Ohio State football alum John Frank finds faith, fulfillment – The Columbus Dispatch

  • October 25, 2022

John Frank has always raised eyebrows. It’s just that now he does it for a living.
As a hair restoration doctor living in Columbus who splits time between offices in Gahanna and New York City, the former Ohio State and NFL tight end is responsible for altering patients’ appearances, which in turn changes their perception of who they are and impacts how others see them. 
In that way, it is the perfect career for Frank, whose evolving storyline speaks to a new way of seeing himself and the world, even as the world wonders with arched eyebrows how he could be so different – how someone who once pinned New York Giants Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor to the turf and grappled with Ohio State trainer Billy Hill could be the same mild-mannered mensch who, as an Orthodox Jew, leaves his home in Berwick to attend daily prayer at Beth Jacob Synagogue, strictly honors the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and counts humility among the highest human attributes.
This guy is that guy? 
“I’m just a person who likes the Buckeyes, practical jokes and loves my family,” he says, simply. “I’m not perfect.”
Nobody is, but Frank is interesting, intelligent and intense. Some things never change. 
Frank’s name has surfaced this season as Ohio State tight end Cade Stover chases the school record of 45 catches by a tight end in a single season, a record set by Frank in 1981 and matched by him in 1983. Stover has 18 receptions through seven games. 
Frank’s story also resonates today in light of the controversy over how the Miami Dolphins and the NFL handled quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s head injury. Frank retired from the NFL in 1989 after playing only five seasons, in part to pursue his medical degree at OSU but also because he became disillusioned by the brutality of the game, specifically how he and injured teammates were treated more like replaceable parts than people. Also, he needed healthy hands, not paws mangled by defensive linemen, to reach his goal of becoming a surgeon. 
His stance has softened over the decades, but Frank remains bothered by the warrior mentality inherent in football and also by the lack of coping skills shown by many NFL players after they leave the game.
“I think the majority of former football players are in many ways fish out of water,” he says. 
At first, Frank comes off conflicted as we sit down at a Bexley coffee shop. Is football good or bad? But the more he talks, the more it becomes clear this is simply who he is: thoughtful and measured. Compelled to study all sides of the issue.  
In one breath he says he hopes his 13-year-old son, Samuel, loses interest in playing football.
“I tell Samuel, ‘This warrior attack-and-destroy mentality, I don’t want to perpetuate it. I don’t want to instill that,’ ” Frank says. 
In the next breath, wiggle room emerges.
“I guess if he wants to be a quarterback, that to me is a higher level,” Frank says, his eyes lighting up as he describes the position.
“They are superhero, fighter pilot, generals, rocket science, geneticists, the whole package,” he says. “When I was a kid I wasn’t interested in that. I want to fight. I want to rumble. You want to jump and argue. You’re a kid. I didn’t want to be a processor. I didn’t want to be a coder in AI. These guys are AI, the whole package. My son, I would love to see if he could do that.”
Pause.
“But then, what’s the end game?”
Frank stops again. You can see his brain working.
“There is a certain intensity that comes with being a big-time football player – college, Big Ten, professional – that is rarely seen off the field. It is that intense camaraderie which is never recaptured off the field, and so some guys adjust better than others. … This is the challenge I have, more than the physical injuries.”
If Frank stared into his internal mirror, what would he see? A changed outlook. A dimming passion for the sport. But also the psychological pull of a game he grew up loving. 
“I left football of my own accord after having an amazing and lucky career, and devoted my life to medicine,” he says. “I’ve got a beautiful wife (Edith) and children (Samuel, Elianna, 11, and Julia, 9) and I’m so lucky. The most fortunate person. So you would think I don’t have any challenges from being a former football player, but that’s not true. It’s hard for me. I’m not going to tell you that every day it bothers me, but it was such a draw, so compelling and such a deep part of my life. It’s still not easy.”
To better understand what makes Frank tick, go back to the beginning, when as a 10-year-old, he had to forge his mother’s signature on a release form allowing him to play football in his hometown of Pittsburgh. She worried about her son getting hurt. His only fear was suffering a cervical spine injury.
