The simple explanation is that a season of injuries, to himself and to others, prompted San Francisco 49er tight end John Frank to retire from football a few months ago. At age 27 he said goodbye to a bright career in the NFL and a $357,500 annual salary. After having taken four off-seasons to complete just one year of medical school, at Ohio State, Frank decided to study medicine full-time.
The beginning of the end for Frank occurred in New Orleans during the first game of the 1988 season. On the Niners' first offensive series, he was tackled after making a catch and broke a rib on his left side. "My whole flank was immobilized," says Frank.
Two weeks later, while still recovering from the injury, Frank watched from the sideline in street clothes as his friend and fellow Ohio State alumnus Alex Higdon, a rookie tight end with the Atlanta Falcons, went down with a torn ligament in his left knee during a game in San Francisco. Higdon was writhing in pain when Frank reached him. "I walked onto the field, unbuckled his chin strap and said, 'Hang in there. Everything will be O.K.,' " says Frank. "When I came back to the bench, one of our coaches gave me a dirty look, like I was a traitor."
Frank was the one in agony two weeks later. Back in action, he had just fallen to the turf after making a block against the Detroit Lions when several players landed on his left hand, crushing two bones. "It sounded like I cracked all my knuckles at once," says Frank. "The hand went numb. I wanted to cry. Lindsy McLean [the 49er trainer] said, 'We'll cast it, John, and you can block in the second half.' At that moment I realized how barbaric football is. I thought, You've got to be kidding. I only get one left hand. I told Lindsy no." The injury kept Frank out of the next six games.
August 27, 1989
The breaking point for Frank came in the Super Bowl, after Cincinnati Bengal nosetackle Tim Krumrie suffered a compound fracture of his left leg. During one of the slow-motion replays of the injury on the giant end-zone video screen in Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium, Niner fullback Tom Rathman announced in the huddle, "Wow! Look at that! He really messed it up!" Frank's stomach churned. "I wanted to scream, 'How can I look at that? How can anybody look at that?' " he says. "I just couldn't block out the injuries anymore."
When Frank walked away from football, he was at the top of his game. After only five years in the league, he had already played on two of San Francisco's Super Bowl championship teams, and he was becoming one of the best tight ends in the league. At 6'1¾", 225 pounds, he was undersized for his position, but he had a reputation as a tenacious blocker. He was intense and aggressive.
Frank did some of his best work on third and long, when many teams replace their tight end with a third wide-out. When flushed from the pocket, quarterback Joe Montana looked to Frank as a "relief man," the one person he could count on to get open. In his eight regular-season games last year, Frank had 16 catches for 195 yards and three touchdowns.
After the Super Bowl, Frank went skiing in Utah and Colorado with the Niners' backup quarterback, Steve Young. "Do you really like getting hit?" Frank asked Young one day as they rode a chair lift.
"I don't get hit," Young replied. "I throw the football or hand it off."
"Well, I get hit every play," said Frank. "It's terrible."
Then he told Young he wanted to retire. Young laughed, figuring Frank was suffering from post-Super Bowl blahs. "He didn't believe me," says Frank. "I didn't tell anybody else."
In late February, Frank was honored by the Columbus (Ohio) Touchdown Club. Seated next to him on the dais was Bill Walsh, who had recently resigned as San Francisco coach to become the team's executive vice-president. "Bill said, 'John, how can we repeat?' " recalls Frank. "And I thought, How can I tell him I'm having second thoughts? So I said, 'Well, what do you think?' " During their conversation Walsh spoke about players from whom the team needed full, injury-free seasons, including Frank. Finally, Frank interrupted him. "I think you ought to consider drafting a tight end," he said.
Walsh laughed. "Bill thought I was kidding," he says. "I let it go at that. I didn't want to ruin his meal. But in my mind I rewrote my speech. I got up and said that winning the Super Bowl had been the ultimate, the icing on the cake, that slamming [49er owner] Eddie DeBartolo into the lockers after the game was the best. Then, in all seriousness, I looked at Bill and said, 'In the end, I am totally satisfied with my professional football career.' Bill just stared at me."
Walsh returned to California in a panic. He instructed the coaching staff to phone Frank and talk him out of retiring. The calls came daily for two weeks. Walsh pleaded with Frank too. "You're making a big mistake," Walsh told him. "Wait one more year."
