourth team, and the starting back was LeSean "Shady" McCoy, his best friend. It didn't matter. "Bro, I remember I took it so serious because of how people praised him and downplayed my career," he says. "I wanted to show I'm a bad motherf---er." He thought Shady had life too easy in Buffalo; he did his best to make it harder. "When you're a superstar, a lot of coaches don't really say nothing to you," Gore says. "So once I get to Buffalo and the coaches see me and Shady competing, and saw that I can play, then they start questioning stuff he do. I remember one time we was in a meeting in training camp, and he didn't hit a hole or something, and one of the coaches was like, 'Shady, you should've took this.' And Shady started going back and forth with him. And I was like, 'F--- that, coach. Give that b---- to me.'"

The Bills wound up giving it to him 166 times, and Nov. 24, 2019, in a game against the Denver Broncos in Orchard Park, New York, he gained 6 yards and passed Barry Sanders as the third-leading rusher in the history of the NFL. After the game he received a congratulatory phone call from his old rival in San Francisco, Barlow. "He hated me, bro," Gore says. "We used to about fight and everything. But I don't want to knock him because he called me and said, 'I'm going to be real with you, man. I treated you like that because I knew you was better than me.'"

The Barlow and Shady stories are separated by 15 years and over 15,000 yards. They are separated by time and toil, as well as a broken hip and a couple of broken hands and two rounds of ankle surgery. They are separated by the blood and, well, by the gore. But they are the same story because they are both about Frank Gore. "How did you do it?" I ask him at the bar, thinking it a complicated question since what he'd done was just about impossible. But he has a one-word answer that was the underlying truth of all the others.

He touches his finger to his temple.


FRANK GORE DID NOT RECEIVE his surname from his father because his father wasn't around. He received it from the woman who bore and raised him, the woman who made the name and the mindset inseparable. Lizzie Gore was the most powerful presence in her son Franklin's life because she pushed him to the front and made sure people saw him. She was as fierce and protective as she was poor and, for most of Frank's life, sick. She brought up Frank in a one-room apartment in Coconut Grove. There were 12 of them in one place -- some her own and some part of her extended family and some simply in need of a home. "Beds pushed up against all the walls," Frank says. When he was 5, she took him to the local park and altered his birth certificate so he could play Pop Warner. He knew right away what he was running for and running from, and wherever he played, he could hear her voice in the crowd. It didn't matter if he was playing in the park or playing at the Orange Bowl for the University of Miami, it didn't matter how loud everyone else was. He was a mama's boy, and her voice told him where to look.

Lizzie's kidneys failed when Frank was a junior at Coral Gables Senior High School and already a star. She went to the hospital for dialysis, and he went to visit her. He hated hospitals, but he needed her blessing. "We was about to play the playoff game, and my coaches didn't know how I was going to be and how I'd react," he says. "So I just went to the hospital, and my mom was in ICU, got tubes and all. And she told me, 'Son, I want you to go play.'"

She lived for seven more years. She was able to attend one of his games in his first year as a 49er, against the Jaguars in Jacksonville. But in the summer of 2007, he went through training camp without hearing from her. "So I call my sister to see how Mama was doing," he says. "But they was lying to me -- 'Oh, Mama good.' She was at the hospital. I didn't know how bad off she was because they wanted me to focus. And I didn't feel right, you know? It had to be God or something, bro. And I'm like, 'Man something got to be up. I haven't talked to my mama.' And I felt it, and I'm driving, and I just broke down crying in my car."

He flew home to Miami so he could see her before she died. "I walked in the hospital and couldn't believe that was my mom. Bro, I just couldn't believe it." He was at her bedside the last time she opened her eyes, and he spoke to her when she closed them and fell into a coma. He returned to San Francisco, and one day after learning that his mother had died in Miami, he traveled with his team when the 49ers played the Rams.

"The week she passed, everybody was like, 'You need to go home.' And I'm like, 'Why am I going to go home?' I knew she would have said the same thing if she was in the hospital and fighting. She would have told me to play, and that's when I made the decision. All right, I'm going to stay up here this week and I'm going to just fight it with you.

"At that game I had to dig deep. It was like I was in a dream, bro. Especially because my mom would call at a certain time to talk to me before the game. Tell me, 'Go play your heart out.' And now I didn't get that call. I went in the bathroom by myself and just broke down. I had to keep talking to myself. I said, 'Come on, man. You decided to play. You know Mama wants you to play.'"

The video is on his phone. The 49ers are playing the Rams on Sept. 16, 2007. It's the third quarter, and they're behind 13-7. They're on the Rams' 43, fourth-and-1. Gore, No. 21, takes the handoff, then takes the hole. Boom. He runs into a bunch of players milling around at the line, players who seem nonchalant by comparison and unprepared for the encounter. He is stopped, and then he is not. Boom. He hits a linebacker before the linebacker can hit him. He is stopped again, but then he is free, a plugger turned into a gazelle, his shortish legs stretched by the incredible amplitude of his stride, his chunky 212-pound body angular with swivel as 20 or 30 yards downfield he splits one last clump of human convergence and runs like a dancer into the end zone.