“I was a quarterback when I first started playing, then I played every position on the line,” he says. “I wanted my friend Larry to be the quarterback. I loved sacking him and inflicting pain on him. I didn’t want to injure him. I wanted to be a wrestler, a warrior.”
Ohio State gave Frank that opportunity, but only after months of on-and-off recruiting interest on both sides, during which honesty, integrity and what Frank calls “truth in love” eventually led him to the Buckeyes. It would become a recurring theme in his life. 
“I had this great senior year in high school, so now the letters start coming in and doors start opening all over the place,” he says.
Frank and his father, Alan, a Jewish sports legend in Pittsburgh, weren’t about to let a golden opportunity pass without asking for the moon and the stars. And medical school.
“We’re taking advantage of it, like maybe you can help us get into med school three years before the fact,” Frank says.
The Franks told Ohio State assistant coach Steve Szabo, who recruited western Pennsylvania, that John would join the Buckeyes under one condition.
“We flat out asked for a guarantee of medical school enrollment,” Frank says. “It wasn’t playing time. Medical school. ”
As serious as he was about football, Frank was even more driven to become a doctor. Football was simply a means to that end.
“They tell you, ‘We’re going to give you as much as we can without flat-out paying you to come and play for our team. What do you want?’ We wanted a medical school admission,” Frank says, adding that the request was fair. “In Yiddish they say ‘chutzpah’, which is ‘overly courageous, to the point of being offensive.’ This wasn’t even that.”
Frank figured if recruits were being offered money and cars, which he heard was happening, mostly in southern states, then a med school guarantee was not a huge ask.
Ohio State balked, but the Franks held firm. If that sounds ludicrous, it is no more so than what came 10 years later when, as some tell it, Ohio State replaced synthetic turf with grass in Ohio Stadium in part because tailback prospect Robert Smith wanted to play on the real stuff. 
“It’s not costing them anything, and it’s not against the rules,” Frank says, making his case like it was 1979 again. “There’s deals being made. I don’t know what they are, but they’re out there. 
“After that, they softened on me.”
That was fine with Frank, who already had cooled on Ohio State, but not because he disliked the school or facilities, which he considered first-rate. What soured him was a conversation he had two months earlier with Ohio State offensive line coach Bill Myles.
Even today, Frank tears up talking about it, realizing he misjudged the man he eventually would come to love and respect as his position coach. But the first meeting with Myles almost ended Frank’s recruitment on the spot. 
“I had offers from Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan … you name it,” Frank says. “I had come to Columbus months before the signing date, and I’m sitting with Bill Myles.”
Frank begins imitating the deep bass of Myles, who passed away in 2020.
“‘Nice to meet you, John. I need a tight end, John,’” Frank says, channeling Myles. “ ‘But I see where you come from in Pennsylvania, from Mount Lebanon (a wealthy suburb of Pittsburgh). I’m not sure you’re tough enough to play here.’”
At this, Frank stops to apologize, eyes watering. 
“I’m sorry I’m taking so long; it’s therapy.
“Bill Myles says I’m not tough enough? What? In my mind, I’m the toughest. I’m 18, give me a windmill to slay,” he continues. “Then he tells me, ‘If you commit, we’ll toughen you up.’
That was it.
“I walked away thinking, ‘I can’t go there. This guy’s a jerk.’”
More moistening of the eyes, prompted by a realization. 
“What honesty. What a mensch,” he says of Myles.
Frank eventually signed with Ohio State, his decision influenced by the brute honesty of his pursuers.
“Steve Szabo told me, “If you’re the type of kid we think you are – you’ll have introductions and get to network and know people – but you won’t need it. You’ll get the grades to get into our medical school.’ End of conversation. I didn’t say yes on the spot. I went home and thought about it and decided, ‘This is the best place for me.’ ”
For three years, as Frank did squats in the OSU weight room, he was forced to look at a sign listing the Buckeyes’ future opponents. One stood out. 
“All I’m hearing from everyone is, ‘Oklahoma, we can’t stand those SOB’s,’” he says. “I’m looking at this thing three years in a row, and now it’s the (second) game of the ’83 season, and it’s on Yom Kippur.”
Uh-oh. Frank was one of four Ohio State captains, but he’s also Jewish, and Yom Kippur is the holiest day in Judaism.
