The NFL is valuing youth and innovation more than ever before. A year after the Rams made Sean McVay the youngest head coach in league history, Patrick Mahomes became the youngest MVP winner since Dan Marino. This offseason, an avalanche followed: The Cardinals threw caution to the wind and paired Kliff Kingsbury with Kyler Murray, the Packers ended the Mike McCarthy era, and the Bengals poached the Rams’ quarterbacks coach to be their new head coach. When did the NFL begin to resemble Silicon Valley? Welcome to Wunderkind Week, when we’ll dive deep into how the NFL became a young man’s league.
I kept hearing the same story about Frank Gore. The names changed, the teams changed, the decades changed, but the story was the same. “When I got to the 49ers in 2009, he wanted to take every rep [in practice]. He wouldn’t let anyone else take a rep,” his former running backs coach Tom Rathman said. “So later in the first week, I tried to sneak somebody else in, and he wouldn’t let me. He wouldn’t come off the field, would take every rep. Then, it happened in a game. He wouldn’t come out of the game. I said ‘If you don’t come out, I’m going to have to come out there and drag you off the field.’”
Rathman, now with the Indianapolis Colts, is still close with Gore. He said Gore finally relented and appreciated the coach’s bluntness. Ten years later, Bills general manager Brandon Beane has a Gore story from this offseason: “There was a day in June, Frank was working his way back [from injury],” Beane told me. “We set aside a certain number of reps for Frank in this [offseason training], and we tell him to come off, and he’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ And he’s on the sideline, he’s upset. I’m saying ‘Frank, relax,’ and Frank is saying, ‘I came here to win, I need more reps.’ How many veterans want more reps in OTAs? Most guys are saying, ‘OK, I’ll take my vet day.’ We are going to have to grab him by the collar and tell him, ‘You’re not going out there,’ and it’s going to drive him nuts.”
These were different stories told by two people in different organizations, and most importantly, the events they described occurred a decade apart. The sport looks dramatically different now, as does the running back position, and Frank Gore still won’t leave the field.
Gore is 36 years old. He signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Bills this year. He has made five Pro Bowls, played in one Super Bowl, has the fourth most rushing yards in the history of the NFL, and there is an outside shot that he is immortal. He has overcome injuries, the running back aging curve, a crowded college backfield—and time itself—to carve out one of the most interesting careers in football.
I ask him whether he’s ever been fully healthy in his career.
“I can’t say that,” Gore said. “Well, in my freshman year of college.”
And then, the knee …
“Knee, ACL, shoulders, foot.”
How do you feel right now?
“I just have to keep working, and I’ll be fine.”
Gore’s solution to considerable adversity is to understate its impact and just work through it. He tore his ACL twice in college while playing at the University of Miami. He has had major surgery on both his shoulders. A foot injury sidelined him at the tail end of 2018, as his tenure with the Dolphins came to a close. There have been countless injuries in between. Even if 2019 were Gore’s last season and this summer his last training camp (though everyone around him says he thinks he has way more to go), he has established himself as one of the toughest players ever to play. “A true warrior,” Rathman said. “And a guy you want with you if you’re going into an alley.”
In a league filled with football obsessives, Gore is one of the most notably obsessed. “Last night I was standing near him,” Bills coach Sean McDermott told me at training camp. “And I could hear him going over play calls to himself, just spitting the play calls out. Some guys are three feet away BS-ing, and there’s a possible Hall of Famer spending every minute of his waking day breathing in football.”
“There’s a saying, in scripture, about being lukewarm. Frank Gore is not lukewarm,” McDermott said.
The amazing thing about Gore is that for all of his heroics in games, the legendary stories that circulate about him mostly come from practice fields. There are things you hear about Gore that sound like clichés—that he loves the game, loves competition, and breathes football—but they do not sound like clichés with him because, according to many people around him, he has built a life around those things. The story of Gore’s career is one of hard work, trying to compete, and staying relevant in a game that is designed to make players irrelevant as they age. “You have to love the game,” Gore said. “Then you have to stay around younger guys at the position. They will keep you honest.”
This last part is the most intriguing part of Gore’s routine. He thinks his secret weapon is training with and competing against as many young players as possible. Basically, he routinely owns them.
He wants to beat them. He often does. His rationale is simple: He’s going to be OK if he can hang with the youngest group of NFL players he can find. He started with Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew a decade ago and now has a group that includes Texans running back Lamar Miller (28 years old), Steelers running back James Conner (24), and Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (24). These workouts take place at a facility in South Florida where Gore works out with his trainer Pete Bommarito. Gore has been doing it so long that his group of training partners now includes his son, Frank Gore Jr., who is committed to play football at Florida Atlantic University in 2020. Bommarito has known Gore’s family for years, and there have been many lighthearted moments. But during these workouts, Gore Jr. is another young running back to Gore. “You would expect to see a father-son relationship, and you really don’t,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s like any other running back in the system.”