Walsh even had Rathman call Frank. "I said, 'Tom, tell Bill to back off,' " says Frank.
His mind was made up. That is, until a Friday in March, when Frank phoned DeBartolo to make the retirement official. "This is nothing personal," said Frank. "I don't want to hurt you."
"I understand," said DeBartolo. "It's a career decision." But there was disappointment in DeBartolo's voice. Frank started to feel guilty. Several days later a conversation with Minnesota Viking center Kirk Lowdermilk, who had played with Frank at Ohio State, upset him even more. "You can't retire," said Lowdermilk. "You're my football idol. I learned to block from you."
"My mind started playing tricks on me," says Frank. "I remembered all the good times. I began to have regrets."
He confided in Washington Redskin tackle Jim Lachey, another close friend from college. "If I play, I can set up an annuity for myself," Frank told him. "And I can give money to Ohio State." Lachey, who had donated $100,000 to the school to endow a football scholarship, was gentle with Frank. "It sounds like you're rationalizing," said Lachey.
"I love the game," said Frank.
"How much?" Lachey asked.
The question stopped Frank short. "I don't love it badly enough," he said. "I can't want to play only for the money. There has to be passion. Medicine is my passion."
During the NFL draft on April 23, Frank officially announced his retirement in a conference call with the San Francisco media. "It took 15 minutes," he says. "I hung up and said to my girlfriend [Paige Rowland, an Ohio State student and part-time model], 'It's over.' We hugged. Then I went out and hit golf balls. It was anticlimactic."
The 49ers used their second-round pick to select tight end Wesley Walls from Mississippi. This summer, as the 49ers have been sweating through training camp, Walls is one of six candidates competing for what is now the least experienced position on the team. "It may be that we'll have to use two tight ends to get the same job done," says quarterback coach Mike Holmgren. "John was a rare combination of talents."
Frank, meanwhile, is consumed with reviewing textbooks on immunology, hematology and human reproduction. He is also working 40 hours a week at Ohio State, designing a research project on human movement. Next week he starts his second year at Ohio State Medical School.
In announcing his retirement, Frank cited his broken hand and the need to guard against further hand injuries, which could prevent him from fulfilling his ambition to become an orthopedic surgeon. But his reasons for abandoning football were more complex. Two years earlier Frank had begun examining his relationship with football in sessions with a psychotherapist. He didn't like what he found.
"For many years I desensitized myself," he says. "I kept pushing my feelings back and back, repressing any sort of human emotion, especially when I saw an injury. You get into a frame of mind; it's the whole macho thing. Football players carry this further than the average male. A lot of players have these feelings, but they never speak about them. It's something you may talk about with your wife, but only if she confronts you. This is the way football is: If someone dislocates his shoulder on the practice field, the coaches just move the drill. If your good friend goes down, you can't go over, pat him on the head and hand him a cup of water."
The hard hitting bothered Frank so much that he questioned the kind of person he had become on the field. "I made a lot of enemies on defense," he says. "Some guys really hated me. They didn't understand the way I played in the fourth quarter with reckless abandon, with no regard for my body.
"Who draws the distinction between the person you are on the field and the one you are off it? And does anybody really care who you are when the game's over? Like [Chicago Bears middle linebacker] Mike Singletary. In the NFC Championship game last season, I made a block on him at knee level. I wasn't trying to hurt him; I was trying to get him to the ground. He gets up yelling. I'm sure that's the first thing he'd say to me today, that I tried to hurt his knee, and I don't value that."
Frank came to view playing in the NFL as a cold experience. He was just another face in the team picture. Was it too much to ask for some attachment? "When my teammates were in the hospital because of injuries, I visited them," he says. "But when I had my hand operated on last year, nobody came to see me. In the 11th grade I had my tonsils out, and 30 people visited me. Here I was, 26 years old, a 49er—one of the 50 most popular people in the Bay Area—and nobody comes. Weird.
"Bill Walsh never called. [General manager] John McVay was the most concerned. He said, 'Do you think you'll be able to play? If not, we'll put you on injured reserve for six weeks.' Some compassion. I stopped by the team offices a couple days after surgery, and the guys were curious. They asked about my hand. Then they went out to practice, and I was sitting alone in the locker room. I thought, Now what? So I went to New York City to visit Paige, who was on a modeling assignment, and on TV we watched the 49ers beat the Rams. Hey, you just move the drill."