It is the run to watch if you think Gore's yardage totals came simply as a result of his ability to hang around. It's also the run to watch if you want to understand the other 3,474 runs, in that it is beyond understanding, his zigs as illogical as his zags are inexplicable, his way lit not just by willpower but by the jagged lightning of inspiration. Even he doesn't understand, and so he rewinds the video to the point of initial contact, that first shredded scrum. "Look at that," he says. "Boom. How did I get out of that? Yeah, that was my mama, bro."

HE COULD START his autobiography anywhere. He could start with the first or last of his 16,000 yards, with the first or last of his 100 touchdowns, or with the brute fact that he played more games than any other back in the history of the NFL. He could start with Lizzie sneaking him into Pop Warner or telling him from her hospital bed to go play or guiding his feet through the circuitous 43-yard run he dedicated to her memory. He has won the right to start with one of the milestones. But the more he has thought about it, the more inclined he has become to start at a moment when he thought it was all going to go away -- at the beginning he thought was an ending.

He always knew where he was running, even when he was a kid. He was running downhill, he was running north-south, and he was running straight out of the hard parts of Miami. Lizzie agreed, and so after a senior year at Coral Gables Senior High when he ran for 2,953 yards and set records for Miami-Dade County, she gave her quiet assent when he committed to the University of Mississippi. But The U was not done and still had an advantage in Curtis Johnson, a coach who had watched Gore playing at the park. "I got in my car and drove to his house," Johnson says. "I said, 'You're not going to Ole Miss.' He said, 'Yeah, Coach, I'm going.' I said, 'Reason you going is you don't want to compete with the backs we got. You don't want to compete with Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee. You scared.' He said, 'That's not it, Coach. I said, 'Well, look' -- and there was his mother. She was a great lady. Oh, she was strong. But she was sick and she wanted him near her. So I was like, 'How you going to leave your mother? How you going to leave all this?'"

Gore stayed in Miami and not only competed with one of the greatest collections of running backs college football has ever seen but also developed a system with Portis, the starter, that gave him playing time. "He came in and right away we had that bond, that friendship -- we got really close," Portis says. "So every time I came off the field, I'd tell Frank to make sure he was standing with me on the sideline. And as I'd walk off the field, I'd step on the back of my shoe and make it come off, and I'd take my time putting it back on so Coach would put him in."

Gore ran for 562 yards on 62 carries as a freshman in 2001, and when he remembers that edition of himself, he thinks he ran like Marshall Faulk, "long speed, breaking tackles," 9.1 yards a carry. In spring practice, Portis had gone on to the NFL draft, and Gore ran with the first team until he made one of his impossible cuts in a routine drill. He had been untouchable that spring, but after colliding in practice with safety Sean Taylor, he immediately grabbed his knee. It came apart so comprehensively that the surgeon, John Uribe, had to address what he saw as a structural susceptibility to injury, "the small notches" tying his ligaments to the bone. Gore never ran like Faulk again. He was too poor at the time to find transportation to the therapy he needed and never regained full extension of his right knee. "Frankie lost that step," Don Soldinger said. "But he never lost his vision and could pick his way through things." His style changed, and at the same time so did his life. He was just 18 years old, and on March 13, 2002, six days before he wrecked his knee, Frank Gore Jr. was born.

It is another part of the Frank Gore Experience:Wait -- he did all that ... hurt?Turns out, he might have been durable, but he was never invulnerable. Turns out, he was sort of injury-prone. Turns out, he blew out his left knee in 2003 -- those small notches again, costing him a second step -- and went to Soldinger in tears, telling him he was done, until Soldinger responded that his talent was God-given, and it was Soldinger's mission to get him to the NFL. Turns out, he was not only the best old back in NFL history but also the best injured one. Turns out, his story is not about an invulnerable man at all but rather a man who as a child, as a boy, as a high school student, as a football player and as a father knows that he is vulnerable and has spent his life figuring out what to do about it.

HE WAS JUST IN MIDDLE SCHOOL. A woman pulled up to the apartment in Coconut Grove to pick up one of his cousins. Her name was Sharon Krantz, and she was his cousin's guidance counselor. She was not Frank's, but he walked up to the car and tried to get in. She had heard about him -- "I really didn't like Frank because he was always in trouble and a little bit of a crybaby." She locked the door. Then Lizzie came outside and began yelling at Frank to get in the car and go to school. "She won't open the door," he answered. A stalemate ensued: "He's turning around to go back to the house and she's yelling at him to get in the car," Krantz says. "So I opened the door, and I let him in."

