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The San Francisco 49ers are headed back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995, when Steve Young put on a clinic throwing for a Super Bowl record 6 touchdowns in a 49-26 throbbing of the San Diego Chargers.
Since that time, 49ers fans have suffered plenty of playoff heartbreaks (this is why we hate you, Brett), and plenty of losing seasons. I became a fan of this team 10 years ago, about a year after moving to the United States. The first game I ever watched was San Francisco's historic comeback against the New York Giants in the Wildcard Round of the 2003 playoffs, when Jeff Garcia led the team to an amazing 24-point second half comeback to turn a 38-14 deficit into a 39-38 thrilling win. If watching that game didn't turn me into a fan of this franchise, I don't know what could have.
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As you could figure out, my first full season as a fan was not pretty. For reasons I still don't quite understand Steve Mariucci was fired as head coach and replaced with Dennis Erickson, who failed to put together a winning season while Garcia and Terrell Owens were still on the team in 2003, and took failure to another level in his second and final year leading the 49ers to the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.
But this piece isn't about the 1st overall pick in 2005. No, I'm here to talk about the 65th overall pick that year, the player who rejuvenated my faith on this team even while they continued to put together losing season after losing season, the Miami Hurricane who refuses to be content with mediocrity, who trains hard during the season and harder than anyone else each offseason, who overcame surgeries in each one of his knees during college, who has led this team in rushing yards in each season since he joined the NFL.
After an 18-year hiatus in the big stage, it's time for the 49ers to win this Super Bowl for Frank Gore.
After all, Gore has done nothing but give his heart and soul for this franchise ever since he stepped onto the practice field as a rookie. In 2005, he made an overpaid Kevan Barlow expendable by outplaying him on the field, rushing for more yards and the same number of touchdowns as Barlow in 49 less carries. In 2006, having earned the starting position in the backfield, he rushed for a franchise record 1,695 yards to go along 8 touchdowns. He followed that with three consecutive seasons of 1,000 rushing yards or more, and would have a current streak of seven 1,000 yard rushing seasons if he hadn't missed 5 games in 2010 with a right hip injury. After eigh seasons in the league wearing red and gold, Gore averages 1,105 rushing yards per season to go along just over 6 touchdowns. The low number of rushing touchdowns has been a point for criticism over his career, but he has made up for it with the rest of his game.
That is because Frank Gore is the most complete running back in the NFL. He is a reliable weapon coming out of the backfield to catch passes, which he did at his best during his earlier years leading the team in receptions in 2006 (61) and 2007 (53). From 2006 to 2010, he averaged 51 receptions per year, and he basically was the offense for San Francisco. Even when the ball is not in his hands, Gore is still an integral part of the 49ers offense, arguably being the best pass-blocking running back in the NFL, and undoubtedly being the best at mauling blitzing defenders. In an era where fast-paced, quick-cutting running backs are all the rage, Gore is a true, throwback, three-down running back who gives the offense a chance to run most of its playbook when he is on the field. He wears down defenses, getting better and better as games goes on.
As impressive as his multi-dimension skills are on the field, Gore may just be most impressive off the field. He is a natural student of the game, having adapted to a high number of offensive coordinators and schemes. The owner of a difficult injury history during his college years, Gore has always had an impressive workout regimen at hand, especially during the offseason, that has allowed him to avoid the injury-prone tag he carried with him in the months leading to the 2005 NFL draft. Gore averages 14.5 games per season during his 8-year career, undoubtedly the envy of many current and former running backs in the NFL. The ability to remain on the field isn't just impressive, but it no doubt factors into the competency he has displayed throughout his career. One of the first tidbits I learned about this game was that a running back who can average at least 4 yards per carry is giving you as much as you could ask of him, as he will often put you in positive game situations (2nd & medium, 3rd & short). Gore has never averaged less than 4.2 yards per carry (2010), and has averaged as much as 5.4 (2006). For his career, Gore averages 4.6 yards per carry. Go read comments by players and coaches around the NFL on Gore, you will have a difficult time finding even a negative word directed his way.
In a time when Colin Kaepernick, deservedly so, may be becoming the face of this franchise, it is worth mentioning that Frank Gore in one way or another has been the face of the 49ers throughout his career. He endured six consecutive non-winning seasons, only one of which wasn't a losing season, and he is now finally enjoying the result of all the hard work he's put in during his career, a career that is on path to a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame should Gore be able to crank up another 3-4 seasons - but a Super Bowl ring would most definitely help.
Gore isn't the most veteran player on the team without a championship (see Moss, Randy), or even the longest tenured 49er (that would be Brian Jennings), but you would be hard-pressed to argue for a player on this roster who deserves to win a title more than him. Justin Smith? He is probably the closest argument, but he hasn't endured his struggles with this franchise the way Gore has. Patrick Willis? No doubt about it, but he has another 8-10 seasons in him, and this won't be the last time he makes it onto the big stage. No, there is nobody on this roster who deserves to win a championship more than Frank Gore.
So two weeks from now, when San Francisco takes on the Baltimore Ravens at the Superdome in New Orleans, I will be rooting as hard as I have ever rooted for the 49ers, but I will be rooting even harder for Frank Gore to come full circle in a magnificent career that deserves nothing but a championship. I know I'm speaking for thousands, if not millions of 49ers fans when I write this. Let's all root for Frank Gore.
**Follow me on twitter @DiegoDelBarco