KRAVITZ: An appreciation of Frank Gore, who is playing his last game as a member of the Colts

Indianapolis Colts Frank Gore runs the ball during the second half against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
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Bob Kravitz

KRAVITZ: An appreciation of Frank Gore, who is playing his last game as a member of the Colts

Sunday will be Frank Gore’s final game as a member of the Indianapolis Colts. Sure, he said Wednesday, he would be willing to return to Indy when and if Andrew Luck returns to full health, but let’s be honest about this: The Colts are going to move on from Gore, an impending free agent, and rebuild their offensive backfield with Marlon Mack and some younger newcomers.

Given his impending exit, this seemed like a particularly good time to pen an appreciation of Gore (and honestly, what else is there to write about at this point, except that change is afoot and it’s going to be a very busy day next Monday?).

Let me say this simply: I’m a Frank Gore fan. As a player. As a guy. Everything. When Gore signed with the Colts three years ago, a Bay Area journalist friend of mine told me, “You’re going to love this guy.’’ My Bay Area journalist friend was right.

Gore is a baller. Gore is a pro. In every conceivable way, he is both of those. He is prideful, immensely prideful, without being cocky. And as the season has worn on, it has become increasingly clear to him that he’s still “got it,’’ that he’s got at least one more year left in his body and, perhaps more importantly, his mind. Consider that when he lines up at the start of Sunday’s game, he will become the first NFL running back age 34 or over to begin all 16 regular-season games.

“I didn’t know that,’’ Gore said, shaking his head. “It’s a blessing, man. It’s a blessing.’’

There are still milestones to reach – he needs 253 yards to bypass Curtis Martin for fourth on the all-time rushing list -- but more important, there are still games to be won, even a Super Bowl to be won. He said Wednesday he would strongly consider returning to the Colts if Luck is healthy, but it’s safe to say he’s not in the Colts’ future plans. So it would be a matter of finding a team that could use a solid, durable back who can bring gravitas and professionalism to a team that sees him as a final piece to a championship team.

“I don’t want to just be a part of a team, I want to help a team,’’ Gore said. “…I just don’t want to go out this way. I know I can still play, I’ve got the knowledge of the game. I want to help and team and not just ride the bench to get a ring. Starting, backing up, as long as I can help.’’

And when it finally ends – this season? Next season? – Gore will have established himself as a serious Hall of Fame candidate. Of the game’s 11 leading rushers, Gore is the only one who is still active and is the only one who hasn’t been enshrined (yet) in Canton.

When Gore signed in Indianapolis three years ago, the belief both inside and outside the building was that the Colts were just a player or two away from reaching the Super Bowl. They had just come off an AFC title game appearance – albeit one where they got summarily throttled – and Gore, along with some other veterans, were seen as the final puzzle pieces to a championship. Gore was thrilled, thinking that with Luck behind center, he would run against lighter boxes for the next few years, a luxury he rarely enjoyed while he was piling up yards in San Francisco.

Of course, it never happened. Gore’s first year, Luck was hurt, played just seven games and the Colts ended up using five quarterbacks that season. The next year, Luck played 15 games, but was clearly limited after suffering several injuries throughout the season. This year, nothing; he missed the entire year.

“I’ve never really played with him when he was healthy,’’ said Gore, who played just 22 of 48 games with Luck.

I asked him if he had any regrets about signing with the Colts three years ago.

“Naahh,’’ he said. “When I got here, they were a game away from the Super Bowl and we had No. 12 under center, so we had a chance. So I don’t feel that way.’’

You look at all the gaudy numbers Gore has produced, and you forget: This is a man who has had two knee reconstructions and two shoulder reconstructions. And did we mention he plays arguably the most punishing position in football, the one position where most players start to lose their edge in their late 20’s? Gore has taken durability to a whole new level, showing up week after week after week, and doing it on a team that always seems to be in the throes of an injury epidemic.

In Buffalo, he carried the ball 36 times for 130 yards. In knee-deep snow. Then came back a few days later and started on a Thursday night against the Denver Broncos.

In a twisted sort of way, Gore feels blessed by the adversities he’s faced in his career, especially early in his career. They shaped him, made him a better pro, a better person.

“…I’m happy the way it went because I couldn’t take football for granted,’’ he said. “I’m happy with what I had to go through. It was a blessing. And people shy away from you when you go through stuff; you might have friends just for that reason (being a pro football player), then you have injuries and people shy away so you saw who was real for me and who wasn’t. On and off the field, (the injuries) helped a whole lot.’’

Incredibly, but not so surprisingly, he wants to play next season. It’s just going to have to be somewhere else.

“My body feels good,’’ he said. “I’m still making plays, still got coordinators (and head coaches) coming to me after games and saying they can’t believe how I can still play. Dick LeBeau (Tennessee defensive coordinator), he said, `You’re still one of the top backs in this league.’’ The Pittsburgh head coach (Mike Tomlin), he came looking for me. John Harbaugh, he came up and said, `(Bleep), man, you’re still (bleeping playing.’ Young guys saying they want to train with me and say they don’t know how I’m still doing it.’’

However the road ends and whenever it ends, Gore will know he’s put in honest days’ work. And he will know that he helped pave the way for other young football players who hail from his rough, inner-city Miami neighborhood.

“Growing up in the kind of neighborhood where I grew up, it’s hard, there’s so much negative stuff in front of you,’’ Gore said. “You rarely see great things. I was blessed to get out. I’ve got some friends, I’ve seen some guys who were good at football and they did the wrong things. I knew if I wanted to get to where I wanted to go, I had to do the opposite. Guys like me and (former NFL receiver) Roscoe (Parrish), we’re showing the kids in my neighborhood you can get out, you can do it. I know several kids who are going D-1, and we’ve had a couple (including Amari Cooper) who’ve come from there who are in the NFL.’’

This will be Gore’s last appearance in a Colts uniform. He has been a bright and shining light through the generalized gloom of the last three seasons. Celebrate him and honor him, do it in a full-throated way, before he moves on.

Want more Kravitz? Subscribe to The Bob Kravitz Podcast on iTunes,Google Play, Stitcher or TuneIn. If you have a good story idea that's worth writing, feel free to send it to bkravitz@wthr.com.

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