NEW ORLEANS — San Francisco’s Frank Gore is a bruiser of a back, just as comfortable running through defenders as around them.
His physical style — which has helped the 49ers reach Sunday’s Super Bowl, where they will face Baltimore — has earned the respect of his counterpart, Ravens running back Ray Rice.
“He’s like a bull,” Rice said Monday evening, shortly after the Baltimore Ravens arrived in the Big Easy. “If you watch Frank Gore, he doesn’t take the hits. He actually delivers them because of his low center of gravity.”
But it isn’t just Gore’s natural ability that has translated into a successful season. In 2012, a campaign in which he ran for 1,214 yards and eight touchdowns, the talented back has been helped by an innovative coaching staff that includes a couple of names familiar to Davis football fans.
Paul Wulff, who graduated from Davis High School in 1985 then went on to a successful career as an offensive lineman at Washington State, spent 2008-11 as the head coach of the Cougars. He joined the 49ers as a senior offensive assistant in 2012.
Wulff is joined on the offensive staff by Ejiro Evero, a two-time Division II All-American safety at UC Davis. After his playing career, Evero joined the Aggie staff and was an assistant for the DHS junior varsity team, before getting a job coaching with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2007-09. San Francisco hired Evero as a quality-control coach in 2011, then promoted him to offensive assistant before the season.
But good coaching and elite talent aren’t the only reasons for Gore’s success. The adversity he has been through has made him extremely mentally tough.
The 29-year-old Gore has endured plenty of defeats, personal heartache (losing his mother to kidney failure) and a startling string of injuries that might have broken a lesser person. He tore up both knees in college at the University of Miami, prompting him to wonder if “football wasn’t for me.” Shaking off the doubts, he was drafted by the 49ers, but needed major surgery on both shoulders after his rookie campaign. Later, he lost part of another season to a hip injury.
“To battle through what he’s been through? He’s a warrior,” Rice said. “Hats off to my man Frank.”
Gore started his pro career with a series of bad teams. Really bad teams. During his first six years in the league, the 49ers failed to post a winning record — which was especially galling for someone who was brought up on a win-or-bust mentality with the Hurricanes.
“It was tough, real tough,” Gore said. “I would see some guys — who are not here anymore — after we lost, and they would just be like, ‘Whatever.’ I was not used to that. If we lost one game at Miami, it was like our season was over.”
One of his teammates, 49ers fullback Bruce Miller, has noticed the determination in Gore’s eyes as the team prepares to face the Ravens in the title game Sunday.
“It means a lot to him,” Miller said. “In meetings and at practice, you can see how intense and focused he is. He’s worked hard for it.”
Gore, who has gained more than 1,000 yards on the ground for six of the past seven seasons, is San Francisco’s career leader in rushing touchdowns.
“We always credit Frank with the tough yards,” Miller said. “He doesn’t get the easy runs. It’s up the middle, three or four yards a carry. But he just continues to move the chains. That’s why we’re here.”
Gore has been even more dangerous since rookie backup LaMichael James has emerged late in the season and playoffs, taking some of the load off of the veteran starter.
“It keeps me fresh,” Gore said. “Early in my career, I probably wouldn’t have liked it. Now, it gets me ready for the fourth quarter. When the defense is wearing down, that’s when I get going.”