Atlanta, GA, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) bumps helmets with Frank Gore (21) prior to the start against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game at the Georgia Dome.Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Retiring linebacker Ray Lewis, in all his pulsating, gyrating, preaching glory, clearly serves as the Baltimore Ravens' inspirational leader.
His opposite number on the San Francisco 49ers? A low-key veteran who can barely be heard above a whisper.
Running back Frank Gore inspires not with his dances or speeches but rather with the devotion and hard work that have characterized his eight seasons in the NFL.
A four-time Pro Bowler and the franchise's all-time leading rusher, Gore didn't enjoy a winning season until coach Jim Harbaugh arrived on the scene in 2011. His teammates say he's a motivating force.
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"It makes me feel great knowing that all of the guys have a lot of respect for me,'' Gore said, surrounded by reporters who strained to hear his soft voice. "They know how much I love the game of football and know that I'd do whatever it takes to win for them. We've been through hard times. I've been here since '05 and it took me seven years to get to the playoffs.''
Gore, 29, had another banner year in 2012, rushing for 1,214 yards - his second-highest total ever - and scoring eight touchdowns.
He was not as productive once the 49ers started relying more on the read-option in the second half of the season after Colin Kaepernick took over as the starting quarterback, but Gore delivered two touchdowns and 90 rushing yards as San Francisco reached its sixth Super Bowl by beating the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 in the NFC Championship Game.
In the second-round game against the Green Bay Packers, Gore set a career playoff high with 119 yards on the ground and also scored twice.
"I can tell you this means a lot to everybody,'' right guard Alex Boone said of getting to the title game, "but those older guys like Frank, Justin (Smith), Dave (Akers) and Randy (Moss), it's big for them and it would be big for us to get them that ring.''
That would be a crowning achievement for Gore, one he only wishes he could share with his mother, Liz, who died in September 2007 of kidney disease. She was a big fan, tried to coach him a little and used to ride a bus to watch him play while he was in high school.
Through all the trials he endured -- including knee surgeries that threatened his career -- Gore said her death was definitely the biggest test.
"She used to call me at a certain time before the game, and that day the time came and I didn't get the call, I just burst out and I cried, cried, cried,'' Gore recalled. "I know she would have wanted me to play. I had a pretty good game that day. I think she came on the field because I made a crazy run, I don't know how I broke all the tackles and got the touchdown.''
Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY Sports