FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- In training camp, running back Le'Veon Bell usually rolled into the New York Jets' facility at 7 a.m., about two hours before practice. He was one of the early birds, but not the earliest. When Bell picked up his personalized contact-tracing gizmo at the daily check-in -- required to be worn at all times, per COVID-19 protocols -- he routinely glanced at the remaining ones to see if running mate Frank Gore had arrived yet.
Gore's device never was there. It was with him in the locker room, where he already was prepping for practice.
"I don't know what time he gets here," Bell concluded with a laugh.
Gore's penchant for showing up early has allowed him to stay late. On Sunday, the 37-year-old running back will begin his 16th NFL season -- mind-blowing longevity for any player, let alone a running back.
Fittingly, the Jets open the season against Gore's previous team, the Buffalo Bills (1 p.m ET, CBS), followed in succession by two more of Gore's exes -- the San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts. Later on in 2020, he will face his other former team, the Miami Dolphins.
The Jets' schedule sets up like a nostalgic, "thanks-for-the-memories" send-off for Gore, except there's no guarantee this will be his final season. He looked terrific in training camp, participating in every padded practice and making some runs that left the coaches buzzing.
"I know I've been blessed with the ability to play football at a high level and I take advantage of it," Gore said. "The reason I take advantage of it is because it got taken away from me in college [at the University of Miami with a serious knee injury], so I know this game is not promised to nobody. No matter how many Pro Bowls, no matter how many thousand yards, no matter what, once I step on that field, I want to show I'm not satisfied."
Gore, the 2005 third-round draft pick by San Francisco, is third on the league's all-time rushing list (15,347 yards). He probably won't get any higher on the list because he trails Walter Payton by 1,380 yards to secure the No. 2 spot -- the same Payton whose son, Jarrett, played with Gore at the University of Miami (2001-04). How's that for bridging the generation gap?
Gore has had 18 starting quarterbacks, 10 offensive coordinators and seven head coaches. Though he never won a rushing title and never was named first-team All-Pro, Gore is considered a strong candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He said he doesn't think about Canton, not while he's "still competing with these young guys." He has a big fan in Hall of Famer and former Jets great Curtis Martin, who texted Gore when he was bypassed by him on the rushing list.
"What most people don't realize is that just being a running back and being able to play as long as Frank has, that's a talent in itself," said Martin, the No. 6 all-time rusher with 14,101 yards. "Staying healthy is a talent, especially at running back. He's been very consistent. If he was the premier running back on a team, he could still put up some pretty decent numbers."
Gore will play behind Bell, but there will be a role for him in Jets coach Adam Gase's offense. His downhill running style appeals to Gase, who coached him in San Francisco (2008) and Miami (2018). Unlike Bell, whose patience with the ball sometimes backfires, Gore hits the hole quickly, finding ways to squeeze his 5-foot-9 body through the smallest of windows.
"He looks the same as he did 12 years ago," Gase said. "I can't explain it. It's unbelievable how, when I watch him, I flash back to 2008. He looks the same. I don't know how. It doesn't make sense, but Frank has been one who refuses to listen to what anybody else says. He goes out there and he's an old-school football player. He looks good. His burst looks good. His vision is never going to change. It's going to be like that when he's 60. Frank is special. There's a reason why he's third all-time in rushing yards."
Gore already has made an impact on the Jets, bringing his tireless work ethic and leadership to the locker room. Professional athletes usually are hesitant to admit when they're starstruck, but Gore's presence has changed that.
"Definitely a fan-boy moment," Jets tight end Chris Herndon, himself a former Hurricane, said of the first time he met Gore.
Herndon said he likes to pick Gore's brain on topics such as diet, supplements and body maintenance, akin to discussing computer software with Bill Gates. Herndon has his own plan, but it was reassuring to get Gore's endorsement.
"I'm listening to everything he has to say," Herndon said.
Rookie wide receiver Lawrence Cager, who began his college career at Miami, was blown away the first time he got into a huddle with Gore. Cager is friends with Gore's son, Frank Gore Jr., who used to hang around campus during his high school days. Gore Jr. is now a freshman running back at Southern Miss.
"Frank comes back to the huddle and says, 'Let's go,' and I'm just saying in my mind, 'Bro, this is like the No. 3 rusher in football history right here,'" Cager said. "I know his son, and that's the craziest part about it. It's like, 'I know your son, and you're out here, a Hall of Famer, gold jacket,' and he's still running as hard as I've ever seen him run before. It's just insane."
Bell first met Gore in 2013, when he left Michigan State and started training for the NFL draft at Bommarito Performance Systems in South Florida. Gore trained at the same facility -- still does -- and they struck up a relationship.
"Everything that comes out of his mouth is kind of like wisdom," Bell said.
Bell is 28, no spring chicken, yet he often finds himself acting like a young player around Gore, seeking knowledge and asking questions. As someone who wants to play football for a long time, Bell takes inspiration from Gore, who has produced more rushing yards (6,508) by any player in NFL history after his 30th birthday.
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"The fact that he's been playing so long is because of his training and the things he does in the offseason," Bell said. "He tells me, 'You have the same trainer I have and you're doing the same things I am, so you can do it, Le'Veon.' That's why I feel like I'm going in the right direction, and I feel like I'm doing the right things correctly because I'm hearing it from guys who have done it already."
Gase wanted Gore because he felt he would have a positive impact on every player in the running back room (Bell included) and, by extension, the entire offense. Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, 14 years Gore's junior, said Gore's passion for the game is felt every day in practice.
"For a future Hall of Famer to come out here and practice every single day with the same energy, it's great for our team to see it," Darnold said.
Few people on this planet can appreciate Gore's longevity better than Martin, an absolute workhorse in his heyday. Like Gore, Martin prided himself on consistency, being the same player day after day. He played 11 years and carried the ball 3,518 times. Gore passed him last year, and is up to 3,548 carries.
"What year is this for him?" Martin asked.
"Sixteen," he was told.
Martin's reply said it all.