DAVIE, Fla. — In the middle of a high school football field on a South Florida summer day stands a stocky, future Hall of Fame running back. He’s inconspicuous — running, cutting and going through footwork drills with a handful of other backs who are barely half his age.
Frank Gore has his full sweat on by 7 a.m. on a 95-degree day with 80% humidity. He is going through his two-a-day routine to prepare for his 15th NFL season. At 36, he has defied reason by vaulting to fourth on the all-time rushing list. Yet he’s as hungry as he was in Year 1. He knows the question on everybody’s mind: Why the hell are you still running?
“I feel like I can still play. I’m still having fun. I still love it,” Gore said in a baritone voice that somehow gets deeper when he talks football. “If I feel like I can’t play ball anymore, I’ll stop that day. I’m not a fool. I respect the game too much. You tell yourself here in the offseason.”
After the Bills somewhat surprisingly are planning to release veteran running back LeSean McCoy, Gore is in line to be the man in a backfield once again.
That’s why Gore is here instead of on a private island somewhere. He isn’t done with the game and the game clearly isn’t done with him. The grind behind his offseason workout routine got him through 14 great seasons, but he yearns for at least one more. For now, he’s ready to see what he can do with the new-look Buffalo Bills, his fourth team. He’s using the retirement questions as motivation as he aims to see Frank Gore Jr. play college football next fall. More than anything, he wants to put an exclamation point on his career and walk off on his own terms.
Mentor to competitor
Gore jukes side to side among several orange cones. He angrily steps through an agility ladder, disappointed with himself at a misstep. He looks back and chirps at Houston Texans running back Buddy Howell. “Keep ya head up. Don’t hesitate.”
On this mid-July morning, Gore is one of five college and NFL running backs trying to get better. His voice echoes as he constantly flips from mentor to competitor.
“Florida boys sticking together,” said Bills rookie Devin Singletary, a former Florida Atlantic star and one of the South Florida natives here watching Gore’s every move. “He took me under his wing like I was his little brother.”
Florida Atlantic running backs coach Kevin Smith, the group’s trainer, offers Gore the chance to sit out a drill because it calls for a lot of jumping. It doesn’t seem worth the wear and tear on Gore, who played out his rookie contract on two surgically repaired knees.
Gore frowns, tightens his shoelaces and jumps to the front of the line.
“I love when people tell me what I can’t do. I was f—ing 35 years old last year averaging 4.6 yards per carry,” he said. “In the offseason, I saw a list where they didn’t rank me in the top 50 backs. I like that. You gotta find some way to motivate yourself.”
The concept of retirement doesn’t sit right with Gore. He shakes his head heartily when asked if he was close to giving it up this offseason.
“When you think about retiring, you’re done. You already checked out,” Gore said. “I still have more shopping to do.”
The first time they met in spring workouts, Bills quarterback Josh Allen ran up to Gore with a huge smile. Allen told Gore he was one of his favorite players while growing up in Northern California.
Allen went on and on about how he had Gore’s red San Francisco 49ers jersey and wore it often as a youngster. He couldn’t believe they were teammates.
“That messed me up. It made me feel a little old,” Gore said with a chuckle. “My quarterback wore my jersey as a kid.”
A third-round draft pick by the 49ers in 2005, Gore played 10 years in the Bay Area. He’s the team’s all-time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns, and he says he will retire as a 49er. He then played three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts before moving on to Miami and now Buffalo.
That interaction with Allen isn’t unique. Gore says nearly every game, he gets guys — who were in elementary school when he started playing — asking for the secret to his longevity.
“I tell them you gotta train like you play in the games,” Gore said. “Never let anybody outwork you. Take care of your body through nutrition.
“Take it one year at a time. I never thought about how long I would play. This game wears on you. It’s tough. You see it with Andrew Luck [retiring]. You gotta work at it and hope you’re lucky enough to take more out of the game than it takes out of you.”
It sounds simple, but that’s how Gore has seemingly become ageless playing football’s most debilitating and replaceable position.
Gore has a chef who measures his body fat, weight and daily calorie intake at the start of every offseason. Meals center on lean meats such as chicken and fish. He allows himself one cheat meal per week — on Sunday nights.
Gore’s legendary offseason workout routine includes speed and agility drills early in the morning and sessions on the heavy bag, mitts or various training classes at night. Some evenings he’ll go through football-specific workouts like pull sleds, jump cuts, quick-twitch and explosion drills with coaches.
“Summer morning workouts, we always supposed to do that. That’s our job. If you don’t, you won’t be in the league long,” Gore said. “But the night work separates the special ones. A lot of guys be satisfied with just the morning work, especially in this Miami heat.”
Gore is gone from the Miami Dolphins after one season, but his approach remains with the backs he’s influenced. Kenyan Drake cut out fast food, switching to lean meats and vegetables after watching Gore. Kalen Ballage calls Gore his big brother and said the two talk every other day.
“He took me under his wing,” Ballage said. “He always kept it real with me, telling me what he thought good or bad. I’ll be grateful for everything he helped me with. He’s still helping me.”
“It’s two-sided motivation. I know they be like, ‘If this old m—–f—– can do it, then I gotta do it,'” Gore said. “I look at how they moving, how I’m competing with them. If I’m close, then I’m OK. If I can’t keep up, what the f— am I doing? You gotta be real with yourself. I still can keep up, that’s why I keep doing it.”
The next Gore
In a reflective moment, Gore admits he has to start to face the fact his pro career’s end is very near. It has nothing to do with his game, though. He gets passionate when explaining he has to be there to watch Gore Jr. play football at Florida Atlantic next fall.
