To Frank Gore, yards matter less than the legends he has passed

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- If he never plays another down of football, Frank Gore will finish his career with more rushing yards than all but three players in NFL history.

And although it undoubtedly matters to him in some capacity, his place on the all-time list doesn't mean nearly as much to the Buffalo Bills running back as the names he's now mentioned alongside -- and the grind it took to get him there.

With 15,185 rushing yards -- 437 this season on 106 carries -- Gore ranks fourth on the NFL's all-time rushing list and is 85 yards away from passing No. 3 Barry Sanders.

That list is littered with Pro Football Hall of Fame players, most of which Gore never played alongside. He did manage to catch the end of Marshall Faulk's career, however, so when he passed the former Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Rams great in 2016 to vault himself into the top-10, it carried more value than usual.

"It's big because I talk to [Marshall] a lot -- when I'm up, when I'm down," Gore said. "I'll tell him to watch my games -- and even when I don't tell him, he tells me what he sees and how I look. I think he saw one of my preseason games and he was like, 'hey, you're still looking good out there. Go get it.'

"I respect that because that's the guy who came up to me when I was a rookie after a game like, 'hey, you can do something special as long as you keep working.'"

Faulk's skill set stands out to Gore as a trend-setter -- the first back, he said, to consistently line up in the backfield and in the slot. That versatility showed during Faulk's first season with the Rams in 1999, when he ran for 1,381 yards and added 1,048 receiving yards.

It would translate to today's league, Gore said, although one could say the same for Emmitt Smith and especially Sanders, who Gore called "ahead of his time."

"Thurman [Thomas] was, too though," he quickly added, tipping his cap to the Bills legend.

When Faulk retired after Gore's rookie season with the 49ers in 2005, LaDanian Tomlinson reigned as arguably the league's best running back as Gore entered his prime. From 2005 until Tomlinson's final year with the Chargers in 2009, he and Gore combined for 12,152 rushing yards -- ensuring any opponent who came to California a long Sunday.

"[Tomlinson] was the one who I loved watching film of because I was in a similar offense as him," Gore said. "He had great eyes, great jump cuts, patience, he'd set people up -- he had everything."

Tomlinson, a 2017 Hall of Fame inductee, is perhaps best-known for his MVP season in 2006 when he ran for 1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns. Gore remembers the season well -- he finished with a career-high 1,695 rushing yards.

Gore didn't make the All-Pro team but the exclusion taught him a valuable lesson -- if he wanted recognition, he'd have to continue to prove himself.

"It wasn't about doing it for one year, you had to get respect from guys consistently," he said. "I didn't even make All-Pro the year I had 1,695 [yards], it was Larry Johnson."

That breakout campaign kicked off a string of nine 1,000-yard seasons in a 12-season span for Gore -- during which he surpassed Tomlinson to enter the all-time rushing list's top-five in 2017.

Those days are behind Gore, who last topped 1,000 yards in 2016 (1,025 with the Colts), but the Bills appreciate what he brings to their backfield.

"We have a lot of confidence in him. As much as we can give it to him, I think he'd take it," offensive coordinator Brian Daboll told ESPN last month. "He's broken some tackles. He's a tireless worker.

"He's a guy whose accolades, I'd say -- he's got over 15,000 yards -- speak for themselves."

The most recent Hall of Famer Gore passed felt like a significant milestone to the 2005 third-round pick. New York Jets great Curtis Martin epitomized the level of consistency Gore sought to emulate, rushing for 1,000 or more yards in each of his first 10 seasons. He had a career-high with 1,697 yards in 2004.

"I love Curtis' game," Gore said. "Tough, great vision -- he brought it every play."

Gore's admiration for Martin was fostered by former running backs coach Bishop Harris, who coached Martin from 2001-04 and Gore from 2005-07.

As an ascending Gore found success in the league, Harris indirectly urged him to follow Martin's model through constant reminders and anecdotes describing the latter's work ethic. When Gore passed Martin in 2018 to become the NFL's fourth-leading career rusher, Gore was sure to share the moment with their former coach.

"[Harris] used to always talk about Curtis -- how hard of a worker he was, how mentally tough he was," Gore said. "He said me and Curtis had the same will for the game. When I did [pass Martin], I talked to our old running backs coach and I was like, 'coach, I got your boy.'"

Entering Week 10, Gore is losing playing time to explosive rookie Devin Singletary, who said of Gore in August: "He took me under his wing like I was his little brother."

It's hard to predict how long it will take Gore to get those 85 yards he needs to take his next step up the ladder.

It's on his mind, albeit not at the forefront. Whether he passes Sanders, football fans and historians must include Gore's name alongside some of the best running backs to play.

After 15 seasons of proving himself, he has earned that much.