He started showing up at her office to talk to her. He began getting in trouble to talk to her, although that was not the only reason for his misbehavior. He couldn't read. "I was getting into trouble because I didn't want to get picked on," Gore says. "I didn't want to read in front of people so, OK, I'll go make problems."

He began calling her what he calls her to this day: "Miss." She in turn recognized him as the kind of young man the public education system routinely discards, a casualty in the making. When one of his teachers told him he would amount to nothing, he would have taken the damning judgement entirely to heart if not for football. It was all he talked about with Miss Krantz, and so one day she gave in and went to the park to watch him play. She was shocked by what she saw. "Football was like his Superman cape," she says. She also heard Lizzie talking about her: "There's that white lady Frankie loves."

In high school he called her from class on his cellphone, saying "I'm so bored, Miss." She had a stock response -- "If you're so bored, why aren't you getting all A's?" -- but she took it upon herself to check what kind of classes he was taking. No wonder he was bored: He was on track for a "special diploma" that would preclude him from going to college no matter how prized he was as a recruit.

"I waited until the end of sophomore season to tell him," she says. "The day after it was over, I called him into my office and said, 'Frank, we have to do something. You can't go to college the way your classes are set up right now.' It was a terrible moment. He actually ran out of my office. I had to go down the street and bring him back and say, 'I'm not going to leave it like that. We're going to figure something out.' So that's really where it started for us."

ON FEB. 5, 1999, Frank and Lizzie Gore joined Krantz and school administrators in the principal's office at Coral Gables Senior High School for the purpose of changing Frank's academic track. "They kept asking Frank, 'What are your goals, what are your goals?'" Krantz says. "And he kept answering, 'I want to play Division I college football and then go on to play in the NFL.' They kept saying, 'Yes, but people get hurt.' It finally got to the point where he banged his head on the table and said, 'Why isn't anyone listening to me?' and stormed out of the room."

That Superman cape -- sure, it allowed him to run past everyone. But it also enabled him to see everything in three dimensions. He told Miss Krantz what he still tells people today: "I was born to play football," by which he meant he was at home on the football field in a way he wasn't anywhere else. The school gave him an academic adviser, and he began attending a commercial learning center, but football was already his tutor, already his Kumon. He was finally diagnosed with severe dyslexia, and when that came with a condition -- "We had to prove he could improve his reading," Krantz says -- she began buying him books. They were short books, simple books, sports books, football books, books about Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis and other running backs Frank idolized. She bought them as fast as he could read them, and he read them as fast as she could buy them. "I picked him up after school and drove him home," she says. "We read them together."

When Gore went to San Francisco for his first year as a 49er, he lived in a hotel, alone and at a loss. He called Miss Krantz and asked her to fly out west and help find him a place to live. So she called Lizzie, and Lizzie gave her blessing. It was the moment she felt the full force of Lizzie entrusting him to her. It was the moment she felt the full and final force of her own obligation.

"I tell Frank that Lizzie led me into his life," Krantz says. "I tell him she led people into his life, to help him and to help her. So we have a special bond, we really do. I don't have any kids, so to me he's like my kid, he's my child, and when people ask me, I'm like, 'I guess God put him in my path. He changed my life, he has me believing in things I don't think I ever believed before I met him -- the power to achieve whatever you put your mind to.'"

"She like my mom, bro," Gore says.

HE RESPONDED TO THE CIRCUMSTANCES of his life by developing two great talents. One was running the football. The other was making people love him. They are not independent of each other; they coexist, like vision and feet. There is perhaps no more individual act in the game of football than piling up yards and touchdowns as a running back. But the Last Running Back ran as part of a collective. Because the people who love him also do things for him. Sharon Krantz made sure he went to college. Clinton Portis made sure he received playing time. John Uribe, the surgeon who operated on both of Gore's knees, was so frustrated by Gore's difficulty accessing therapy after the first surgery that he had him stay in his house with his family after the second. And Scot McCloughan, who was a scout for the Packers, then the VP of personnel and later the GM for the 49ers, fell in love with him the first time he saw him play for the Miami Hurricanes.

"He flat dominated," McCloughan says. "He made Clinton Portis and Edgerrin James look normal. He was the best back on the field as a true freshman. And I'm like, this motherf---er, he's mine."

McCloughan never lost faith in that judgment because, even after the knee injuries and the lost steps, he never lost faith in Gore. When he got the job with the 49ers, McCloughan met Gore at his combine workouts and made him a promise. "Listen, buddy, I can't take you as our first, I can't take you as our second," he said the night before the draft. "But if you are there for our first pick in the third round, we are taking you."

