by Bill Traughber
When former Vanderbilt football player Larry Frank (1952-55) played on Atlanta’s Henry Grady High School team, he acquired the name “The Bull.” Playing both linebacker and running back an Atlanta sports writer said about Frank, “a lad with the heart of a lion, strength of an ox, and tenacity of a bulldog.”
The two most important things in young Frank’s life at that time were football and his Jewish faith. But, it was not all glory on the gridiron for Frank who grew up in an unfortunate era of anti-Semitism.
“There were eight high schools in Atlanta, and about 2,000 students in our school and about half were Jewish,” Frank said recently from his Atlanta home. “When we played a few teams we were called names. It infuriated me. I had never experienced anything like that before. I can tell you the effect of it, but I can’t tell you why. The effect of it made me play harder, do better and not tolerate those remarks. I was in at least one fight a week over that one issue. It is not like that today.”
Georgia, Georgia Tech, UCLA, Texas and Vanderbilt had recruited Frank, but he became a Commodore. His father was very strict, studious and told him, “no Georgia, no Georgia Tech, you are going to Vanderbilt.” Frank knew of the strong reputation of Vanderbilt and was pleased with the decision.
In Frank’s freshman year the Commodores were 3-5-2 (SEC 1-4-1) with wins over Florida, Washington & Lee and Miami including ties with Northwestern and Ole Miss. Frank played nose guard on defense and guard on offense for most of his career. Bill Edwards was the Vanderbilt coach at this time.
“I got to play about half a game, which was exciting,” Frank said. “I played in every game except the first one. I missed the first game because of Rosh Hashanah. Edwards and my teammates respected my commitment to my Jewish faith. So it was not an issue.
It was my freshman year we were playing Georgia [in Nashville], which is my home state. It hurt not to play, but I did what I felt I should do.
“I was the only Jew on the team. My teammates at Vanderbilt never once mentioned that to me. In college I didn’t experience it [anti-Semitism] but in high school it was prevalent all the time. It made me recognize the leadership of the coaches in the SEC where I played four seasons in every game. I never heard it. To this day I’m so proud of that.”
Frank, 83, said his fondest memory from his first season was playing in his hometown at Georgia Tech. The Commodores lost to the No. 5-ranked Yellow Jackets, 30-0. Frank also learned quickly about the seriousness of college football with its physical play.
“A very strange thing happened our freshman year,” Frank said. “Edwards had over-signed recruits with more than allowed. So when we got there they had to get rid of about 20 players. It was amazing what they put us through for the first two weeks. I had never been through anything like that before or since.
“It was tough with the practices they put us through. As soon as they cut 20 players from the team, things calmed down. We were staying in Kissam Hall on the Vanderbilt campus. You could hear players dropping suitcases out of the windows. We would wake up the next morning to see who had left. There were five of us in a room and one from Atlanta and on scholarship. I walked in after an afternoon practice and he was lying in his bed. He said, ‘don’t touch me. I’m dying.’ The next morning he was gone. He took off.”
One of the Vanderbilt assistant coaches that season was Steve Belichick (running backs coach) the father of current Patriots coach and five-time Super Bowl winner Bill Belichick. Bill was born in Nashville.
“[Steve] knew more about football than any coach I ever played before or after,” said Frank. “He really was brilliant. He taught me things in my freshman year that I used my entire life. It was just things that other coaches never mentioned and not about football, but the way you should conduct yourself in life. He was a great coach.”
After Frank’s freshman season, Art Guepe replaced Edwards. Edwards’ four-year record at Vanderbilt was 21-19-2. Frank liked the change.
“I was a freshman and did not know what to expect,” said Frank. “The only thing I remember spring training was so easy compared to what Edwards put us through. After the first scrimmage, in the spring, he called us together. He told us this was what practices were going to be like the rest of the way.
“We all ran into the locker room just yelling ‘yahoo.’ It was an incredible difference. Nobody could put up with what Edwards did with those tough practices. After Edwards got rid of the 20 players he was a lot different. But, he was much tougher than Guepe.”
The highlight of Frank’s sophomore season was a 63-yard interception return for a touchdown against Virginia, which resulted in a 28-13 Commodore victory on Dudley Field. He was playing linebacker, a position he rotated with nose guard in that season. The Commodores were 3-7 (1-5 SEC) in Guepe’s first year at Vanderbilt.
The Tennessean wrote about Frank’s pick-six: “Frank, a substitute guard from Atlanta, was the Commodore who scored the clinching touchdown with a brilliant 63-yard pass interception return. The run was Frank’s second consecutive standout defensive maneuver that turned Virginia’s last major scoring threat into Vanderbilt’s insurance touchdown.
