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.
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 6'1�", 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."