When Kenyan Drake was 8 years old, Frank Gore tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in a practice for the University of Miami. When Drake was 9, Gore tore his left A.C.L. By the time Drake was 16, Gore had endured reconstructive surgery on both shoulders and was trying to come back from a broken hip.
Now 24 and entering his third N.F.L. season, Drake somehow finds himself competing with the 35-year-old Gore to be the starting running back for the Miami Dolphins.
It may seem impossible, but as Adam Gase, the head coach of the Dolphins, told reporters when asked about Gore’s prospects for this season, “I learned a long time ago: Never doubt him.”
Gore showed first-round talent in college at Miami but came into the league as a third-round pick in 2005 thanks to his injury history and 5-foot-9 frame. Should he rush for 76 yards this season — he has had at least that many in a single game 82 times in his career — he will pass Curtis Martin for fourth place on the N.F.L.’s career rushing list.
Gore’s career has had few exclamation points, and passing Martin would be yet another instance of the quiet and consistent player plugging away and never giving up. But it would also serve as a bullet point on a Hall of Fame résumé that at some point became nearly bulletproof.
The key for Gore when comparing him to other great running backs — including Adrian Peterson, who, at 33, is also trying to hang on for at least one more year — is to focus on the bottom line of his stat sheet. That is where you will find his 14,026 rushing yards, his 17,698 yards from scrimmage and his 95 career touchdowns. He got to those Hall of Fame-worthy numbers despite having just one season with more than 1,300 rushing yards and one with double-digit touchdowns. Gore has never held the distinction of being the game’s best active running back, but last year he passed Jerry Rice for the N.F.L. record with 12 seasons of 1,200 or more yards from scrimmage — all of which have come in a row.
Statistical milestones in other sports can ensure a Hall of Fame’s embrace, but because Gore plays football, he may not be a shoo-in on the first ballot. He will probably trail only Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders in rushing yards when he retires, but the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s standards can be hard to follow: They often seem to favor personality and narrative as much as statistics.
The four running backs ahead of Gore on the career rushing list are all in, as are nine of the 10 eligible players behind him. The exception is Edgerrin James, who, despite having had a peak that far surpassed Gore’s in terms of productivity, is seemingly held back by the perception that he greatly benefited from sharing a backfield with Peyton Manning for the entirety of his prime.
That should not be a problem for Gore, who went to the Super Bowl with Colin Kaepernick in the 2012 season but spent his early years in San Francisco enduring Alex Smith’s awkward transition to the N.F.L. He kept his streak of high productivity going even in years when the primary starting quarterback was a lesser player like Shaun Hill, Jacoby Brissett or a 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck.
The expectations for this season are likely to be modest for Gore. Only two running backs (John Riggins and John Henry Johnson) have managed a 1,000-yard rushing season after turning 35, and just eight players that age or older have had as many as 500. But even if he did not gain a single yard, Gore still would have a career with more rushing yards than LaDainian Tomlinson, Eric Dickerson and Jim Brown; more career touchdowns than Jerome Bettis, Tony Dorsett and Marshawn Lynch; and more yards from scrimmage than Marcus Allen, Thurman Thomas and Franco Harris.
And Drake, who showed flashes of potential last year, seems to have no problem sharing carries for a year with a player who has accomplished so much.
“To watch someone like that sets a great example for me,” Drake told reporters. “To see someone who’s been in the league that long and do the things he’s done is inspiring.”
Of course, with Gore, who has been written off so many times going all the way back to his college days, there is no guarantee that the shared workload will be for just one season. If Drake does not keep working, Gore may outlast him, too.