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.