Contrasting styles, mutual respect for Super Bowl running backs

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NEW ORLEANS — One guy is a bruiser of a back, just as comfortable running through defenders as around them.

The other is more of a slasher, darting this way and that to make people miss, requiring only the slightest opening to bust off a big gain.

They may be different in style — Frank Gore of the San Francisco 49ers, Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens — but the featured runners at this Super Bowl have at least one thing in common.

Plenty of respect for the other guy.

“He’s like a bull,” Rice said Monday evening, shortly after the Baltimore Ravens arrived in the Big Easy. “If you watch Frank Gore, he doesn’t take the hits. He actually delivers them because of his low center of gravity.”

Gore was just as effusive with the praise when talking about his counterpart.

“He does it all. I love to watch him,” Gore said. “He doesn’t have to hesitate to make moves, to make people miss. He can cut and go, cut and go. If you can cut and go, you can be pretty good in this league.”

They sure took different paths to get here.

The 29-year-old Gore has endured plenty of defeats, personal heartache (losing his mother to kidney failure) and a startling string of injuries that might have broken a lesser person. He tore up both knees in college at the University of Miami, prompting him to wonder if “football wasn’t for me.” Shaking off the doubts, he was drafted by the 49ers, but needed major surgery on both shoulders after his rookie campaign. Later, he lost part of another season to a hip injury.

“To battle through what he’s been through? He’s a warrior,” Rice said. “Hats off to my man Frank.”

Gore started his pro career with a series of bad teams. Really bad teams. During his first six years in the league, the 49ers failed to post a winning record — which was especially galling for someone who was brought up on a win-or-bust mentality with the Hurricanes.

“It was tough, real tough,” Gore said. “I would see some guys — who are not here anymore — after we lost, and they would just be like, ‘Whatever.’ I was not used to that. If we lost one game at Miami, it was like our season was over.”

One of his teammates, 49ers fullback Bruce Miller, has noticed the determination in Gore’s eyes as the team prepares to face the Ravens in the title game Sunday.

“It means a lot to him,” Miller said. “In meetings and at practice, you can see how intense and focused he is. He’s worked hard for it.”

For Rice, the road has been much smoother.

Since he was drafted in 2008 out of Rutgers, the Ravens have made the playoffs every season, including three trips to the AFC championship game. But it ended there. This season, they got over that hump with a major upset at New England.

“It’s been a great journey for me,” Rice said. “I just have a lot in my life.”

He’s rushed for more than 1,000 yards four years in a row and is just as valuable in the passing game, also getting more than 60 receptions each of those seasons. Describing himself, he uses terms like “complete player” and “all-purpose guy,” both of which are right on the mark.

In a November game at San Diego, Rice provided one of the most memorable plays of 2012. With the Ravens down by three and facing fourth-and-29, he hauled in a pass just past the line of scrimmage, swerved away from three defenders, broke a tackle that would have clinched the victory for the Chargers and lunged just beyond the first-down stripe for a 30-yard gain.

The Ravens kicked a tying field goal, then won the game in overtime.

As for Gore, his numbers are equally impressive — more than 1,000 yards on the ground six of the last seven seasons, as well as becoming San Francisco’s career leader in rushing touchdowns.

“We always credit Frank with the tough yards,” Miller said. “He doesn’t get the easy runs. It’s up the middle, three or four yards a carry. But he just continues to move the chains. That’s why we’re here.”

Even so, both running backs are a bit overlooked heading into the title game.

In San Francisco, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the pistol offense are all the rage. For Baltimore, much of the attention is focused on retiring linebacker Ray Lewis and quarterback Joe Flacco, who has finally escaped his playoff demons.

“When you look at the criticism that Flacco has been through, and you see what a young quarterback like Kaepernick is doing, I would make them the headlines, too,” Rice said. “I’m just being honest.”

But, chances are, Rice and Gore will have a significant impact on the outcome Sunday, especially since their rookie backups — LaMichael James in San Francisco, Bernard Pierce in Baltimore — emerged as major threats late in the season and playoffs, taking some of the load off the two starters.

“It keeps me fresh,” Gore said. “Early in my career, I probably wouldn’t have liked it. Now, it gets me ready for the fourth quarter. When the defense is wearing down, that’s when I get going.”

No matter who’s hoisting the trophy at the end of the game, Gore and Rice will remain fans of each other.

“We don’t have to hit each other,” Rice quipped. “I’d like to win on Sunday. I don’t want to see him do good on our defense. But any other time I watch Frank Gore do well, I’m happy for him.”

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