The Baltimore Ravens are making noise about winning Super Bowl XLVII for retiring linebacker Ray Lewis. But the 49ers have their own favorite -- and spiritual center -- in veteran running back Frank Gore.
Ask any 49ers player, offense or defense, how they feel about him and it's like tapping into a wellspring of resolve for Gore as he approaches the most important football game of his life.
The 29-year-old has persevered through a life of pain and hardship, both on the football field and off. But at long last, he can finally see the mountaintop. Win the Super Bowl next Sunday and he can stand on it for a while. He can look up and tell his beloved mother, Lizzie, who died in 2007 of kidney disease, that he has something really special for her this time.
"Since she passed, every time I score a touchdown I always point up and tell her it's for her," Gore said this week. "I mention that I love her. I know she's happy. I'm her son. We went through so much in high school, college and the NFL. Finally, I'm getting the opportunity to play in the big game."
Few thought Gore ever would.
He was born and raised in a poor, drug-infested area of Coral Gables, Fla., where many of his own relatives abused drugs. Lizzie was a single mother of three who often took in nieces and nephews, and Gore noted there were often as many as 11 or 12 people living in a one-bedroom apartment.
"I didn't know if I was going to get a bed," he said. "I didn't know if the lights were going to be on. It was tough."
Gore's escape was athletics, particularly football, but despite a legendary career at Coral Gables High, he struggled academically because of a learning disability. He entered high school at a third-grade reading level, had to attend summer and night classes and undergo extensive tutoring just to qualify for college.
Even though he worked diligently to get to a 10th-grade reading level, he still had trouble with written material. He failed to achieve the NCAA's required minimum score on the SAT a few times. Finally, he was given the test orally and passed.
He got a scholarship to nearby University of Miami, but more hardship ensued. After a promising freshman season, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. After working his way back the next year, he tore the ACL in his right knee. Even though he returned to rush for 948 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior, pro scouts were wary of Gore when he applied for the NFL draft in 2005.
Then general manager Scot McCloughan had to fight to convince the 49ers to draft Gore in the third round. But he saw both special talent and determination in Gore.
"He's going to do everything in his power to make himself a great player," McCloughan said at the time. "If you take football away from him, you take his life away. He's overcome a lot. He's God-given as a runner. He has balance and vision. He's a very unique back."
Gore proved that in his rookie season, rushing for 608 yards despite making just one start. But he also sustained more injuries, undergoing major surgery on both shoulders after the season.
Then there was the losing. The 49ers were 4-12 in 2005, and after one particularly hard loss to Dallas, Gore walked out of the locker room and saw several players dancing and laughing in the players' parking lot. He couldn't believe it. He broke down crying.
Gore had a number of crying bouts over his first six seasons, all outside of the playoffs. And there were more nagging injuries -- abdominal strains, ankle sprains, hip issues, bruised ribs and, in 2007, a broken hand. That '07 season was his hardest year, because his mother died in September, just before the 49ers were supposed to play a game at St. Louis.
Gore used to talk to his mother by phone before every game at a specific time.
"That day, the time came and I didn't get the call, I just burst out and cried, cried, cried," he said. "But I knew she'd want me to play. I had a pretty good game that day. I think she came on the field."
Things have been better for Gore the past two seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh. He became the 49ers' all-time career rushing leader. He's played in every game. In a 2012 season when many thought he might start slowing down, he had one of his best years -- 1,214 yards rushing, eight touchdowns. He has 209 yards and three scores in two playoff games.
In short, he seems to be getting better. Gore credited former 49ers receiver Isaac Bruce with teaching him valuable secrets to career longevity.
"He always told me, 'Don't ever go by what people say around the league or the statistics about running backs or you can't play after you reach this age,' " Gore said. "I took that in big. I just train. I feel if you just keep training, you have a chance to be in this league for a long time."
Gore's teammates attest to his relentless work regimen.
"He's the all-time leading rusher in 49ers history, but he comes to work every day like he's trying to win a job," said tackle Anthony Davis. "And he makes us take that attitude to our own work."
Many players said Gore is also generous with sage advice. Rookie tailback LaMichael James credits him with vastly improving his blocking. And how good of a blocking back is Gore?
"He's the best in the NFL ... ever," James said.
Even 49ers old-timers are carrying a torch. Former 49ers great Roger Craig said he had tears in his eyes for Gore when the 49ers won the NFC Championship.
"He's been carrying the team on his shoulders for a long time, and he's had to do it during some tough times," Craig said. "Now he's getting a chance to see what it's like to be a winner. After seeing what he's gone through to get to the Super Bowl, I'm overwhelmed for him. He deserves to see what it's like."
Gore himself was taken aback when told so many players past and present had said they want him to win the Super Bowl more than anyone.
"That makes me feel great, knowing that all the guys have a lot of respect for me," he said. "They know how much I love the game of football. And I'll do whatever it takes to win for them."