“I’m thinking for three years, ‘I hope this goes away. I wish this would just disappear,’” he says. “It doesn’t disappear.”
If the Frank of today were the Frank of 1983, there would have been no dilemma. He would not have played against Oklahoma. In fact, his entire football career would never have happened. 
“I wouldn’t have been able to play in high school or college,” he says, explaining that following the fourth of the Ten Commandments – “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” – would have precluded him from participating in Friday night and Saturday afternoon games, thus preventing him from reaching NFL Sundays.
“Today I don’t drive on the Sabbath. I don’t touch a light, don’t light a candle. It’s family time on Saturday. It’s called shomer Shabbat, ‘observing the Sabbath,”. he explains. “Back then I wasn’t practicing, which made it easier for me to make the decision to play (at Ohio State).”
Frank built in “contingencies” by attending Friday night synagogue, fasting and drinking water only during the game, which ended with him being named most valuable performer in the Buckeyes’ 24-14 win against the No. 2 Sooners, in heat that reached 110 degrees on the field.
“We get on the bus from the stadium to the airport and people are passing out,” he recalls. “There are only 20 sodas, and we’re triaging who’s getting the water on the bus. But I feel fine, and the sun is setting and I can see it over the cornfields of Oklahoma.”
Re-enter former “jerk” Myles. 
“I’ve got a Coke in my hand, and I’m sitting next to Bill Myles on the bus and he’s like, ‘Do you need a Coke, John? I tell him I’m going to wait for the sun to set. ‘You have it,’ I say. God bless him, he says back to me, ‘I’m not having it until you have it.’ ”
Frank turns his head, gazing down Main Street, silent for a moment.
“Full freakin’ circle,” he says, as much to himself as to me.
Teammates, coaches and a college roommate all say the same thing: Frank was as driven and competitive as it gets.
“He was just an excellent tight end and very wonderfully aggressive. One hell of a competitor,” says Fred Zechman, who coached Ohio State quarterbacks and wide receivers from 1979-82. “He had everything that you would want. Good blocker, good hands, good routes, but the best part was his aggressiveness.”
Former Ohio State guard Jim Lachey, like Frank a member of the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame, described his friend as smart and highly capable, with an edge that endeared him to the offensive linemen.
“He always played with a chip on his shoulder, and that was fun,” Lachey says. “As an offensive lineman, we liked that. He was just a tough guy who would challenge anybody. He once had a fight with (trainer) Billy Hill. They were (arguing) over practice stuff. John wanted to practice, and they told him not to, and they had to be pulled apart.”
Frank’s intensity required a release valve to keep him from exploding. The tight end found it by enjoying short but spirited bursts of fun.
“We studied together, and he would study 50 minutes an hour, so when it hit the 51-minute mark he expected you to goof around with him for those 10 minutes,” Lachey said, smiling. “I wanted to study two hours straight and get outta there. He was going to be there for four hours, so that was his regimen. Just so disciplined.”
As a chemistry major, Frank didn’t have much free time, but made the most of it when he could.
“He might have only gone out one night a month, but when he went out, by 8:30 we had to take him home. He would go, go, go,” Lachey said.
Former San Francisco offensive lineman Guy McIntyre said Frank was “a hard worker who liked to have fun.”
What kind of fun?
“He and (tight end) Russ Francis were buddies, and Russ was kind of a wild guy,” McIntyre said. “After (coach) Bill Walsh called John “Little Devil” in a meeting, because he followed Russ around, John showed up to practice with a pitchfork and tail and wore it onto the field.”
Steve Hirsch saw that silly side, too, but as Frank’s college roommate for two years also observed a “level you don’t see in too many people, to the extremes.”
Hirsch, who like Frank became an ear, nose and throat specialist, said Frank’s all-in personality pushed him to where he is now. Frank eventually switched to hair restoration after graduating from Ohio State medical school in 1992 and then completing his residency at Loyola University in Chicago in 1999.
“There are levels of (Jewish) religion, and he’s taken his level to an intensity he feels is necessary to function in a way he feels he has to function,” said Hirsch, who, like Frank, gives a big assist to former OSU Dr. David Schuller for mentoring the pair through college.