Gore didn't make it easy. His score on the Wonderlic test was legendarily low -- "We get the test and I'm like, 'What the f--- is this, man? I just got out of school.'" And there were linemen with better times in the 40. But McCloughan didn't care about the Wonderlic because of Gore's prodigious football intelligence. "Smartest player on the field, hands down," McCloughan says. "He has a photographic memory. Any play, he could tell me time on the clock, where the defense was lined up, where the middle linebacker was offset, what happened when the ball was snapped and where the linebacker's first step went, all right? I'm like, 'Holy s---, dude. I'm a f---ing GM, and I can't even do that.'" He didn't care about the 40 times because "Frank was always slow. I got him down at 4.78 on a track. I wrote down 4.68. I'm the one who's drafting him, I'm lying to myself." And then, McCloughan says, "He flat failed our physical at the combine. The first thing I said to the doctors when we had our medical meeting was, 'I want to know one grade: Frank Gore.' They both look at each other, like, 'Not good.' I'm like, 'Well, it's going to be good.' I had them change the grades in my first year at the job. I'm telling these doctors that have been there for 20 years, 'You're changing the grade from a 2 to a 3.' They're like, 'We've never done that.' I said, 'Well, you're doing it this time.' They changed it. Otherwise, he's off the board."

Gore can still recite the names and career yardage totals for all the backs selected before him in the 2005 draft: "I started crying when Eric Shelton got picked," he says. But McCloughan kept his promise. He selected Gore with the first pick of the third round, 65th overall, and when Gore flew to San Francisco to meet his new head coach, Mike Nolan, he headed straight for McCloughan's office instead. "Everyone's saying, 'Frank, Frank, you gotta meet the coach,'" McCloughan says. "I hear him say, 'Wait a second,' and he walks into my office crying and gives me a hug. He says, 'You have my trust for life. I'll run through walls for you no matter what. I'll outplay and blast everyone and all the backs taken in front of me. You're the only motherf---er that was honest, and I'm going to prove to you that you're the baddest motherf---ing GM in the league.'"

Why do people love Frank Gore? He has an answer: "I'm respectful, man," he says. "A lot of people act a certain way just because what they done and what they doing. That's not me. Because I know you can be up and you can be down, so you got to respect everybody. So, that's why I think a lot of people really care for me, really respect me. I respect."

But there's another reason. He cries. He could be dressing down his teammates after losing a game, he could be bemoaning his plummeting stock in the draft, he could be pledging his lifelong love and loyalty to the man who drafted him, he could be signing his contract extension with the 49ers, he could be preparing to play in his first game without a call from Lizzie, he could be inducted into the University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame, he could just be dropping Frank Jr. off at college for the first time. He might be the hardest of hard cases. But he's also an unabashed crybaby, and the combination of the two extremes is what makes so many hearts go out to him.

No one is tougher; no one is more emotional. No one is more ruthlessly competitive; no one is more openly wounded. He forgets nothing -- not favors, not slights. He has learned to run not only through pain but on it. Sure, he's all football player, and it's easy enough to tell his story through touchdowns. It is easy enough to tell his story as a running back to tell the story of all running backs in the 21st century, to make him somehow representative of how vulnerable they have become, that earthbound elite. But you can also tell his story in a way that's specific to him. How did he do it?

Through tears.

THIS, FROM MCCLOUGHAN,is the best short scouting report on Gore:

"He had the kind of vision where he can make the first guy miss without the guy knowing he's missed. He's already setting up the down lineman, he's got him beat. He knows he's setting up the linebacker and the safety after that. He sees three levels when he's running. And he was a four-quarter football player. They got tired of tackling him. The big boys got tired of hitting him. He's just so strong. He's like a bowling ball, going forward, with both shoulders down. He would drop his shoulder. That's how he survived, and he'd just run through them. I mean, there's bad motherf---ers out there saying, 'Holy Christ, I'm tough as s---. Frank's tougher than me.'"

Then one day his mindset changed. Then one day, the Last Running Back got tired. He had finished his season with the Jets and gained his 16,000th yard. But he was entertaining the possibility of staying in the league another year to attain an impossible ideal: father and son running backs in the NFL. Baltimore was rumored to be interested. Then he had to start training. "If my mindset was the same, I probably would have," he says. "When the Ravens wanted to sign me in 2021, if I was to train in that offseason the way I always trained... But that's when I knew. 'You know what? I'm done, bro.'"

