- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 9, 2004

MIAMI — Miami tailback Frank Gore has one last chance.

After losing the last two seasons to ACL injuries, the onetime dynamo will spend his senior season trying to prove he’s more than just damaged goods.

“I’m trying to stay positive this year,” said Gore, who will start tonight when the fifth-ranked Hurricanes open at home against No.4 Florida State. “Sometimes it’s hard because you look at what happened the last two years and think maybe it just wasn’t meant to happen. … Physically, everything feels fine. But your mind messes with you. You can’t help wondering if it will be the same.”

Will his next hard cut be his last? Will something in his subconscious keep his body from attaining the fifth-gear fury and whirling abandon that defines the greats?

Such questions were inconceivable to Gore three years ago, when he arrived on campus as the most decorated prep player in the talent-rich history of Dade County football. Gore rushed for a county-record 2,953 yards and 34 touchdowns as a senior at Coral Gables High School in 2000. And despite being the only true freshman in a Miami backfield glutted with the likes of Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee and Najeh Davenport, Gore spent his entire freshman season pushing Portis for his job.

As Portis’ principal backup in 2001, the 5-foot-10, 218-pounder rushed for 562 yards on just 62 carries (a 9.1 average), helping Miami to its fifth national title and setting a school record for yards a carry among those with more than 50 totes.

Several months later, when Miami began spring practice with Gore penciled in as the 2002 starter, coach Larry Coker responded to a query about Gore’s potential with this stunner: “How good is Gore? He’s the best running back I’ve been around since Barry Sanders.”

That’s extraordinary praise from Coker, who was Sanders’ offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, considering the three backs who preceded Gore as starters at Miami were Edgerrin James (1997, 1998), James Jackson (1999) and Portis (2000, 2001).

“Against West Virginia as a freshman, he goes for like 125 yards on five touches,” Miami running backs coach Don Soldinger said of his favorite Gore moment. “It was literally like they couldn’t tackle him. After his final touchdown run, like a 50-yarder where the kid just looks like he’s packing nitrous boosters, Larry [Coker] looks over at me with wide eyes, and I just winked.”

But two days into spring practice in 2002, Gore blew out the ACL in his right knee. He stood on the sideline in street clothes the following season as McGahee set school records for rushing yards (1,753) and touchdowns (28) in a season. Then, just as he was starting to roll last season with 468 yards in Miami’s first four games, Gore tore the ACL in his left knee in the team’s fifth game against West Virginia.

“I’m man enough to admit I cried and not from the physical pain,” Gore said of the second tear. “I just couldn’t believe it happened again.”

Miami signed three of the nation’s top 10 prep running backs in February. A month later, Gore spent spring practice in rehab while sophomore Tyrone Moss superseded him in the backfield.

But the determined Gore won his job back during summer two-a-days, returning earlier than expected from the injury and running through pain that required him to ice both knees for two hours after each practice. And when the Hurricanes’ offense takes the field for the first time tonight, Gore will be standing behind senior quarterback Brock Berlin as the first-team starter.

“Frank’s first team,” Coker said of the decision to start Gore. “Frank deserves that respect.”

But respect isn’t likely to last beyond Miami’s first series if Gore doesn’t look like the explosive bull who terrorized foes as a freshman, not with the faster, larger Moss (5-10, 225) raring on the sidelines. Time waits for no one in the sporting world, and the clock ticks even faster for running backs. Just ask any of Mike Shanahan’s discarded Denver workhorses.

NFL scouts who once listed Gore near the top of the draft board for this class now rank him out of the top 30 at his position, with obvious durability issues clouding his future. And nobody, not even Gore, knows what to expect this evening.

“All I know is that I feel like the same old guy,” he said. “I will say I’m thankful that my vision has always been my strength. That’s the one thing God blessed me with. I don’t have blazing speed, so my vision makes up for that. … If there’s a hole out there, I’ll find it and hit it as hard as I can because I know this is my last go-round.”

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