Frank remains fit and trim at age 60, but no longer resembles the Yinzer with a full mop of curly blonde hair who moved from Pittsburgh to Columbus in 1980. Turns out his hair got transplanted, too.
“It was in recession,” he says of his hairline. “So I have to practice what I preach. I had someone in New York do it about 15 years ago. It’s a little straighter, but still wavy.”
Straighter but still wavy also describes the way Frank operates in his day-to-day life as a husband, father and medical specialist. 
He has become more conservative since becoming Orthodox about 15 years ago, yet is not afraid to make waves. He says he was the first in the hair restoration business to focus on the needs of Black women, for whom he has a professional soft spot.    
“Most African-American women have curly hair, to some extent or the other, and it’s a challenge to style. And it’s unfortunate because … the natural curl pattern for many African-American women is not a part of normal business attire, and to me that is unacceptable” Frank explains, advocating for better acceptance of natural Black hairstyling in the workplace.
Frank also is not afraid to discuss his faith and what led him to taking it more seriously, to the point of risking making uncomfortable his Jewish friends and family who are not as devout, as well as others who think he should keep his beliefs to himself.  
“It’s unfortunate we can’t all be on the same page,” he said of feeling disconnected over religious practices. “Me and all religious Jews yearn for the day when we will all be on the same page. That’s when the Messiah comes to Israel. In Christian faith it’s the Second Coming. For us, it’s the first coming. And I hope that day comes soon, because I can’t wait to ask, ‘Have you been here before?’”
Frank smiles. 
“Along the way we’re basically on the same journey,” he says. “This is the closest time in the history of mankind that Jews and Christians have been this bound together. It’s wonderful and there is so much in common, and it’s so reassuring and comforting. I didn’t get that when I was not observant, when I was not reconciled to who I was. I was uncomfortable and uneasy about it. But I was learning … so when I hear these young (Ohio State players) at a press conference repeatedly thanking God, it is so heartwarming to me, but I don’t know if it is the same feeling for non-observant Jews and non-affiliated people. I think it makes it uneasy for them, and that’s unfortunate.”
Frank admits he doesn’t have it all figured out: “My life is a work in progress.” 
That progress sped up in 1999 when Frank, who spent two years living in Europe, visited the Jewish quarter in Paris.
“It was Yom Kippur holiday, and I was just there, not doing anything, and I saw a bunch of Jewish people, Jews coming from synagogue, and I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? Like, that’s really who I am.’”
Frank met Edith soon after. The couple married in 2007 and decided to intensify – what else? – their seriousness about their faith. 
“When I got married and my wife and I decided to start a family, we both decided for the sake of our children that we felt like a commitment to God was really important,” Frank says. “… We want to always give our kids every opportunity to explore things they have inside, and are curious about outside of them, but also felt for their long-term happiness and well-being that God needs to be the focal point.
“Neither she nor I were living a religious life at the time, but we knew at the end of the modern-culture rainbow there wasn’t a pot of gold of happiness. I had played in the Super Bowl, caught two Joe Montana passes (in a Super Bowl) and played in four bowl games, and by the numbers, was the leading tight end to come out of Ohio State. There also was being an advanced skull-based surgeon, so I had a chance to experience things not everybody gets to see. But I felt there was more depth to it all. Just the presence of God, our creator.”
People change over time. For Frank, the intensity remains, but the rough edges have been rubbed smooth, like the wild mane that is now close-cropped, by practicing what gets preached to him daily at the synagogue and through study of the Torah. He no longer takes himself quite so seriously and proudly sticks up for his profession.
“I like to make people happy, and hair heals,” he says, explaining he would rather deliver good news than a two-months-to-live death sentence. He credits people like Myles, Szabo and the rabbis at Beth Jacob – but mostly Edith – for “planting seeds” of hope and joy. And peace. The fiery football player has found contentment without becoming complacent. 
“The best part is that whenever there’s an issue, where before when I was younger I didn’t know how to reconcile my frustrations, now I do,” he says. “Because my spirituality is on my mind. Seeds were planted, and I’m very proud of that.”
Those seeds led to new growth; you might even say restoration.
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