But mindset has a way of playing tricks on you. He uses the word sometimes as a synonym for determination, grit, all the qualities that stood him in such good stead as an NFL running back. He uses it other times to describe something bigger, darker and deeper -- the knowledge he grew up with. Ask how he did it: That's one kind of mindset. Ask what he knew: That's entirely another, because it's what he learned growing up in Coconut Grove. It's what he learned when his fifth-grade teacher told him he'd be nothing, when no one bothered to tell him he was heading for a special diploma and couldn't go to college, when he ripped up his knee and couldn't go to therapy because he didn't have a car, when Lizzie was dying in the hospital and only when his agent informed the doctors that her son played in the NFL did she get the attention she deserved. When he was playing, he was well known for his reluctance to take himself out of a game. But that was because he feared that if he came off the field, he would give someone the excuse not to let him back on. That was because he grew up knowing that anywhere else but the football field he had been deemed something he adamantly refused to be as a running back:


When the 2021 season began, he was a running back no more. He was surprised that he didn't miss the game as much as he missed the discipline and the identity. But he was also surprised by how much he missed the discipline and the identity, because they turned out to be linked -- because the unceasing discipline of being a running back counted for a large part of who he was. "I think when you're done, not being on a routine like you always been, you got to find yourself because you lost," Gore says. "You get lost." And so, one day he called McCloughan. "He said, 'This is awful,'" McCloughan remembers. "I'm like, 'What's the matter?' He says, 'People don't talk about me anymore. I don't have football.'"

He began casting about for a new discipline and a new identity, or maybe just a new discipline that would preserve the old Frank Gore. He wasn't looking to play another sport, exactly; he was looking to be forged in another furnace. He turned to boxing. "It's more physical even than football," he says. "It's way more physical." He was a short heavyweight with a long jab and a hard overhand right. But he went into his first fight, an exhibition against former NBA player Deron Williams, with just a few rounds of sparring behind him and took a sloppy drubbing. He won his next two fights by knockout. But he was getting hit, and he was aware that he was seeking out what he had spent his NFL career avoiding. "I done played for 16 years; that's already too much contact to the head," he says. And besides, there was something else about boxing: The people who loved him hated it. "No bueno," McCloughan says. "That's probably the only time ever in my life I was just mad at the world," Frank Gore Jr. says. "I couldn't help him. There was nothing I could do because he signed up for this."

But there is no one who hated the boxing more than Sharon Krantz. She "hated, hated" it, because it made her worry about him. "I was always fearful for him when his career ended, because he poured every ounce of his being since he was like 3 years old into football," Krantz says. "I called his agent, and I called his financial adviser and asked, 'What's he doing?' I was afraid something was going to happen." It wasn't just the boxing, the unwelcome sight of him getting punched in the face. It was what the boxing represented. The world it put him in. Long ago, she had promised him that she would always be there for him "as long as you don't end up on the street." But, like so many who love and support him, she had developed a deep moral faith in him, in his "good heart" and his instinctive grasp of right and wrong. "He had made such an effort to never put himself in a bad situation," she says. "He was always so disciplined. Now I just felt like he was drinking and partying and doing things he had never done."

Krantz was at a workshop preparing for the new school year when she received the news. On Aug. 10, 2022, TMZ reported that Gore had been charged with simple assault and false imprisonment in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The story cited "bombshell court documents" without detailing their provenance. But it was lurid and it was chilling. "Frank Gore grabbed a naked woman by her hair and dragged her across a hotel room's hallway during an altercation in Atlantic City, N.J. last month ..."

"I got sick," Krantz says. "I literally had to go to the bathroom. I thought it was all over."

IT WAS A TERRIBLE PARODYof the Frank Gore Experience: Wait -- he did ... what?

Was the woman hurt? Did Frank Gore hurt her?

He had a son who was following in his footsteps, a son who believed he had lived a life without doing harm. As Frank Gore Jr. says, "He could never slip up, and he never did." Gore had no record of previous domestic violence incidents. Would Sr. tell Jr. about Atlantic City?

Any story about a legacy must include its entirety. But the Atlantic City police claimed a domestic violence exemption to New Jersey's open public records laws and refused requests for information and documents. The detective who investigated the case and the prosecutor from the municipal court did not answer calls. The defense attorney declined to discuss evidence in the case. The woman in the hotel room was not for available for comment. A press release the Atlantic City police issued in the summer of 2022 detailed the "domestic violence dispute" that took place on the 59th floor of the Havana Tower at the Tropicana Atlantic City on the morning of July 31: "Officers arrived to find the victim, a 28-year-old woman from Miami, Florida, speaking with hotel security." She "did not exhibit signs of injury" or file a complaint. Six days later, after finding a discrepancy between the story told at the scene and the security video, the police filed charges of their own. Seven months later, on March 3, 2023, Gore pleaded guilty to violating Atlantic City's "public health nuisance code" and was ordered by the municipal court to pay a $2,033 fine. A false imprisonment charge was dismissed.

I went to Florida to ask Gore about it. I went to his house in a gated and guarded community reclaimed from the palmetto scrub and rumored to be popular with professional athletes. His family was home. His sons were buzzing with the start of football season -- one a lineman and two of them running backs. The youngest Messiah was celebrating his first touchdown by scootering around the marble floors in a whirlwind of ebullience. They did not follow Gore into his TV room, and when they knocked on the door, they did not step beyond the threshold. Dark, with an enormous leather sectional marooned in the center and images drawn from Gore's NFL career paneling the ceiling, the room belonged to their father.

