SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Nine years later, Frank Gore remembers every name. You ask, and he'll start rattling them off.
Ronnie Brown. Cedric Benson. Cadillac Williams. The guy who went to Arizona ... J.J. Arrington, that's his name. And Eric Shelton.
All five running backs who were picked ahead of Gore in the 2005 draft.
"Then the 49ers drafted me," said Gore, the 65th pick of that draft, in the third round.
Just look at those names. Brown is the only other one still going, and he was out of work until the Texans signed him earlier this week. Vernand Morency, Ryan Moats and Maurice Clarett (!) were the next three backs to go. Those names seem like NFL relics, probably because in the world of a running back, they are.
And then there's Gore. He's 31 and says he feels great. He doesn't look like he's near the end, coming off an 1,128-yard, nine-touchdown season. On draft day in 2005 he lasted longer on the board than all five of those guys he remembers so well, and he's prideful that he'll likely be the last one of that group standing in the NFL.
"It's a blessing," Gore said. "That's why when I'm out here, I have fun. Because I've been up and I've been down, and I know it can be taken away from me."
It'll end at some point. One of these days the annual prediction will be right, and Gore will hit the wall. The 49ers are preparing, having drafted Marcus Lattimore last year, and Carlos Hyde in the second round this year. Gore's contract is up after this season. It's not hard to see where this might be headed.
Gore understands the possibilities. If he is bitter about the 49ers planning for life without him, he shows it in a strange way. After a practice at Levi's Stadium on Friday night, he stopped by the tunnel for a few minutes to sign autographs for fans who had come to watch. He spotted Hyde, and waved him over to do the same. It was a small moment, a respected veteran showing a rookie what he should do – and it just happened to be for a rookie who might have his job next year.
"I know what I can do," Gore said about the 49ers drafting Hyde. "God has me healthy and I know what I’m capable of doing. So why be mad at a guy who the organization brought in? Why not bring him on?"
Gore knows this might be his last season in San Francisco, although that hasn't been determined yet and the 49ers love the hard-nosed Gore. However, he understands the business side of the game.
"All I can do go out and try to be the same Frank Gore," he said about being in a free-agent year. "Show the organization I can play this game at a high level, and also show other teams, if I’m not here, someone else can have interest in me."
Whatever happens after this season will be figured out later. Like the rest of the 49ers, Gore has some unfinished business this season and some urgency to tend to it.
The 49ers have lost in either the NFC championship game or Super Bowl three straight years, all very close and very late losses. Gore has team records for carries (2,187), rushing yards (9,967), rushing touchdowns (60), but no championship ring.
"I want a Super Bowl," Gore said. "Before I leave this organization, I'd love to have a Super Bowl with this organization. Just to know what I've done here and I would love for it to be said when I'm done, 'Frank Gore, arguably probably was the best back here, and he got a ring here.'"
He brings up Roger Craig, who might have the best argument other than Gore for best 49ers back among those in the Super Bowl era, and immediately points out that Craig had three Super Bowl rings.
Meaning that he needs a ring too no matter what else he has done, although what he has done in his 49ers career has been fantastic.
“Frank is the most underrated football player – and this is not hyperbole – honestly that I’ve ever known,” 49ers legend Steve Young said on KNBR, via the team's website. “He’s a well-known player, but no one understands how great he really is. He’s one of the best backs I’ve ever seen or watch play."
If the 49ers finally get that Super Bowl ring, Gore will be a big reason why. San Francisco has an improving passing game with the incredibly talented Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, but the 49ers still want to be a tough, running team. And one of the reasons they've established that identity the past few years is Gore, who has evolved into a versatile back who takes as much pride in his blocking and receiving as his rushing yards.
He said he feels good at age 31. He works out with younger players back in Miami ("It keeps me honest, to know where I'm at," he said) and said he feels the same as he always has. At an age when most backs are deep into retirement, Gore has been remarkably durable. He hasn't missed a game in three seasons, with 877 regular-season touches and a lot of playoff action. That's pretty impressive for a player who slid in the draft because he had two knee surgeries at Miami.
However long Gore has left playing at a high level, or playing in San Francisco period, he again brings up the one thing left on his to-do list.
"I've played in a Super Bowl, NFC championship, but before I leave, I want God to bless me and my teammates and get us a ring," Gore said.
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