DAVIE, Fla. — Frank Gore steps out of the ring on Monday wearing a black San Francisco 49ers tank top drenched with sweat. It was supposed to be a light workout, but Gore does nothing light. It looks like he just got out of the pool.
The five-time Pro Bowl running back sits down and grabs his phone. It’s clear something is bothering him. He scrolls for a minute, then shows me an article featuring the betting odds for the four-round pro boxing fight set to take place Saturday between himself and former NBA star Deron Williams.
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“They have me as an underdog. Even though it’s both our first fight,” Gore says. “I read that before I get up. Even when I’m tired and don’t want to come in the gym, it’s fuel for me.
“In football, I found ways to go harder every year. I looked for articles, slights. That’s what made me Frank Gore — being told what I can’t do. I want to tell the doubters thank you, because without y’all, I wouldn’t be me.”
No one should doubt Gore’s football bonafides anymore. After 16 seasons, he’s third on the all-time rushing list with 16,000 yards, third in carries (3,735), third in touches (4,219) and fourth in yards from scrimmage (19,985). As recently as last season, he ran for 653 yards with the Jets, good for a respectable ranking of 30th in the NFL.
And though the 38-year-old, who says he turned down three attempts from teams to sign him this offseason, is not currently on an NFL roster, he isn’t ready yet to say the word retirement. He’s holding out hope for that storybook ending, imagining a call right before Super Bowl week for one last game, one last chance at the only thing missing from his Hall of Fame resume: a championship.
That said, he tells me passionately that he feels at peace leaving football for now. He’s enjoying the normal moments, like taking his kids to school and football practices. He learned this summer — his first without a football training camp since he was a kid — that he finally feels free.
That sense of freedom also made room for Gore to spend the last eight weeks training in this sweatbox gym.
“When I said I wanted to do this, people doubted me, saying, ‘[You’re] crazy. [You] done took a lot of hits to the head,’ ” Gore says. “Saturday, I want to show kids whatever you put your mind to, you can do it … Win, lose or draw, this is something I wanted to do.”
‘We aren’t disrespecting the sport’
Chad Johnson has felt Frank Gore’s punches, and he doesn’t want to feel them again.
Two weeks ago, Johnson joined Gore for a light sparring session. Despite giving up 35 pounds to Gore, the 6-foot-1 Johnson was able to help him prep for the 6-3 Williams as a taller, mobile fighter.
Johnson had one big takeaway.
“That s— hurt. The punches f—ing hurt. He’s heavy-handed,” Johnson told me this week. “He’s out of my weight class, but I tried to sit in the pocket, giving him a look for what Deron could present. I caught one of the left hooks. It hurt. I was like, nah, let me get outside.”
Johnson is the modern trailblazer for the NFL-to-boxing path. The former receiver, who was a two-time first-team All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler over 11 seasons, fought a four-round exhibition boxing match in June. He was knocked down in the fourth round, but otherwise looked impressive in a debut bout that he took on with four weeks’ notice. Johnson has been training in the gym for his second bout, which is expected in 2022; his full leap into boxing gave inspiration to Gore.
Johnson and Gore have used boxing to train together to stay in shape during the football offseason since 2006. While they never imagined fighting for real then, Johnson said they had the basics and work ethic down. They just needed coaches to help them look the part.
Gore was all in by late August, when he approached Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza backstage at the first Jake Paul-Tyron Woodley fight. His message was simple: I’m very serious about testing myself in boxing. Espinoza said he came away impressed.
As social media personalities, Jake Paul and his brother, Logan, bring a large, unique following to boxing, so their cards often include non-traditional boxers like Johnson. Showtime did due diligence looking into Gore’s skills as a boxer to make sure it could stand behind Gore as a pro. Again, those at the network were impressed, Espinoza said. So, when Showtime booked the next Jake Paul fight, now set vs. Woodley on Saturday in Tampa, Florida, Gore was at the top of their list for the undercard.
