SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- He runs with the blunt force of The Equalizer, pushing through holes that look almost invisible, finding yards where they don't otherwise exist.
As one of the least likely star running backs in NFL history, Frank Gore is about as subtle as a Prince guitar solo.
As a motivational speaker, the dude knows how to rock it, too.
On Saturday afternoon, as the San Francisco 49ers gathered at the end of the walk-through preceding Sunday's pivotal clash with the Philadelphia Eagles, Gore delivered a message to his teammates tinged with tough love: Stop stressing out about your individual issues, and start committing yourself to pulling this team out of its hole.
"It was exactly what we needed to hear," Niners guard Alex Boone recalled after Sunday's 26-21 victory over the Eagles at Levi's Stadium, gesturing toward the locker of the 10th-year halfback who'd fueled the tenacious, determined and collectively impressive triumph. "He said, 'Let's stop worrying about who gets the credit; let's just go out and win.' And he's right -- stats are for losers. It's a lot nicer to have a ring than to be the leading receiver on your team."
Coming off one of the most underwhelming performances of his brilliant career, a six-carry, 10-yard effort in San Francisco's 23-14 defeat to NFC West rival Arizona, the Niners' alltime rushing leader made a resounding statement. And afterward, he let it be known that despite the presence of yet another younger, fresher model brought in to take his job (rookie Carlos Hyde, a second-round pick out of Ohio State), he has no intention of going quietly.
"Mike, tell the world I can still play," he said shortly after I entered the Niners' locker room, diverting his path toward the shower in the process. "That's what I'm out to show everyone. I've been through so much -- two ACLs, two shoulders, a hip injury that could have ended my career ... Every year, it seems like, they've drafted a back. And yet, I'm still here, and there's a reason the man upstairs got me to this place."
On Sunday, the 31-year-old wonder played like a man with zero patience for anything less than a relentless pursuit of excellence -- which, in fairness, he has every right to be.
As one 49ers veteran told me: "Let's face it: For us, it has to be now. Because after this year, a whole lot of us could be gone, including the head coach."
Under that backdrop, it's tough not to look at 2014 as the last, best chance to deliver on the massive promise San Francisco has displayed during the Jim Harbaugh era. Following three consecutive near-misses, the Niners' quest for a sixth Super Bowl championship has taken on an urgency that permeates throughout the franchise, all of which amped up the tension in the wake of the team's 1-2 start.
Last February, when reports surfaced that tension over Harbaugh's contract status had precipitated an inquiry from the Cleveland Browns during their coaching search, the outside world got a sense of just how tenuous the power dynamic is inside the Marie P. DeBartolo Sports Centre. It's not just a financial staredown that has created tension between Harbaugh and his bosses, Niners owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke; there are legitimate questions as to whether they'll be able to coexist past this season.
And, sources say, the strain has also filtered into the Niners' locker room, with some veterans beginning to wonder if the coach is more focused on his own interests than he is on those of the team.
One thing that's in everyone's interest, of course, is short-term success, and these Niners are too talented and battle-hardened to be discounted as a championship contender, even with all the ominous overtones. That made San Francisco's losing-streak-lite -- disheartening defeats to the Bears and Cardinals, complete with second-half collapses -- especially frustrating, and compelled coaches and players alike to refer to Sunday's test against the Eagles in unusually weighty terms.
"We talked about this one starting on Monday -- if we want to get to where we want to go, it's a 'must-win' game," Niners fullback Bruce Miller said. "You fall to 1-3, it's gonna be tough. We'd been suffering from a lot of self-inflicted wounds, which made it even more frustrating. We should win a lot of games; we've got a good football team. And winning this game makes it a lot less stressful around here, I know that."
What everyone in Ninerland should know by now is that when it comes to stress relief, Gore is the perfect prescription.
A year ago, coming off a gut-wrenchingly close Super Bowl XLVII defeat to the Baltimore Ravens, the Niners dropped consecutive games to fall to 1-2, creating the first mini-crisis of Harbaugh's coaching tenure. They confronted it, beginning with a Thursday Night Football drubbing of the Rams in St. Louis, by scaling back on their offensive ambitions and making Gore the focal point.
