SANTA CLARA -- He's the most complete player on his team, revered by teammates and coach after coach after coach falls in love with him.
He plays a glamour position, yet his name doesn't light up the marquee.
He consistently produces, yet he's not a first-round lock in fantasy leagues.
What, exactly, is Frank Gore's status as an NFL running back?
Sitting at his locker at 49ers headquarters this week, a few days before the NFC divisional playoff game against Green Bay, even Gore seems a bit confused. He wonders if media and fans recognize the value of a running back able to block like a 220-pound guard. He is curious about Hall of Fame criteria for running backs.
"Is Edgerrin James
When told James is considered "borderline," Gore conveys mild puzzlement.
"What about Fred Taylor," he asks of the man who sits 15th on the all-time list.
Close, but probably not. His thin postseason resume could keep him out.
This brings the conversation squarely into the moment. Gore pauses and ponders. This is his eighth season. He turns 30 in May, so he can't anticipate a long NFL future. The bulk of his personal legacy is built. Yet, with two winning seasons and four Pro Bowl selections, it is unfulfilling.
It's as if an internal light clicks on, illuminating the full scope of his
"You don't get too many opportunities like this," he says. "So let's try to go out and do it. It's not guaranteed you're going to come to the postseason every year."
Gore, the 49ers' third-round draft pick in 2005, acknowledges that most of his career has been spent on teams short on talent and leadership, as well as astute coaching. San Francisco's cumulative record in his first six seasons was 37-59, without a single playoff appearance. In two seasons under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers are 24-7-1.
Moreover, Harbaugh's 49ers are making their second consecutive postseason appearance. With a superior defense and young quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking over as the starter, the future appears bright.
How much of that future, though, will include Gore? He is under contract for two more seasons, through 2014. He has been written off, or "whispered off," several times -- only to recover and astound.
The 49ers the past three years have added veterans such as Brian Westbrook and Brandon Jacobs, neither of whom came close to unseating Gore. They've used draft picks to select Kendall Hunter and rookie LaMichael James, yet Gore remains the undisputed leader of the stable.
And, still, the league's No. 3 active rusher (8,839 yards) is trying to prove his worth. Gore gained 1,214 yards in 2012, and he's still trying to prove he belongs among the elite.
Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, No. 2 on the active rushing list (8,849), clearly is the best running back going. Then it gets hazy. Many will point to Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, eighth on the active list, or Houston's Arian Foster. Some wave the flag for Baltimore's Ray Rice or, when healthy, Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew and Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy.
Two accomplished veterans often get lost in the crowd. One of them is St. Louis' Steven Jackson, the No. 1 active rusher (10,135) who generally is obscured by his team's annual mediocrity.
The other is Gore, considered the ultimate football player by three San Francisco coaching staffs.
"Every day my admiration for Frank Gore as a football player, every time you think it's as high as it can be, then he finds another rung on the ladder in my esteem," coach Jim Harbaugh said earlier this season. "And then even more so as a person. He's just one of the finest guys you ever want to be around. He'd do anything for the team, and is just a football player, in all senses of the word, phrase."
Gore is a great runner and an extraordinary blocker. He's a good receiver. He's as fearless as he is relentless. His characteristics surely fit the Hall of Fame criteria.
But Gore also is honest. He seems to accept he needs bigger numbers, one or two more terrific seasons and a couple signature postseason moments -- or an outstanding Super Bowl -- to truly be appreciated by anyone who understands football.
And to fully satisfy the members of the Hall of Fame voting panel.
"What about Steven Jackson," Gore asks. "You think he might get in the Hall of Fame?"
I say it depends on how much longer Jackson can carry the St. Louis offense, and whether the Rams can become a contender.
The 49ers already are a contender. And while Gore may not know the requirements of reaching the Hall, he knows precisely what it means to be on a contender.
That every playoff game, such as the one he will play Saturday, is another chance.