NEW ORLEANS — Seems like everybody asking questions of the 49ers at Super Bowl XLVII wants to focus on Colin Kaepernick and the read option, or maybe on coach Jim Harbaugh matching up against his brother.
But the story that maybe best embodies San Francisco’s struggle to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995 is that of running back Frank Gore.
Gore arrived as a third-round pick from Miami in 2005. (The 49ers could have taken Ryan Moats, but unbelievably they left him for the Eagles to grab a dozen slots later.) Gore’s selection was derided at the time because he’d torn both ACLs playing for the Hurricanes. The 49ers went 4-12 his first season. He finally experienced a winning record and a playoff game in his seventh season.
En route to becoming San Francisco’s all-time leading rusher (8,839 yards on 1,911 carries), Gore has endured serious injuries to both shoulders and one hip. Yet in 2012, Gore ran 258 times for 1,214 yards and eight touchdowns. He has started every game Harbaugh has coached for the 49ers.
Monday, someone asked Gore about the identity of his team.
“Physical and tough,” he said. “It’s hard to break us.”
That’s also pretty much the way his teammates describe Gore.
“We always credit Frank with the tough yards,” fullback Bruce Miller said Monday. “He doesn’t get the easy runs. He gets downhill, up the middle, three, four yards a carry — that’s what Frank does for us. He just continues to move the chains and keep the football in our possession, which is why we’re here.”
Miller said Gore’s work ethic, which has allowed him to come back from so many setbacks, “is inspirational ... He pushes everyone to be a better football player.”
Miller knows what this opportunity means to Gore, who turns 30 in May.
“I’ll tell you, it means a lot to him. You can see it on his face, when he’s in meetings and when we practice ... he’s worked hard for it,” Miller said.
Offensive tackle Alex Boone said Gore’s appetite for contact endears the o-line to him.
“Have you ever seen Frank’s pass protection?” Boone asked a reporter Monday. The reporter replied that he had, and that it was pretty good.
“Pretty good?” Boone scoffed. “I’ve see him knock how many guys out? Just unbelievable. And he does that because he’s a selfless player. And that’s what I love about him.
“He’s like a fine wine. He gets better with age. It’s crazy ... I think Frank has the most passion I’ve ever seen anybody have in football. He’s so intense.”
Boone recalled accidentally getting in Gore’s way on a run.
“It was not my fault — he cut into me — but he yelled at me so loud,” Boone said. “You know Frank is always out there giving it 110 percent ... I think Frank deserves this ring more than anybody.”
Gore, like so many NFL players, grew up in poverty, raised by a single mother, Lizzie, in Coral Gables, Fla. A learning disability meant he had to take the SAT orally to pass it, the San Jose Mercury News reported in a recent profile.
The story recalled then-49ers general manager Scot McCloughan defending the draft pick by talking about how much Gore loved the game.
“If you take football away from him, you take his life away,” McCloughan said.
Gore recalled Monday that when he suffered his second ACL tear at Miami, “I thought football wasn’t for me,” but a Miami coach encouraged him not to give up, told him he would play in the NFL.
Then, when Gore got to San Francisco, “it was tough coming to work ... I used to take it hard.
“Some guys who aren’t here anymore were just like, ‘Whatever.’ I wasn’t used to that,” he said. “If we lost a game at Miami, it was like our season was over. Our coaching style that we have now has changed everything.”
... I knew we had players. We just didn’t have the right people to lead us, and now we do.”
This game is a showcase for Gore, who spent a lot of years watching other teams and other backs take the spotlight.
“I think I’m one of the top guys at my position,” he said. “I think I play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”