It’s said that the aesthetic value of a flower is that it dies. That something blooms for such a short period of time before wilting, after spending its entire life cycle striving to reach that brief, brilliant peak. You can extend this metaphor (wait a bit for the metaphor) to any number of natural phenomena that flash quickly, then fall dark, and the human who gets to experience it holds it dear specifically because of its transience. A shooting star, a fine old wine, sex, a song. It’s not possible to be get too purple here, because what we’re really talking about is death, and our own mortalities. Things are beautiful because they end. Athletes fall into this category. They spend their whole lives preparing for a fleeting burst onto the stage, last a few short years, then decay, the one-way arrow of time assuring us and them that this is it, they’re gone and they won’t be back. This applies especially to football players, whose useful working days are shorter than most due to the particular physical brutality of their sport. And it applies perhaps most of all to that elusive figure—blink and you’ll miss their career!—of the NFL running back. The job description, “run directly at 11 people who are trying to smash you into dust and will eventually do so, then do it again, a couple dozen times per game, then do that again next week” does not lend itself to longevity. We expect running backs to wear out fast. We expect them to be replaceable, and replaced. We value them while they burn bright because we know how quickly they’ll go dark.
So, then, what are we supposed to do with the generational bizarrerie of a running back who doesn’t burn out or fade away, at least not on the timelines suggested to us by both history and science? You can start to take him for granted, which is actually less a dismissal than a signal honor in this profession. Or you can enjoy the long tail for the very fact that it shouldn’t be.
Frank Gore’s NFL career is over, maybe. Not by choice, mind you. The Jets RB suffered a bruised lung that will keep him out of the season finale, and he’s clear-eyed about his chances of catching on somewhere next year. “I’ve got to be real with myself, how teams think about my age. They might not want a 38-year-old running back on the team.” You would’ve been able to say that last year about a 37-year-old, though, or the year before about a 36-year-old, and so on, so I’m not ready to call this one just yet. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t appreciate Gore every chance I get.
I think Frank Gore is one of the coolest NFL players of my lifetime. I say this knowing absolutely nothing about him, especially in re the traditional arbiters of cool: I don’t know how he talks or what he believes; I don’t know his fashion sense; I probably couldn’t pick him out of a lineup; I can’t even, off the top of my head, conjure up a signature or highlight play of his. When I think of Frank Gore, my mind constructs a Platonic form of a play, one that specifically may never have happened, yet has happened hundreds or thousands of times. In this play, Gore runs straight ahead, hitting the hole (or what there is of one; he did play on some pretty crummy teams) with momentum but not much velocity. There’s contact at or near the line of scrimmage, but Gore bowls through or over and maintains his feet to drag out the act of the tackle for just enough second-fractions to pick up an extra yard or two. The gain is five yards when it should have been four; two when it should have been stopped for no gain. It’s not pretty, and it’s not flashy, but it’s mechanically cool and viscerally pleasing just for the sheer efficiency and repeatability of the thing. He’ll do it again and again, for 16 years.
Gore became a power back because he had to. He was utterly brilliant as a freshman on an all-time great Miami team, and like most teenagers, he didn’t like getting tackled and tried very hard to avoid being so. Unlike most, he was good at avoiding it. As shifty as any back you’d seen, lateral movement, explosive cuts. He wanted to be, as all young backs do, Barry Sanders. Maybe he could’ve been. He averaged better than nine yards per carry that year. Then he tore his ACL. The following year, he tore it again. Frank Gore the NFL running back was a downhill back because he had been forced by the structural failures of his body to fully reinvent himself as an athlete by age 20. It suited him.
The numbers are really something, especially the counting stats. Eighty-one rushing scores in the NFL, and another 18 in the air. Exactly 16,000 rushing yards. That’s number three all-time. Three thousand, seven hundred, and thirty-five carries. That’s also third-best all time. He’s a lock for Canton and should be. But the numbers that speak to me are the ones that quantify what I’ve felt, that Gore was always there. Like his 241 games played, the most for any back, ever. Like the fact that in the last decade, including this coming Sunday that he’ll be forced to sit out, he’s missed just three total games. The fact that, after leaving as the 49ers’ all-time leading rusher, he went and had another 1,000-yard season at age 33. The fact that after that, he’s spent four seasons with four different teams, happy to sign and to play for whomever was happy to have him, and there’s always been one. Maybe in all those late-career signings he was meant to serve more of a mentor role, and maybe that’s what he envisioned too. But through his consistency and durability and the position’s traditional lack of both, he’s found himself thrust to the fore, starting more often than not in Indianapolis, in Miami, in Buffalo, in New York. Gore was something of an irresistible force on the depth chart as well as between the hashes.
For a while now I’ve wanted two things for Gore, and neither was to retire on his own terms, because it’s long been clear that his own terms involve doing this until no one will pay him to. The first is that he’d end up as a backup on a Super Bowl team; are you telling me he couldn’t give the Chiefs whatever they’re getting from Le’Veon Bell now? The second is that he’d stick around long enough to play against, or even alongside, his son. That’s a thing that just doesn’t happen in football. But Frank Gore Jr. is already a freshman back at Southern Mississippi.
This is about mortality, I said. About how when physical prowess goes, it doesn’t return. It was always nice for me to know that there was an NFL running back older than me. It stripped me of excuses for my various increasing aches and pains and decreasing stamina, and promised that, hey, aging doesn’t have to be a cliff. If Gore is forced to call it quits, there will never again be an NFL running back older than me. That “never” hits hard.
But maybe Gore can continue to outrun the inevitable, just as he left the better, sexier backs of his and my youth in his dust. The 2005 draft, where Gore went in the third round, was expected to be replete with superstar backs. The first three off the board register now as names from an entirely different eon: Ronnie Brown, Ced Benson, and Cadillac Williams. Those three have now been out of the league for a combined 23 years, while Gore has toiled on, bruising lungs at three or four yards per carry.
I’m going to submit a potentially controversial statement here: It’s no huge thing to be a star running back. Lots of guys do it. They flash, they burn, they burn out, they’re replaced by the next star. It’s the life cycle of the position. They become, in the memories, guys to remember fondly if vaguely, because their primes were so short. Being a star is an accomplishment. But the hardest thing for an NFL running back to do is to last, and Frank Gore lasted.