Out of consideration for the victim and for members of his family, he asked that some intimate details be kept off the record. I agreed. But, with his agent on hand, Gore talked. He said he put himself in a tough place, a bad situation. He and the woman in the hotel room were drinking. They were naked. They argued, and the woman left the room. Gore said he followed her into the hall and saw the eye of a security camera staring at them. He also saw the woman heading for the elevator. He panicked, he said. He grabbed her, lifting her off her feet and pulling her back into the room. Hotel security was already on its way.

"It wasn't how they try to make it because I would have went to jail," he said. "I was really bringing the girl back in the room because she was out how she was out, and when I brung her back in the room, if I was trying to hurt her, she would've been hurt. And I would've went to jail that same day. Like they say, she didn't have no bruises, she didn't have nothing. Only thing they saw was me grabbing her to put her back in the room. But at the time, I was scared. I was doing it to protect myself, but it went against me. It wasn't that I was doing it to hurt her. I was like, F---. Like f---, I'm going to get in trouble. But how they saw it on tape, how it looked -- they say I was dragging. No, bro, it wasn't like that. By the time I got her back in the room, the police came up like five minutes later. I'm sitting down, and we talking."

Gore learned about the charges and the TMZ story on Instagram. "I was scared as f---," he said. "But I forgot about it, because I thought I didn't do nothing, really. I was like, 'What the f---? What the f--- is this?' Everybody started calling."

His children heard about Atlantic City at school and read about it on the internet. And they asked their father questions. "They was like, 'Daddy, you told us never to hit girls,'" he said. "I'm like, 'Damn.' I'm not saying s--- for the media and the fans, but that s--- hit hard when you got to deal with your loved ones. They scared to go to school. Because I'm they everything. I'm they hero. Man, I was in a f---ed-up place. I had to dig deep to get out, bro. I was in the dark. I was in a dark place. I was embarrassed. I didn't want to go outside. I was even scared to look at my kids."

He hadn't felt such pain since Lizzie died, and he hadn't felt how close he was to the end of everything he worked for since he tore up his knees. He had made himself expendable again.

KRANTZ CALLED HIM as soon as she heard. He didn't call her back. Months passed and he didn't call her back. He didn't even text. "He cut me off," she says. "He literally didn't answer my calls. I was crushed, devastated. Not for me -- for him. I understood he was embarrassed. But for me, this is my child. That's how I see him. And I'm like, 'I want to make sure he is OK.' And I'm seeing pictures of him and I'm hearing that he's here and there, and I'm like, 'I know he's not OK.' So I would text him every single day, I don't know how many months it was. Sending him quotes, telling him I loved him, telling him I'm never going to ever give up on him. Finally, one day I was at Ross store on a Sunday morning, and he wrote back. He wrote back something like, 'Love you too, Miss,' or something like that. And I was just boohooing in the middle of the store."

He had waited until his case was adjudicated to talk to Krantz. He told her he hadn't been able to face her. He told her he knew he had disappointed her. "He didn't want to be his father," Krantz says. He told her his version of what had happened on the 59th floor of the Havana Tower at the Tropicana Atlantic City, and she believed him. "Whatever Frank told me, I know it's the truth," she says. "I know him. I know he had no intention of putting his hands on anyone. I know it was a situation that unfolded in a way that he couldn't get out of. So then it started making me rethink other things that I thought about other people that you see. How do you know them, and how do you know what the truth is? And so we make judgments."

Frank Sr. called Frank Jr. soon after the charges went public. "Well, he told me it didn't happen," Frank Jr. says. "So that was the main thing. Once it came out, I probably was one of the first people he talked to, and he told me it's not true. So, that's my dad and that's what I stuck to. But it also showed me people are waiting on you to mess up. Even if it's not true, they just want to say, 'Oh, look, he's this person and he did that wrong.' Even if you never showed them no wrong, you could not be perfect. I'm not saying he's a perfect person, but I'm saying you could be a clean slate, nothing wrong. Once you mess up, everyone's going to point at that, and everyone wants to harp on that. It just shows me how the world really is. Get me ready for the real world, because this is a guy who have no record, nothing. Just because a misunderstanding happened or someone thought this happened, that's what you all are going to say and you're going to tarnish his image because of this. It just showed me. It made me more aware and more awake."

Krantz and Frank Jr. came to similar conclusions based on what Gore had told them and how they felt about him: It is easy to lose everything in this world because this world wants you to lose it. But that was not Gore's conclusion. Something had indeed happened in that hotel room in Atlantic City. Charges had indeed been filled. Those were facts. And he began emerging from the darkness only when he began accepting that, just as the darkness once made him a better player, it might now make him a better man.