A typical workout goes like this: Gore competes hard against everyone in every drill and at least holds his own, even against players much faster or younger than him. Typically, by the end, he’s outlasts everyone. Jones-Drew, a longtime NFL running back who is now an NFL Network analyst, said of Gore’s training regimen: “We would condition on Fridays and Frank wasn’t the fastest, but he would always beat you on the last few drills and say, ‘I got you.’ He was there to push you.”
For all of Gore’s legendary games over the past 14 years, nothing quite compares to his behind-the-scenes plays in practice and offseason workouts. He cannot be as good as everyone at everything, but his competitive streak will pop up in everything he does.
“I help them, and they help me,” Gore said of his younger workout partners. “It helps both of us. They see me going hard, and they say, ‘I can’t let this guy who is 36 years old outdo me,’ and I compete with them and I know that if I can keep up, I will be all right for the next year.”
When Gore talks about his workouts, you start to realize just how long he’s been in the league. Early partners, he said, included Rudi Johnson (last season: 2008); Thomas Jones (2011); Jones-Drew (2014); and Taylor (2010).
“A lot of people say as you get older, the first thing to go is the quickness in your feet, but I promise you since I got [to Bommarito’s workouts in] 2013, I have always seen him have the fastest feet,” Bengals running back Gio Bernard told me. “Regular cone drills, whatever. He always has the fastest feet.”
Bommarito, who trains about half the starting running backs in the NFL, has been training Gore since before his NFL debut in 2005. He said Gore takes particular pride in “second gear” drills that include light resistance acceleration.
“A young back coming in—like [Seattle’s] Travis Homer or a James Conner, who is shockingly fast, or Dalvin Cook—they start competing, and even though Frank has never been known as a speed back, the reason he still has these big runs is he can cut on a dime and he can accelerate out of those changes of direction. Frank will not let any young running back do better than him in those speed drills. Because even though they may be faster, it’s about the technique of the drill,” Bommarito said. “Guys get shocked when they come down here, at the heat and the time we spend here, and you just love to see Frank—I’m not saying he’s going to bark at them—but he’s not going to allow anyone near him who is not working. If he’s going to run at 7:30 [a.m.] and you’re in his group, you better not have gone out the night before and look like a train wreck about to bring the whole group down.”
So devoted is Gore to competing with young players that he seeks them out. “I noticed he liked training with the young dudes,” Lamar Miller said. In 2016, Miller failed to show up for workouts for a few days. “He calls me and says, ‘Hey where are you at?’” Miller said he was at the University of Miami training with younger players, including Duke Johnson. “The next day he just shows up, just to compete,” Miller said. “It was a conditioning day, and he is such a competitive guy, and he upped the intensity.”
In 2019, Gore did what he always does: compete in drills against young bucks and make sure he’s still got it for the upcoming season. This, Bommarito said, was confirmed in the last five weeks of training. The Bills’ rookie running back Devin Singletary told him Gore was right there with him on sprints, even in the dead of summer in South Florida. Bommarito said Gore looked good in those drills in Florida, and there was something else. “He’s got a six-pack now. He’s taking his shirt off nonstop.”
“The physical toughness comes from the mental toughness,” said Ken Dorsey, former Hurricanes quarterback, and Gore’s teammate. “To come out of the running back room he did in college, that is not a place where it was ‘Hey, why don’t you get a couple reps.’ They were competing and always pushing each other and not in a warm and fuzzy way.”
Gore has played so long that Dorsey is now an assistant coach on the Bills’ staff. At Miami, Gore played in a backfield with Willis McGahee, Clinton Portis, and Najeh Davenport, among others. There is no one origin story for Gore, but his struggles with injury in college go a long way in explaining why he refuses to come off the field. “It humbled me. It told me that this game can be taken away at any time, so I’ve got to work hard,” he told me.
It is not simply about physical conditioning. Rathman told me Gore used to show up an hour early for weekly 8 a.m. meetings. He’d ask about changes to the scheme for the next opponent, what pressures the defense used, and how he’d have to adjust his pass blocking. “He still has elite feet, and if you want to see his physicality, watch the guy pass block, delivering the blow on the rusher. … He knocked a guy out in a Philadelphia game.”
The amazing thing about Gore’s career is that this is not a nostalgia story. He still has elite feet. He is not on some farewell tour, and Beane told me that if you took the name off of his game tape before his injury last season you’d never expect the runner to be 35 years old. Gore can still contribute something. He’s not going to make another Pro Bowl, but he’s not merely chasing records.