He has repeated that thought four times in a 30-minute span.
“He’s got an opportunity to play college ball, [Division I]. I got to be there. My son going to college is a big milestone,” Gore said. “I’m preparing for if it’s my last year, even if I’m not thinking it is.”
Gore Jr. is a running back just like his dad — undersized, even more so than his pops — yet he runs with purpose. He’s set to play under coach Lane Kiffin and Smith at FAU — in the same system that allowed Singletary and Howell to put up video game-type numbers.
“I want to have a great career in the NFL just like my dad. He’s my biggest role model,” Gore Jr. said. “He’s been through a lot from the knee injuries to how he grew up, so if he can do it, why can’t I?”
The two regularly train together in the offseason. Gore never pressures his son to be like him or change his style. He teaches him hard work and humility.
“He lets me be the kid that I am,” Gore Jr. said.
Gore got a chance to watch his son play at Miami Killian Senior High School regularly last season when he was with the Dolphins. It will be more difficult this season playing in Buffalo, but he’ll try his best.
Life is different for Gore Jr. than it was for his dad, raised poor in Coconut Grove, Florida. A football career changed a whole family’s direction. But that didn’t stop kids from calling Gore Jr. entitled or spoiled because of his famous, well-paid dad. He had to fight a stigma before most even met him.
“At first, he didn’t want to go to my old high school because of his last name and what people would say,” Gore said. “I told him to just be you and compete with the top guys. If you ball out, they won’t question you. I’ve watched him. He’s got a chance.”
Being the next Gore is the goal even if pops prefers to be cautious with expectations.
“It was pressure at first but now I embrace it,” Gore Jr. said. “Now I’m ready for the challenge. I love having this last name. I want to keep the legacy alive.”
The final hurrah?
In the Dolphins’ 2018 season finale at Buffalo, Gore — who was injured at the time — was taken aback watching Bills fans and players give defensive tackle Kyle Williams a love-filled ovation in his final game.
That’s when Gore realized there is still something he would love to feel before he hangs up his cleats.
“I was in awe. I immediately thought, ‘I want that s—,'” Gore said. “I want to be able to walk off the field with my teammates and fans clapping for me because it’s my last run and I’m walking off on my terms.”
But a preseason or in-season retirement announcement coupled with a farewell tour doesn’t sit right with Gore. He’s more Tim Duncan than Dwyane Wade.
He expects to make his final decision in the offseason, possibly next offseason, and never look back.
But Gore has a passion for the game that makes those who know him best skeptical. His son is convinced he’ll play forever.
Smith entered the NFL with Gore and doesn’t believe he’s done yet.
“The hustle is sold separately. He’s the GOAT,” Smith said. “I’m trying to get two, three more years out of him. He still got it, if he wants it.”
Gore is 522 yards from surpassing Pro Football Hall of Famer Barry Sanders for third on the all-time rushing list. He’s one 1,000-yard season shy of having 10 for his career. He could chase it all — if he wanted.
“I don’t want to play because I can keep reaching a certain stat. F— that,” Gore said.
He does yearn for a chance to compete … in everything he does. He relishes a rare opportunity to play in a crowded Bills backfield alongside another 10,000-plus-yard veteran All-Pro (McCoy) and one of his favorite rookie backs (Singletary).
“I’m going to play my role, but I don’t look at myself as a backup,” Gore said a few weeks ago. Then he played well enough to beat McCoy out and head a new Bills backfield alongside Singletary.
Gore said throughout the summer he felt he was doing enough to outplay McCoy but he was willing to earn his role in the games if it came to it. Plus, his eyes lit up when discussing the talent of Singletary (who is nicknamed Motor) and what his potential can be.
“Motor got a chance to be special, man. Out of all the rookie backs, he has the best eyes from the jump,” Gore said. “I like Motor. He’s quick, thick, built low to the ground. Just watch, he’s got a real chance.”
Gore’s biggest takeaway after six months in Buffalo is he feels good about the team’s playoff chances, citing a stout defense, diverse running game and improving quarterback.
Legacy is everything
Gore will be remembered as one of the greatest running backs to play. But more than an unforgettable touchdown or a record-setting season, Gore will be remembered for how he played, the punishment he took and gave out and how he became the definition of consistency.
“Legacy is everything,” Gore said. “Just because you’re the best player in the NFL, you don’t have to show it. You show it by being first in sprints, working hard every day in practice. You don’t have to be an a–hole. Humility is a lost virtue. That’s why God has helped me play as long as he has.”
Smith added: “I don’t believe we’ll ever see another player like Frank Gore.”
Gore might be the last ironman running back. He amassed 122 consecutive starts from 2011 to 2018, a streak broken after he suffered a foot sprain last December that ended his season.
It’s fair to wonder about what football has done to Gore’s body. He has suffered two torn ACLs, a fractured hip, two shoulder surgeries, a broken hand and countless other injuries.
Spend a few days with Gore, and you’ll learn he knows more about football than most will ever grasp. From his two-a-day workouts to midnight calls giving a scouting report on an NFC rookie running back, Gore loves football.
Perhaps Gore will never leave the game, even after he finally hangs up his cleats. He has a different dream.
“I want to be a scout or a GM one day. I’ll try to go for it. That’s my goal. I really like evaluating talent,” Gore said. “I think I’m good at it, but we will see. I like watching football. But I love to see who really is what they’re supposed to be.”
General manager Frank Gore has a bit of a ring to it. That’s if the ageless one ever retires.