"When he started coming out of it," Krantz says, "he was kind of like, 'I know who I am, and I know what I'm going to do, and I know what happened.' He always believes he wouldn't have been the same player without his injuries. Now he feels that for the rest of his life and career he's going to be a different person because he understands how fragile all of this is."

These were the lessons he learned, and these were lessons he could share in his autobiography and with his children: "I'm for real," he says. "If I f--- with you, I f--- with you. I don't care what you do in life. I don't care who you is. And that's why I respect everybody, because you going to be here in life and you going to be here. You know what I'm saying? When you here, when you passing people and you get here, you can't look down on them because you never know when you got to come down who you going to see again."

LIZZIE LOVED FRANK JR. She loved him so much she wanted him all to herself. He lived with his mom, who was not married to his dad. But he was with his grandma "probably 85% of the time," he says. "She didn't want anyone touching her baby. There were times she didn't even want my mom coming to pick me up If I was with her." She was always sick and often in pain, but he gave her comfort. "She used to lay down and make me walk on her back."

His dad played football. That's all he knew -- he was born when his father's knees died. But there was never a time he didn't want to walk in those footsteps. He was one of those kids, 3 or 4 and always with a football in his hands. His dad saw that and took it upon himself to prepare him. "I had a lot of older cousins," he says. "My dad made me be with them to toughen me up."

He watched his dad play for the NFC championship when he was 10. His dad promised that if the 49ers won, his son could come down on the field with him. His dad ran for 90 yards on 21 carries and scored two touchdowns, and the 49ers beat the Falcons in Atlanta. There were so many people heading for the exits and his dad was nowhere in sight, but he refused to leave, he kept pushing against the human tide and telling Krantz, "My dad said I could come if they won." She had to chase after him, and when he saw his father summoned back to the field for an interview, he cried, "Daddy, Daddy!" He made it to the field. His dad did the interview with his arm around his son's shoulder.

Frank Jr. played football for a private school in Miami. One day, his dad came down from Indianapolis to surprise him at practice. His son wasn't there. "I asked the coach, I was like, 'He telling y'all he doing good and this and that, but he ain't even at practice.' That's when I was like, 'F--- that, he's going to public school.'"

He didn't want to go to Gables, where his dad went. He enrolled at Miami Killian. But he was smaller than his dad and had his own mindset -- "He never thought he was good enough," Krantz says. But his new coach saw something, vision and feet. "He told his father, 'He's got your footwork. He's like a mini you.' And his father was thinking, 'Oh, Coach is just saying that,' until he actually came to see him play. And then he was like, 'Man, this kid does have it.'"

His dad came home to the Dolphins in 2018, when his son was a junior at Killian. He began not only watching his games but training with him, indoctrinating his son to his unyielding routine. He still likes to show videos of his namesake's workouts. "When I train him, game specific," Gore says. "Watch this. I'm going to show you, and you going to be like, 'Goddamn.' Watch this. I train him with all game-specific stuff. Boom boom boom. That s--- work, man."

He played Wildcat quarterback at Killian and was listed as a three-star prospect as running back. But his dad believed he had been given a gift: motivation. "I told him, 'When I tore my ACL, people doubted me; when you was coming out of high school, they thought you were talented enough, but they looked at your size.'He little -- you know? Or, "He good; he not his dad."

Frank Jr. went to Southern Mississippi in 2020 and played quarterback for one season when the roster was so depleted the new coach, Will Hall, pressed him into service. The coach was the son of one of the winningest coaches in Mississippi high school history, so they often spoke, coach and player, about the pressures of legacy. "He's basically a coach's kid," Hall says. "Because though his dad wasn't a coach, his dad was a great player at the position he plays. So I think there's a tremendous drive to prove people wrong because of his size and then there's always that cloud over him that his dad made it and played for so long and rushed for 16,000 yards and him wanting to live up to that last name."

His dad used to call him when he entered the tunnel on game day. They talked twice a day even when his dad was absent, living in some NFL city far away. Now his dad comes to Hattiesburg to see him play and watch film with him Sunday mornings. "He'll tell me everything I did wrong, probably skip the plays where I did good," Frank Jr. says. "He's a tough critic, the toughest critic I probably met. But I understand that he want the best for me. He's great in his game, so I don't want to try to act like he don't know what he's talking about, because he clearly do. The things I want to be in life, he's already been, so I just try to pick his brain as much as possible."

In 2023, Frank Jr. gained 1,131 yards in a dismal three-win season for Southern Mississippi. He averaged 4.9 yards a carry. He got better, stronger, as the season wore on.

He says he wants to be an NFL running back if God allows him to. He declared for the 2024 draft in early December. But more than that he wants to be a high school football coach, teaching kids the game.