“The Cavaliers were trailing 13-21 midway of the final period and had advanced the ball to Vandy’s 36. It was third down and one yard to go when Frank blasted through to throw fullback Jim Elekes for a three-yard loss. On the next play, Frank intercepted a pass and behind clutch blocks by [Charley] Horton and sophomore end Earl Jalufka, Larry galloped all the way for the game’s final score.”
Vanderbilt seemingly weren’t making much progress under Guepe with a 2-7 (1-5 SEC) record the following season. The Commodores lost their first seven games before defeating Villanova and Tennessee.
Frank was now a junior and a solid two-way starter. The first game was against No. 10 Baylor and the first night game played on Dudley Field. The Bears won 25-19. Frank was frustrated with three losing seasons.
“It was really tough,” Frank said. “When I say tough, I don’t mean physically losing all those games. There was a reason, but I really can’t explain it. There wasn’t enough discipline from the seniors.
“I can’t really blame it on anybody but ourselves, since we were the only ones on the field. We weren’t proud of our record. We did beat Tennessee, which was the only highlight that season. We went up against Johnny Majors, who was a real good back.”
As a senior, Frank was able to do something about the team’s discipline as he and Jim Cunningham were selected as team co-captains who would lead Vanderbilt to an historic season, and the school’s first bowl appearance in it’s football history. The two captains implemented rules that affected the players’ personal behavior.
“We were determined not to have the same year that we had in the previous years,” said Frank. “I really lived and died playing football. In our senior year we called the team together and laid it out. We told them there would be no drinking, no smoking and no staying out late. We were so serious about this that we would not tolerate anything differently. There used to be a restaurant called “Irelands” near the campus. One of the players was having a beer when I walked in and all hell broke loose.
“That’s all he was doing, having a beer. There was the intensity of not having seasons we had the past few years. We used to kid about it. It wasn’t like he was doing a crime. We just wouldn’t allow that. It wasn’t that drinking a beer bothered me. It was just we had to be dead serious. That was one aspect of how serious we were in not excepting anything less than a winning team.”
One pre-game activity instigated by Frank and Cunningham was the reciting of the “Lord’s Prayer.” Guepe never interfered and gave the team captains a free rein.
“We had a really good bunch of seniors,” said Frank. “Nobody objected to our rules. Everybody was behind it. There was a very positive attitude. Let’s go out there and win. It wasn’t just Cunningham and me; it was the entire senior class that supported us. Of course, if the seniors supported us then the juniors, sophomores and freshmen would support us.
“We had an exceptional bunch of seniors. We came through from our freshman year where 20 players were cut. The one’s that stayed were tenacious as seniors. When I was a freshman, sophomore and a junior the seniors were always the leaders of the team. We got together and decided to do whatever it took to win. It was the commitment of the seniors that led the team.”
In that remarkable season, Vanderbilt was 8-3 (4-3 SEC) and defeated No. 8 Auburn in the Gator Bowl, 25-13. The game was played in Jacksonville on New Year’s Eve. Victories that season were recorded over Alabama, Chattanooga, MTSU, Virginia, Kentucky, Tulane, Florida and Auburn.
“They only had five bowls at that time so going to a bowl was more special,” Frank said. “We were going to the Sugar Bowl until we lost to Tennessee. That just devastated us. Then the coach came in and said that we had been invited to play Auburn in the Gator Bowl. It was like breathing new life into everybody. Don Orr [Vandy quarterback] had a spectacular game.
“It was the highlight of my football career going to a bowl and winning. The team was so keyed up and inspired. We had won three, three and two games the pervious three years. It was an incredible day. Every huddle was so intense. In that game, in the second half, I got clipped and tore up my knee.
“I remember being on the field at the end of the game and hurting not being able to finish the game. It was sad that it was our last game. I had a chance to play professional football, but I couldn’t because I had the injury. I had knee surgery a month after the game and then a few years later I had more surgery since my knee kept sliding out of place.”
Frank was selected as second-team All-SEC (AP) and third-team All-SEC (UPI). Horton was selected as an All-American and drafted by the Rams, but played in the Canadian Football League after two years of military service. Frank would devote the rest of his life in aiding Israel and its security. His parents were his greatest influence.
“It started when I was six years old,” said Frank. “There is a Jewish women’s association called Hadassah. It’s a national organization that supports the hospitals in Israel. My mother was one of the Southeast regional presidents [in the United States] so I was exposed to that. I had that nourishment of Judaism in my home, and went to high school experiencing all these anti-Semitic comments and fights. You can’t imagine how it was. It motivates you to have self-respect and not accepting those remarks.”
Frank said he made his first trip to Israel in the early 1960’s, but it was the “Six Day War” in 1967 that gave him much concern.
“It had a huge effect on me,” Frank said. “You can imagine how many comments I heard growing up. When I went to Auschwitz [death camp] the first time, before I got married, I was so numb walking away from there after seeing what had happened. Israel wasn’t created until 1948. In a period of 19 years Israel was attacked many times. Not to win a war, but to destroy Israel.”
