SANTA CLARA The symbolism is too stark to escape: While workers continue to disassemble big chunks of Candlestick Park this week, big chunks of the 49ers roster are falling away, too.
Patrick Willis on Tuesday announced his retirement. For years, the fleet-footed linebacker was the only exciting thing about the 49ers, and he led the NFL in tackles in two of his eight seasons. Since the merger in 1970, only three defensive players reached the Pro Bowl in their first seven years in the league: Lawrence Taylor, Derrick Thomas and Willis.
Justin Smith is strongly considering retirement and could do so next week. Smith has been the bedrock of the 49ers’ defense in recent years. His lion-hearted performances in the 2011 playoffs – tossing New Orleans Saints offensive linemen aside as if they were stuffed with straw, driving New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning into the Candlestick mud – are two of the most memorable in the past decade.
Then there’s Frank Gore, who has rushed for more yards than any other 49er and who, more so than Willis and Smith, has a shot at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For the past decade, Gore was the team’s workhorse, its drumbeat and, most of all, its conscience.
In a league in which no one dares say what he is thinking and in which the goal is to be as bland as possible, Gore couldn’t help but let his true feelings show. He was incapable of guile.
If he was upset, he cried. If he was happy, he beamed. When it was clear the 49ers’ 2007 offense – three inches and a cloud of dust – wasn’t working, Gore was the only one who said as much.
Gore didn’t act like a politician. He knew who his best teammates were and who was taking up roster space, and team officials often sought his counsel.
After a game against the Giants this past season, Gore was walking from the visitors’ locker room to the podium for his news conference. Along the way, he put his arm around a reporter and said: “Ask me about my contract.”
The 49ers had just eked out a win and Gore had rushed for 95 yards, averaging 5 yards a carry. He was in full-beam mode. He knew he had played well and knew he was still as effective – at age 31 – as any other running back in the league. He also knew there would be trouble in working out a contract extension with the 49ers.
“I still love the game and I feel great and I still want to play the game,” Gore said that day. “I feel like I’m still playing at a high level and, you know, I’m just coming out here week to week. And if I won’t be back here, then I’ll show the other teams what I can do when they watch film.”
Gore underscored his point with two 100-plus-yard rushing efforts in Week 16 and 17, a time of the year when 30-something runners with two rebuilt ACLs are supposed to fatigue.
The 49ers will insist that they wanted Gore back and that they made him a fair offer. And it’s their right to move on from an aging star, just as their predecessors did with Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice. Those Hall of Famers looked just as odd in Chiefs, Jets and Raiders uniforms as Gore did Wednesday wearing a Colts-blue hoodie as he signed his contract and did a round of interviews.
But it’s worth noting that Indianapolis is the place every free agent wants to be – an up-and-coming team, the best young quarterback in the game and plenty of salary-cap space – and they coveted Gore. So did the Philadelphia Eagles. The Colts signed him to a three-year deal with $7.5 million guaranteed.
Gore’s new team is not scheduled to face the 49ers until 2017. But that doesn’t mean he won’t play in the 49ers’ new stadium in Santa Clara in the upcoming season. Super Bowl 50 will be played there on Feb 7.
If Gore is on hand? Imagine the symbolism.