Growing up in Pittsburgh, the second oldest of Alan and Barbara Frank's four children—and their only son—John played football constantly with the neighborhood kids. He always pretended he was one of the tough guys on the Steel Curtain defense, somebody like linebacker Jack Lambert or safety Donnie Shell. When he was 10, John asked his parents if he could try organized tackle football. At first they balked.
"They looked at each other funny," says Frank. "Dad said, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' Mom said, 'You know your father wasn't ever allowed to play football.' And I said, "Just sign the release form.' "
Alan, an attorney, had been a star center on the Carnegie Tech basketball team. He was also an outstanding shortstop, but when the Pittsburgh Pirates offered him a contract with one of their minor league teams, he turned it down to work as a mechanical engineer. In the evenings he attended Duquesne Law School. "He was a tough Jewish kid from the city streets," says John. "He was also brilliant and very intense."
Almost from the moment he signed that release permitting his son to play tackle football, Alan was hell-bent on teaching John everything he knew about sports. He chastised John for his little bit of baby fat, calling him "a blimp" or "a pear." Says John, "I was athletic, but I wasn't athletic enough for him."
Alan put John through drills: catching on the run, catching in rainstorms, catching looking into the sun. To improve John's running technique, he hired a track coach from Carnegie-Mellon. To school John in the intricacies of blocking, Alan enlisted the services of his friends Joe Moore, the offensive line coach at Pitt at the time, and Dan Radakovich, then the Steelers' offensive line coach. "I hated it," says John. "I spent the summer hitting a dummy while my friends were at the swimming pool."
It never occurred to him to stand up to his father and tell him he was pushing too hard. John was afraid that if he questioned a drill or a decision he would let his father down. "His advice always led to success," says John. "Everything he said was so right. I couldn't argue."
While John was attending Mount Lebanon High, his parents separated. Although Alan was then living apart from the family, he didn't spend any less time with his son. "He'd show up every morning to make sure I ate a big breakfast, so I'd grow up strong," says Frank. On Friday nights Alan videotaped his son's football games, and they studied the tapes as well as game films Alan purchased from the school for $100 each.
He frequently came by the house on weekday evenings to help John with his math and science homework. Because John wanted to become a doctor, Alan pushed for straight A's. "He set the standards high so I could get into med school," says Frank. "I didn't want to disappoint him. I always felt we were working toward a common goal."
John and his dad did more than just work together. They rode motorcycles, skied, tinkered with cars and listened to music. "It was a perfect relationship," says Frank. "A model. I couldn't have loved anybody more."
After John started playing at Ohio State, Alan continued videotaping his games. He even made a highlight film of John's best plays, with his own voice describing the action, and sent the reel to NFL teams. When it came time for John, who maintained a 3.9 grade point average as a chemistry major, to apply to medical school, Alan insisted he also try for a Rhodes Scholarship. Alan wrote a great deal of the application essay. The subject was determination.
John rarely socialized. He was shy, and he didn't have a girlfriend in college until late in his senior year, after he had been accepted to medical school. For years John believed that the only person he could trust was his father.
That proved to be wrong. In 1986, Alan became the target of an investigation into charges of income tax evasion, forgery and theft, and John was caught up in the trouble. Alan had persuaded John to secure bank loans of $500,000 to help him start a vending-machine leasing company. As collateral John had put up his $290,000 signing bonus from the 49ers. Federal authorities charged that Alan had not paid taxes on income from a related company he also controlled. State prosecutors alleged that Alan had stolen some bonds and forged signatures on others. John was implicated because he held some suspect bonds as collateral on the loan to his father.
"In the beginning the FBI, IRS and Pittsburgh police were all looking to arrest John," says Stan Glick, a Columbus businessman and a friend of John's. "He had done absolutely nothing wrong. He had trusted his father to invest that money wisely. He had to prove to the FBI that he knew nothing of this company. Did his father do this maliciously? No. He would not purposely do anything to harm John. He just thinks differently from other people."
In late 1986, Alan fled, sailing around the Caribbean on a yacht he had purchased—with the help of $50,000 from John—as a potential charter craft. The FBI searched for him. A year later Alan secretly returned, buying parts for his yacht at a boatyard near Baltimore, and authorities subsequently apprehended him in the parking lot of a Pittsburgh motel. He was eventually acquitted of the forgery and theft charges but convicted of tax evasion and unlawful flight. John testified for the prosecution at the tax-evasion trial. In August 1988, Alan was sentenced to six years; he is currently imprisoned at the Federal Correctional Institute in Ashland, Ky.