Taylor said there’s a tell when running backs are aging and near the end: Their pad level gets higher. They get more upright. “It happens when a player is afraid to, or can’t, bend his knee. Frank still bends his knee,” said Taylor, who is one of Gore’s biggest influences. Taylor started to hear stories in the early 2000s about “this guy who was better than all of the Miami running backs but kept getting injured.” The two started training together early in Gore’s career. Taylor explained his philosophy about preparation to me: “I call it routine vs. commitment. It looks the exact same, but commitment reinforces the routine because routine gets boring,” Taylor said. Gore showed how much he loved training. “[After the 2011 NFL Players Assocation collective bargaining agreement], guys should have longer careers [because of reduced practices], but not all guys take it seriously. I really think Frank wants to finish no. 1 in rushing all time if he could.” Gore has 14,748 career rushing yards, 3,607 behind leader Emmitt Smith.
Taylor thinks that Gore’s struggles early in his career—injuries and splitting time in college, in particular—were a massive part of his development. “Because you can’t teach that hunger. You have to have it in you, and then it has to be activated, and that was his activation—competing against guys each and every day, and the only thing stopping him from being the man was injuries,” Taylor said. “A lot of guys would be content with splitting time at a major university, or making the NFL, or getting to hang out with star players. Guys are content. You see it a lot. Frank had a different drive, a different hunger.”
If you understand how the NFL running game works, Gore’s career is more impressive. Taylor tells me that when Gore started his career, the Niners loved to run “power,” which is referred to in NFL player circles as a “grown-man” play. “That’s a play that’s run guard to guard. It is tough to make a living that way, and you don’t see a lot of guys who can do that for a long time,” Taylor said. “Frank made the odds in his favor.” Taylor adds that he doesn’t think he’s ever seen Gore get “lit up” in a game by a defender because his running style limits his exposure to big hits.
Jones-Drew said, “There were times he’d do a drill two or three times, and I was gonna do just the one. We made each other better.” Like Taylor and many other people I spoke with, Jones-Drew credits Gore’s running style with his longevity. “He makes people miss in a phone booth. His vision is amazing. He always falls forward, which is important in this league.”
Dorsey still sees Gore’s feet every day in Bills practice, and it reminds him of Gore’s 2001 game against West Virginia when Gore, as a freshman, rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns. “I will never forget that game. He was making cuts I’ve never seen anyone make. I would hand him the ball and think there is nothing there and he creates something,” Dorsey said. “Now he’s seen so much football, so many different defenses, and he has such a natural instinct and feel. A lot of it is those reps.”
Beane told me that the Bills considered signing Gore last year, but he wanted a guaranteed starter role. The team signed Chris Ivory instead of waiting for Gore’s situation to unfold. “We checked back in this year; his representatives said, ‘He’s open and he likes your situation,’ and it worked out. It’s great. It’s been everything and then some. It is not an accident he’s still playing. It kills him to not be on the field. It kills him. He doesn’t feel like he’s 36, and this guy thinks he’s got more than one year left in the tank.”
Aside from adding to the Bills’ running back depth, there is a sort of spiritual lift Gore gives the unit. His offseason workout group includes Singletary, the Bills’ rookie running back, who at 21 years old is 15 years younger than Gore. “His energy in every drill is amazing. It’s like he’s a little kid. That’s when I knew [he still had it],” Singletary said. Working out with teammates in the offseason is a helpful exercise as well, because it gets Bills running backs on the same page as Gore (Bills running back LeSean McCoy is a regular at the workouts, too). “What an example for the younger players,” Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said. “He treats this game like a privilege and not a right.”
Singletary said that Gore creates an environment in which players compete on every rep. “He’s always down to work. If you feel like you don’t want to work, you have to work around him.” Singletary said he studies Gore’s running style: how he operates so well in small places and how he compares Gore’s footwork in drills to other running backs. “He might make a joke and say, ‘I’m 16 years older than you’ as he runs by,” Singletary said. “You think ‘OK, if he’s still willing to work, I’ve gotta work.’”
I’ve gotta work is a lesson Gore has taught not just teammates but workout partners and really anyone who has watched him play for over 15 years. When Cook tore his ACL in 2017, he said that he looked to Gore’s career. “You wonder how the hell he did it,” said Cook, a Miami native, who said he’s borrowed liberally from Gore’s schedule by working out in the morning, followed by boxing, then agility training at night. “I just had to see it for myself.”
“It’s about going all 12 rounds, to use a boxing term. It’s about how hard he finishes, not starts. You will go 12 rounds with Frank. He will compete his tail off,” said Cook. “Everyone’s walking off the field, and he wants to get one more rep in. Then they’ll start walking again. He’ll want to get one more rep in.”
And that, of course, is the Frank Gore story: one more rep. Over and over again.