He gained 153 yards on 20 carries in that victory over the Rams, sparking a five-game winning streak. San Francisco would literally come within a couple of inches of another Super Bowl appearance, thwarted only by Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman's exceptional effort in the corner of the CenturyLink end zone.
On Sunday at Levi's Stadium, after an opening drive that netted minus-15 yards -- setting up the blocked punt that created the first of three touchdowns by the Eagles' special teams and defense -- the Niners hopped aboard the Gore Express once more. He blasted through a small hole for 15 yards the first time he touched the ball, bulled forward for a six-yard gain the second time and charged ahead for seven more on his third carry.
To say this had a calming effect on his teammates is like declaring that Wi-fi has been a bit of a boon to the Silicon Valley.
Said receiver Stevie Johnson, whose brilliant, 12-yard catch on the left edge of the end zone brought the Niners to within 21-20 midway through the third quarter: "It's like, 'Oh -- we're rollin' now."
"It's very uplifting," Miller said. "He works so hard, and runs so hard, that when we get him going, it's so rewarding. You know he's gonna give it everything he has, and most of the time he'll make you look better than you should."
You don't have to tell that to Kaepernick, who got the ultimate pick-me-up from his running back at a most stressful time: Facing second-and-17 from his own 45 on the first play of the second quarter, Kaepernick took a shotgun snap and was chased to his left by an Eagles pass rush (in this case, backup defensive linemen Brandon Bair and Beau Allen) that looked poised to record a sack for the second consecutive play. As he neared the sideline he stopped suddenly and threw back awkwardly across his body toward the middle of the field -- a ball that at first looked like it had pick six written all over it.
"I was looking back and saw Kap throw it across his body," Staley said, "and I'm thinking, 'Oh (expletive).' I turned around real quick and saw it heading to Frank with no one around him. And then he was gone."
Gore caught the ball at the Philly 42, rambled to his right and charged ahead with a purpose that few others in his profession can summon. Just inside the 25-yard-line, Eagles safety Earl Wolff angled in to make the tackle -- and was negated by a forceful stiff-arm that Gore delivered without breaking stride.
"When Frank gets it going like that," Boone said, "it's over."
It wasn't that simple -- at least not on this day. It took a heroic defensive effort from the Niners' defense, which held Chip Kelly's vaunted offense to 213 yards and zero points, preserving the San Francisco lead with a terrific goal-line stand that left Philly a yard short of the end zone with 1:55 remaining.
It's also quite possible that the tension swirling in Santa Clara will resurface and persist, and that this skilled team will buckle under the weight of expectations, infighting and individual agendas.
Whatever the challenges, it's clear that the majority of men who wear the red-and-gold uniforms would prefer that Gore be a big part of the solution. He declined to comment on his Saturday speech to the team -- "I don't want to get into any of that," he said -- but judging from what we saw on Sunday, it certainly seemed like his teammates took his words to heart.
"Frank is who he is for a reason," receiver Anquan Boldin said. "He's a guy who has to touch the ball. It's just a mindset, and we feed off of it. You can't be timid. You can't be soft. That's what he did today -- that's what he gave us. The guy is a football player. Some people just are. He's that guy."
In what may well be his final season as a 49ers player, Gore is a guy hell-bent on making sure that everyone around him puts the team first. He does, however, indulge himself one bit of individual competition: A third-round pick out of Miami in 2005, Gore can rattle off all five backs picked ahead of him, and he proudly notes that he's one of two runners from that crop still employed by an NFL team. The other survivor, former Chargers fourth-rounder Darren Sproles, reasserted his relevance on Sunday, taking a punt 82 yards to the house to give the Eagles a 21-10 lead with 8:48 left in the second quarter.
"Me and Sproles are the last ones left standing, and I'm trying to beat him out, man," Gore said, smiling, after emerging from the shower. "It's gonna be tough, though."
It's a challenge from which Gore won't back down, and one which, in his mind, pales in comparison to the Niners' collective quest for a championship. However it ends -- their story, his story, the Harbaugh era, all of it -- there's one point that was driven home on Sunday, and it wasn't subtle: Frank Gore can still play.