SANTA CLARA -- Frank Gore is rushing toward his 31st birthday. That's already past the expiration date for most NFL running backs because the job is so brutal. Anyone who watches football knows why.
Anyone who watches the 49ers also knows what Gore means to the team. So while it would be wrong to say that his teammates want to win a Super Bowl just for Gore, it is entirely safe to say this: There's no other man in the locker room they believe is more deserving.
Why do they feel that way? Depends. The younger 49ers players know Gore as the runner who gets first downs when first downs are needed. But the older players are the men who truly understand. They saw what Gore endured early in his career, during the 49ers' darkness of 2005 through 2010.
In those days, Gore was known as the team's "bell cow" running back. Week after week, loss after loss, Gore was pretty much the entire 49ers offense. He would carry the ball 20 or 25 times, sit and do postgame interviews while covered in mounds of ice, then limp out the door to the team bus on pain-infused ankles or knees -- and then return the next week for another off-tackle dive into the meat grinder.
"I never thought about quitting," Gore said this week, talking about those dark days. "I love it too much. I love football. And when I was growing up, I was always taught that if you start something, you've got to finish it."
He has another chance for the ultimate finish, this weekend when the 49ers play at Seattle for a trip to the Super Bowl. Since 2011, Gore has accumulated the most postseason rushing yards (632) of any NFL player. And watching him give it another run is a reminder of why the last few years of 49ers playoff success have been such a joy to watch -- not just for the team's fan base but for Gore's co-workers. They are closest to him. And they realize that Gore doesn't have much more time to win that silver football on a stick known as the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Patrick Willis, the linebacker who has been with the 49ers since 2007, probably speaks for all the team's veterans when he speaks of Gore.
"Frank is one of the best human beings that I think I've ever been around," he said. "I can't say what a Hall of Famer is, but I can say this guy as a person -- and from what I've seen on the field -- is every bit of that and more."
Gore's coach, Jim Harbaugh, takes it a step farther. To Harbaugh, his running back will not just be one of the most important 49ers in uniform Sunday afternoon. Gore will also be the most transcendental man on the field.
"I think he is a mystical man," Harbaugh said this week, repeating one of his favorite observations. "I think he sees things that we don't -- I don't -- we don't see."
A lot of silly stuff is said in the days leading up to big football games. But the funny thing is, when Harbaugh talks about Gore as the NFL's Maharishi of Momentum, no one in a 49ers uniform laughs.
Although to be honest, when Guru Gore himself is asked about being "mystical," he does scrunch up his forehead.
"I don't know what that means," Gore said of Harbaugh's assessment. "I mean, I do see things happen on the field before some other people do. When I'm running, God blessed me with the ability to see the small spots that open up before maybe other people see them. Just knowing how it all comes together, when I'm pass protecting or whatever, I sometimes see things other people don't. Maybe that's it."
Or maybe it really is something beyond that.
"I don't know," Willis said. "Sometimes when you're a player and you've played this game for a while, there are things you can't explain. You just know what it is and you get it done. Frank is that guy."
Looking for a 49ers key against the Seahawks? Frank might also be that guy. During his nine-year career, he has rushed for 100 yards or more against Seattle five times. The 49ers have won all five of those games, including last month's victory at Candlestick Park when Gore clinched the outcome a 51-yard run in the final minutes.
Perhaps a less supernatural way to describe Gore is this: He is as sincere a football player who has ever strapped on pads. He has no ulterior motives, no hidden agenda, no pizza commercials. Gore has always lived just a few miles from the team's Santa Clara practice facility. That means he can show up early, stay late, or be there in five minutes if the mood strikes him to do some extra work. Last week when tight end Vernon Davis wanted to stick around and catch balls, Gore was the man who volunteered to throw them -- as Davis gladly revealed after making his pivotal touchdown reception against Carolina.
Might this Sunday be Guru Gore's time? He has not had a 100-yard rushing game in this postseason. He had two a year ago, including 110 yards in the Super Bowl. The other day during a media session, Harbaugh went off on a riff about what he would give up to suit up in a contest as monumental as this NFC Championship game. Harbaugh mentioned that he might even trade a body part, or his house, or his college degree, simply to play in the game.
Someone wondered: "Would you trade Frank Gore?"
"Noooooooo," Harbaugh said.