“What Frank will do Saturday isn’t surprising to me because I’ve seen it for years. But he’s going to surprise the world,” Johnson said. “The boxing community will gain a new respect for us, because they’ll realize we aren’t disrespecting the sport. We’re putting the work in and looking good in the ring. And we’re bringing new viewers.”
‘I’m happy where I am in life’
All spring, the phone was quiet. Then, one week after training camp, Gore got a call that nearly made him return for his 17th NFL season. One team asked him to fly out the next day. But Gore and his partner had a trip set to see his stepson (Wisconsin cornerback Ricardo Hallman) play his first college game that weekend, so he told the team to call back Monday.
The team called back Monday, but Gore told the team he wasn’t ready. He was content at home. He’d never wavered about football before, and this was another sign that he’s ready for this to be the end of his football career.
That was one of three calls Gore says he received from teams this year — at least one was from the Baltimore Ravens, a source with knowledge of the interaction between the Ravens and Gore told me — but eventually he turned them all down.
“It’s scary. I’m not going to lie. When you love something and you know it gets close to the end, it’s scary,” Gore said. “That’s one of the reasons this offseason when I said I was OK that Monday when they called, I said, you know what, I’m in a good place. I was happy for myself because I see a lot of guys who can’t deal with it. I’m happy where I am in life.”
But Gore admits there’s one dream scenario out there that would cause him to return to the football field: a call to play in just one game, the Super Bowl, especially if it was from the 49ers.
“Hopefully that team calls, we can get a win and I can walk away with a ring,” Gore said. “If (the 49ers) do their thing, make this last run, get in the playoffs to get to the Super Bowl. I’m calling you, Kyle (Shanahan), I’m calling you, (John) Lynch.”
If that doesn’t happen, Gore seems content to leave football. Boxing is currently a one-fight venture for him, one he’ll re-evaluate after Saturday.
One day, he wants to join an NFL front office and maybe eventually become a general manager. He loves evaluating players and says he has had conversations with the 49ers about joining their staff when he’s ready.
Whatever Gore decides to do, he wants it to make him feel as free and happy as he does now.
‘This man is different’
In between sets of shadow boxing and mitt drills with his boxing coach, Javiel Centeno, Gore shrieks, “This s— is hard. Much harder than training for football.”
The challenge is what drew Gore in. The breaks are shorter. The movement is constant. The four-to-five-mile jogs are more continuous running than he’s ever done. But most of all, it’s the unknown. The lights and cameras flash. A full crowd. No pads. Then, the bell rings, and the real fight begins.
“I’m nervous every day. Even when I just think about it. Just because I want to do good,” Gore said. “If I’m being real, my whole 16-year career in football, I was nervous. When you have success, it’s hard to keep having success.”
Johnson told Gore that he was “scared as s—” in his June fight. He felt like he was going “100 miles per hour, fighting for my life,” despite looking relaxed. That’s the unknown element Gore will have to face.
But Centeno believes Gore is ready. Gore has sparred with pro boxers and MMA fighters. He’s taken hard shots and fired back. He says and looks like he’s in the best shape of his life.
“I’ve always known he can fight. Now I know he can box,” Centeno said. “If these guys think Frank is going to just walk forward, they are in for a rude awakening. He can move well. He has a long, strong jab. That right hand to the body is lethal.”
Gore says boxing is so different because you have only yourself as a factor in your performance. No quarterback. No offensive line. No defense. But that’s fine for Gore — he’s always bet on himself.
“After the fight, I want people to say, ‘This man is different. Whatever this man puts his mind to, he does it,’ ” Gore says. “If I’m blessed to get the knockout and it comes, I’m happy with that, but my goal is to show everybody the skills. When people see me this Saturday, they’re going to be surprised.”
Gore pauses, smiles and says, “Especially the doubters.”
Follow Cameron Wolfe on Twitter.
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