It has been said that the NFL is a stepping-stone to one's life's work. After their playing career end, professional opportunities come and go that pave the way for the rest of their lives. Sometimes, a player seeks a more noble profession such as medicine. After years of seeing the carnage on the field of play, they use their natural curiosity to further their education so that they can potentially help their NFL brethren. Men such as Myron Rolle, Milt McColl and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif are just a few of the several former NFL players who made their way to the field of medicine. During their dynasty of the 1980's the 49ers had a tight end who was determined to join this elite fraternity, John Frank. This is his story.
John Frank was born on April 17, 1962 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Initially, his parents were reluctant to let him play football, causing him to forge their signature when he was 10. Eventually, they saw his talent and the unique opportunity that lay before him. While Frank starred on the football team at Mount Lebanon High School, he volunteered at Dr. Thomas Starzl's office. At the time, Dr. Starzl was known as the "Father of Modern Transplantation". Transfixed with the atmosphere and lifestyle of the field, Frank decided to go into medicine when his playing days were over.
While he didn't do much as a freshman, Frank shined as a sophomore at Ohio State in 1981, John Frank starred in a run-heavy offense, catching 49 passes for 445 yards and three touchdowns from quarterback Art Schlicter. Frank struggled as a sophomore, adjusting to passes from Mike Tomczak. Still, he managed to catch 26 passes for 326 yards and just two touchdowns. As a senior in 1983, John Frank proved to be better adjusted to Tomczak's passes, catching 45 passes for 641 yards and four touchdowns. When he graduated (with a 3.9 GPA as a chemistry major), he had set school records for receptions and yards for a tight end. After that season, John Frank was drafted by the 49ers in the second round of the NFL Draft.
As a rookie in 1984, John Frank was overwhelmed by the complexities of the West Coast Offense, starting just two games. He caught seven passes for 60 yards and a single touchdown as the 49ers became the first team in NFL history to win 15 games in the regular season, capping off their magical run with a Super Bowl victory over the Miami Dolphins.
Though his statistics were much the same for the next two years, John Frank continued to excel in the classroom, having enrolled in the Ohio State University College of Medicine's independent study program. While most athletes spent their offseason getting ready for the following season, John Frank spent his time researching diseases of the head and neck and studying microvascular surgery.
Along the way, he became a fan favorite for his tenacity and his willingness to play through injuries. By the end of 1987, John Frank had grown weary of this double life and wished to retire, devoting his time fully to his medical field pursuits. To complicate matters, his father had recently been sentenced to prison for six years after being convicted of tax evasion. As his emotions about the game and questions about his life after football grew more rampant in his mind, John Frank had to deal with the emotional toll that having a parent in prison has on a child.
His father had always been there for him. After overcoming some initial reservations about the sport, it was he that had seen the talent that his son possessed. When John Frank was young, he and his father would spend many nights working out in the park. During those workouts, his father taught him about how fleeting an opportunity can be, sharing with him his own story of turning down a minor league offer from the Pittsburgh Pirates to attend law school when he was young.
Now, with his father in prison, John Frank was slapped with the cold, hard truth that everything can be taken away in a moment of recklessness. Now with his greatest mentor in prison and with so much to consider in the near future, John Frank felt more alone than ever. With her husband now in prison, John Frank's mother convinced him to stick around for one more year. With all the turmoil surrounding the Frank household, the family could use a distraction. Besides, she had a feeling that something special was about to happen in San Francisco.
Though it would take more than half a season, by the end of the year, the 49ers would make her prediction prophetic. In the first game of the season, a Saints linebacker crashed into his midsection, fracturing three ribs. Despite the ever-increasing intense pain, John Frank played on, scoring two touchdowns against a great linebacker core in the 49er's two-point victory. At the end of the game, Bill Walsh awarded him the game ball. Though the pain was intense, no one knew that he had broken ribs. That discovery was made the following week and only after John Frank had been shooed away by the 49er's team doctor and got a second opinion with his own doctor. It was during this time of medical chart jumbling that he realized just what kind of world the NFL was, that it was essentially a meat market. Suddenly, retiring as a football player and devoting his time fully to the field of medicine looked much more appealing.
While his recovery would take some time to heal (two games), the 49ers were facing one of the most turbulent years in their dynasty. With a quarterback controversy of the ages waged between Joe Montana and Steve Young causing a great deal of headaches for coach Bill Walsh and with a younger, healthier tight end in Brent Jones competing for playing time, John Frank was conflicted. Should he be more concerned for his physical well-being, his team or his future in medicine? What's more, his injuries continued to persist. In his first game back since breaking those three ribs, John Frank broke his hand against the Detroit Lions. Again, he began to realize even more just how barbaric the sport can be as the team doctor overlooked his injury (suggesting a cast), this time in the middle of the game. It was in this moment of clarity that John Frank decided to do something that players of that era rarely did, he refused to reenter the game.
Soon after, he went in for surgery on his broken hand. While he recovered, he began to feel something that he did not expect, a void in his life. He began to miss the camaraderie among his teammates, the love they showed him on the field and in the locker room. The realization soon began to overtake him that when he eventually left the game, there was a very real chance that he would never experience that same feeling again. After all, he was only 26 years old, with the rest of his life to consider. With all of these conflicting emotions swirling around in his head, John Frank returned six weeks later and finished the year as one of Joe Montana's favorite third-down options, snagging 16 passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns. Despite the season long odds, the 49ers made it to the Super Bowl where they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals. In a fitting tribute to his career, Frank played the closely contested game with a fractured hand. And with that, John Frank called it a career.
A Second Act
After his career in the NFL ended, John Frank continued his studies in medical school, earning his M.D. in 1992 and was accepted in an Ear, Nose and Throat residency in Chicago. While in Chicago, John Frank dealt with countless injuries, but this time he was the one making the decisions. Making life changing decisions for others completed him as he was no longer worried about hurting others and wreaking havoc on his body. The cycle was complete, the gridiron gladiator was now a healer. Eventually, he switched to otolaryngology where he has stayed for nearly 30 years. As an otolaryngologist, he has treated more than 20,000 patients for hair loss and has become a world-renowned surgeon while performing over 3,500 hair transplant surgeries while running the Anapelli Hair Clinic.