"John was a man-child realizing for the first time that his father had feet of clay," says Bob Cindrich, John's attorney in the case. "I told him to remember when he got on the stand that he loved his father, but that he had to tell the truth to protect himself. It was a real heartbreaker."
The legal troubles began during John's third season with the 49ers. He soon severed all ties with his father, and he hasn't spoken to him since. He didn't understand why his father had gotten him involved in such a mess. John was so distracted—and frightened about playing football without his father's motivation and guidance—that he couldn't concentrate fully on the sport.
"I jumped offside, got penalties for holding or late hits," says John. "I didn't know if I was excited or neurotic. I was lonely and miserable. I wanted to quit, but I was afraid that people—my father—would see me as a failure."
His inability to concentrate adversely affected his medical-school studies as well. A few days after each football season, Frank would return to Columbus and immerse himself in school. He would wake up at six, run and do calisthenics, and be at the library by eight. He would take a two-hour break in the late afternoon to lift weights and train, and then cram until midnight. But he was constantly interrupted by calls from his accountant and Cindrich, who were trying to resolve his legal difficulties.
"I was studying as hard as the other kids, but not getting the results," says Frank. "I went from being one of the best students to being one of the worst. When it came time for exams, I'd say, 'I've saturated the material.' Then I'd get the results back, and I'd be stunned."
Many nights he couldn't sleep or he would wake up in a sweat. "I thought it was normal," says Frank. "I'd always been intense for grades, so driven. But my anxiety level gradually grew." Late one night in the spring of '87, the pressure became overwhelming. Frank telephoned Glick from the library. "Stan, I need help," he said. "I've studied for 18 hours today."
"But John," Glick replied, "you already knew the material."
"I wanted to make sure I knew it," said Frank. "My father would want me to keep studying."
Glick told him to leave the library immediately and drive to his house. That night, he encouraged Frank to seek therapy. "I've never known anybody with such intensity," says Glick. "There was so much pressure from his family to achieve. John Frank wasn't John Frank. He was Alan Frank in John's body. Alan was telling John to do this. His father totally dominated his life."
When Alan was sentenced to prison last August, John felt a sense of freedom. More important, he began to think for himself. "Some people had associated my success in football with my father pushing me," says John. "They thought that when I was failing in the NFL, it was because we weren't communicating. I wanted to prove that I could do it on my own. And I think I did. I achieved the ultimate—playing for a Super Bowl champion—without him. I never made a Pro Bowl, but who's to say next year I wouldn't have broken my neck. Football was not worth the price I was paying. It's a dead-end street."
Frank's friends are pleased with his decision to retire. "John quit for himself and not for anyone else," says Glick. "He is setting goals by himself. He is doing what he has wanted to do since he was in the ninth grade. The John Frank of today is what every father wants a son to be—kind, gentle, mature, directed."
A few months ago Glick suggested John try speaking with Alan. Glick believed John felt guilty for having abandoned his dad. "I told John he couldn't keep running away from his father," says Glick. "In order for John to go on with his life, he must settle this. Quitting football and going to medical school won't be enough to make him happy. He needs his father back, without letting his father manipulate him."
John has recently written his father a couple of letters, which have gone unanswered. "I think he's embarrassed to see me in prison," says John. "The visit has to be on his terms. Only time will tell."
One morning in late July, the same day the 49er training camp opened in Rocklin, Calif., Frank stopped at Riverside Hospital in Columbus to observe hip-replacement and knee surgery on an elderly woman. David Halley, the surgeon, surprised Frank, asking him to assist by holding instruments. "It was unbelievable," says Frank. "I'm standing in front of the operating-room door, scrubbed with a moon suit on, thinking, Am I really doing this?"
The woman was alert during the procedure and babbled endlessly with Frank. "She had a degenerative right hip, and that screwed up her left knee," says Frank. "It was really intense surgery. We were working on her legs—the right was six inches shorter than the left—and three hours just flew by. Afterward, she asked me how her legs were. I told her they were the same length. She was so thrilled. She was lying on the table, thanking me over and over. I put my hand on hers and winked. I knew then I'd made the right decision."