Frank Jr.'s game against Rice in the LendingTree Bowl felt like grace, like a release. It had been such a hard year, with his father's name -- his name -- tarnished by Atlantic City. "That was like God giving me my blessing in my hand because he watched me work hard, extremely hard, all offseason and even throughout the season," he says. "He also watched me go through the tough times. So I just feel like that was the blessing that God had for me all through this time. It felt like nothing could go wrong that night. That's probably the best I ever felt, ever, ever, beside my son being born."

Frank Gore Jr. had the ultimate Frank Gore Experience, a running back following in the Last Running Back's tens of thousands of footsteps. He is grateful for it. But he has a son of his own now, born right before the 2023 season began at Southern Mississippi.

He is Frank Gore's namesake. His son is named Mason.

WHEN GORE FIRST JOINED the 49ers they were a bad team. They were so bad, in fact, that head coach Mike Nolan asked his running back to evaluate each of his teammates. "So he went through the names of about 50-plus guys and it was incredible," Nolan says. "It was just one sentence on each guy, but I'll be damned if he wasn't right on the money."

It is how his mind has always worked. He is quick and confident and unsentimental when judging talent, and in the summer of 2023, six months after he concluded the case in Atlantic City, he returned to the 49ers for a job in the player personnel office. The team's general manager, John Lynch, cited Gore's "smart football mind" in announcing the hire, but to Frank the job was about the loyalty of CEO Jed York and the rest of the family that owns the team. "I always knew Jed and the family really cared about me, but when that s--- came out [in Atlantic City], they could have turned it back on me," he says. "But no, he called me, like he was one of the gods, man."

Gore earned his degree from the University of Miami on Dec. 14, six days after Frank Jr. graduated from Southern Miss. He believes he can do anything he sets his mind to, and now he has set his mind to succeeding Lynch as the GM of the 49ers. And so, when I meet him in the inner sanctum of his home in Florida, I ask Gore to act in his professional capacity and evaluate Frank Gore Jr. Does Little Frank, as he is known back home, have the ability to run in three dimensions, to run with leverage, to find angles, to survive with his feet in the smallest of spaces? "Everything, yep," Gore says, and begins flicking through the video clips on his phone with the intensity of some ancient scholar making calculations on an abacus. "Show you this play right here," he says. "Watch this s---, bro. This is crazy. Look at this run right here, man. This s--- crazy."

"Can you give me a scouting report on your son?" I ask the father.

He responds without a flicker of hesitation. "He got to get better -- the blocking," he says. "He got to finish his long runs. But the will to play, to love the game? He love the game. Great feet, great eyes, stronger than what people think. He got put on tape that he can't catch. I know he can catch, but he got to show other people. But when he break out, he got to finish. He got to finish going. That's my short report on him."

He wanted to be the last running back to leave the field, and that's exactly what he turned out to be. But how can he be the Last Running Back when his son is the next running back? And how can the Last Running Back even countenance his son becoming the next running back while knowing what he'll have to endure?

Big Frank has given Little Frank so much: vision, feet, some sort of advanced spatial awareness, game-specific training, and hours of film study, along with the motivation common to all sons from the first generation likely to the last -- the conflicting desire to please and surpass the man who came before. But Gore was able to run 9.09 miles in the NFL because he was formed in the most unforgiving of crucibles. How can he pass on the apartment with beds pushed to the edges of all the walls, the dyslexia, the casual disregard by the school system, the teacher who in Gore's memory told him, "You ain't s--- and you ain't never going to be s---," the prospect of the special diploma, and the sickness and death of the woman who loved him enough to lead him to the love and care of another? How can he tell Frank Jr. not just how he did it but what he knew? He can't. He has staked his whole life -- all that toil, all those hits, all that agony and exhaustion, all the darkness -- on making Frank Jr. and his other children feel essential rather than expendable. He loves Little Frank. How can he not want the world to love him too?

He suffered the knee injury that changed his life six days after Frank Jr. was born. It was the injury that broke forever his sense of physical invulnerability, and so became the paradoxical basis of a career that pushed any conventional idea of durability to its limit. Frank Jr. has yet to suffer a major injury. He's been spared. But if he goes into the NFL, he will play in a league that assumes he is expendable and banks on the expectation that he can and will be replaced. It is not a matter of if but when: One day he will not just get hurt but leave the field on a cart, in tears, and find himself facing the prospect of starting all over again, from nothing.

"Will your son be able to do that?" I ask Frank Gore Sr.

The dark room fills with silence, and the question lingers like a curse. He knows what his injuries cost him and the obsessive work required to come back from them. He knows how much innocence he had to lose, not to mention how much time -- time with his family, time with his son. He might not believe in luck, but he's not about to start daring the gods now, football or otherwise.

"I don't want to talk about that," he finally says.

It is the first question the Last Running Back won't answer.

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