This past May, the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta with its “Lifetime Achievement Award” honored Frank. One of his four sons Adam is a Rabbi living in Jerusalem with his family. He and his brothers Aaron, Joshua and Isaac presented the prestigious award to their father.
“That was a real surprise,” Frank said. “It was very humbling. The things that we had done, we being our family, not only try to go against any Semitism, but to support Israel. I was very close to several of the Prime Ministers in Israel. Very close. When I took my family there Yitzhak Rabin invited us over to his house.
“I think it was because I was so active in trying to fight for Israel’s survival. I remember in 1948, 1956 and 1967, three wars where there were attempts to destroy Israel. That had a big effect on me. Every year my family [Atlanta Frank Family Foundation] takes about 15 young Jewish people age 35-45 to Israel.
“We try to pick the leadership in Atlanta, but it doesn’t matter. My son, Isaac takes those missions first to Poland and Auschwitz then to Israel and other places. The purpose is to try to inspire these young people into leadership positions in the Jewish community. It is incredible to see the results.”
Frank and his wife Lois, a noted American Jewish leader in her own right, own a condominium in Jerusalem and visit Israel about four times a year. With Frank’s work for the only democracy in the Middle East, he has been in a position to meet several Israeli Prime Ministers including David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Frank became close friends with Yitzhak Rabin who was the Military Chief of Staff during the Six Day War, the Israel Ambassador to the United States and twice-elected Prime Minister. Rabin was killed in an assassination attempt.
“I was involved very heavily in something called the United Jewish Appeal (UJA),” said Frank. “This is an organization that raises money primarily from the Jewish community to support Israel. I started working for them and became the national chairman and involved in the Israel Bonds. It is amazing the organizations that buy them. It’s another way to support the country.”
In 2010, Frank invited his former Vanderbilt teammates, Horton, Cunningham and Buddy Stack (all practicing Christians) and their wives to be his guest in his Jerusalem home. The group visited many historic sites including the Western Wall, Jordan River and the Dead Sea. The Jerusalem Post wrote at the time of their visit:
“It was quite an experience to watch the expressions on the faces of these recent visitors, both the men and women, and to listen to their meaningful comments. As they walked the Via Dolorosa, they stared closely at the Statues of the Cross realizing that, for the first time, they were actually treading in the footsteps of Jesus. Descending the Mount of Olives to the Church of All Nations, another one of the noted Christian sites in Jerusalem they saw, the presence of Jesus during the last week of his life was truly with them.”
Frank was asked to reflect on his years at Vanderbilt and the importance of being an alumnus of the university and playing football as a Commodore.
“That’s something I’m very proud of,” said Frank. “My teammates were fabulous and not just as football players. Vanderbilt has an incredible reputation. It is as they say the ‘Harvard of the South.’ It is a school that has integrity and is respected by other schools. When I was looking to go to college I didn’t realize all these things.
“I wanted to play football. I was fortunate to have been offered a scholarship. My father was so impressed with the school that’s why he told me I was going to Vanderbilt. I could not have ever met a better group of football players and men. It was a nice four years. Every player at any school had his ups and downs, but all in all it was a wonderful experience.”
Traughber’s Tidbit: Steve Belichick, father of New England Patriots coach, played his college football at Cleveland’s Western Reserve (1938-40) and with the Detroit Lions (1941) at fullback. He coached running backs as an assistant coach with Hiram (1946-48), Vanderbilt (1949-52), North Carolina (1953-55) and Navy (1956-89). Belichick served in the Navy during World War II.
At Western Reserve (now Case Western Reserve University), Belichick scored the school’s first touchdown in its only bowl game, a win over Arizona State in the 1941 Sun Bowl. After college, Belichick was the equipment manager for the struggling Detroit Lions. It is said that Belichick told Lions head coach Bill Edwards (future Vanderbilt head coach) that he was just as good as most of the players he’s got. Belichick was signed for one season and once romped 65 yards on a punt return in a loss to the New York Giants.
Belichick was inducted into the Case Western Reserve University Athletics Hall of Fame for both football and basketball in 1976. The Wyant Field House at DiSanto Field contains the “Steve Belichick Varsity Weight Room.” His grandson, Stephen, is the current safeties coach for his father and the Patriots. Steve Belichick died in 2005 at age 86.
On the front sports of the Tennessean dated April 17, 1952 is the birth announcement of Bill Belichick with the heading Belichick Proud Father: “Vanderbilt’s Assistant Coach Steve Belichick became the father of an eight pound four once son yesterday afternoon. Mrs. Belichick and the new boy, William Stephen Belichick, were resting comfortably in Vanderbilt hospital last night. It is their first child.”
Now “Commodore History Corner” readers know something that New Englanders do not know, which is Bill Belichick weighed eight pounds, four ounces at birth!
If you have any comments or suggestions, contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.