NEW ORLEANS — Ray Rice has known nothing but winning since he came into the NFL.
For Frank Gore, it took a while.
Two running backs with contrasting styles and story lines will be on display at this Super Bowl, but they have one thing in common — plenty of respect for each other.
"To battle through what he's been through? He's a warrior," Rice said Monday evening, shortly after the Baltimore Ravens arrived in the Big Easy. "Hats off to my man Frank."
Gore, the leading rusher for the San Francisco 49ers, also was generous with the praise.
"He does it all. I love to watch him," Gore said of his Ravens counterpart. "When I saw him in college, I knew he was going to be a pretty good back in the league."
They both are.
But, boy, they sure took different paths to get here.
The 29-year-old Gore has endured plenty of losses, personal heartache (losing his mother to kidney failure) and a startling string of injuries that might've broken a lesser man. 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.
Even harder to take, Gore played on a series of bad teams. Really bad teams. His first six years in the league, the 49ers failed to post a winning record — which was especially hard for him to take, considering he had known nothing but winning 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, fullback Bruce Miller, has noticed the determination in Gore's eyes as the team prepares to face the Baltimore 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 ACC championship game. This season, they got over that hump with a major upset at New England.
"I've been blessed and fortunate," Rice said.
Rice is a slasher of a back, darting through the smallest of openings to break off big gains. He's rushed for more than 1,000 yards four years in a row and is just as valuable in the passing game, recording more than 60 receptions each of those seasons, as well.
In a November game at San Diego, he 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.
Gore is a power back, someone who can churn out the tough yards between the tackles. That style has served him well; he's run for more than 1,000 yards six of the last seven seasons and become 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."
Despite their lofty numbers, 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."
All the warm and fuzzy feelings will be put on hold in the Super Bowl.
But 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."