John Frank, ex-49er turned surgeon, has a mom to thank

When John Frank first brought home his first football helmet, his mother was aghast — a man could be killed!

Frank — who would go on to play at Ohio State and on two San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl teams during a five-year pro career — managed to talk his way onto the youth team. But not without a hitch.

"I had to show them the equipment I was wearing every day. I had to show my grandparents. I had to get permission from my father's father," recalled Frank, 40, of his peewee football days.

"I remember that like yesterday, going to Joe Frank's apartment in Pittsburgh and unveiling all the padding we wore. I thought it was a joke, but he was a tailor. He examined and inspected how the thigh pads fit into the pants and seams and the thickness of the padding. My father always looked at the helmets. And I think my mother was terrified by the whole experience."

Fast-forwarding to 1989, Frank was at the top of his profession, a physical, punishing first-string tight end for the world champion 49ers and one of a handful of Jews to ever excel at professional football. Yet, at age 27, he called it a career — and became Dr. John Frank.

"Most Jewish boys growing up on the East Coast wanted to be either doctors or lawyers or accountants, and I liked the sciences. I aspired to be a doctor, to make my mother proud," said Frank, now a San Francisco cosmetic surgeon.

While his heart was set on the operating room rather than the gridiron, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Frank was always able to balance his two passions. For example, he chose Ohio State not just for the Buckeyes' storied football history but because of the school's first-rate medical school and cancer hospital.

Yet, after four years with the Niners, a Super Bowl championship as a reserve in 1984 and an eventual promotion to the starting lineup, Frank was ready to set aside his lucrative side career — until being dissuaded by an unlikely source.

"It had taken me four years to break into the starting lineup, and so once I made the starting lineup, that was sufficient. I was ready to retire," he recalled. "Before that Super Bowl season, I talked it over with some friends. I told my mother, and, of all people — the irony — she suggested I play one more year. It'd taken this long to get on the starting team, so why retire now?"

Frank is thankful he took his mother's advice — and confesses that it was hard to watch his former mates roar out to a 17-2 record and second consecutive Super Bowl the year after he retired. But he doesn't regret hanging up his helmet at 27.

Unlike so many former football players, Frank is able to concentrate without the disruption of a concussion-induced haze or to walk and run minus the pain of lingering injuries.

The former tight end watched at least 10 teammates or opponents go down with severe or even life-threatening injuries during his pro career, and candidly admits that, each time, he questioned his choice of career.

"Every time. Every time. For that reason, I was thrilled to retire. I think most players share a similar sentiment. It's really scary, especially as I learned more and more in medical school. I think most players block it out of their conscience," said Frank, who earned his M.D. from Ohio State in 1992 and spent six years in residency in Chicago.

"The only thing I really feared was a neck injury. All it takes is one fluke collision for a career-ending or life-threatening injury to occur. You realize how fragile football players really are."

Despite the ever-present fear of a permanent injury, Frank's recollections of his days on the football field are overwhelmingly positive. And while he never felt special as Jewish football player, other people sure thought he was.

"I was pretty naive. I didn't realize it was a rare thing. There was one other Jewish player at Ohio State, and he approached me on the first day and made some sort of cryptic comment, 'Member Of the Tribe' or something to let me know he was Jewish," said Frank.

"I was like, 'Yeah, great. Whatever.' I had a lot of Jewish friends."

And, in former star 49ers offensive lineman Harris Barton, he had a Jewish teammate.

"We just laughed at the whole thing more than anything else. We never felt discriminated [against] or singled out. It was really a meritocracy; we just happened to be decent football players and Jewish at the same time," he said.

As for fervently Christian ballplayers preaching in the locker rooms, Frank misses them too.

"If you ever sat down and had a discussion with them and let them know you were Jewish, they had a lot of respect for where the New Testament came from. The Mormons in particular. They'd say, 'Oh my God, you're Jewish, wow! You're the chosen people! Wow!'"

While he grew up in an Orthodox household and is engaged to an "Israeli goddess," Frank describes his Judaism as a largely personal matter, adding, with a laugh that "I'm very religious at weddings and bar mitzvahs."

The self-professed "No. 1 49ers fan" hopes to keep up his practice and start a family in San Francisco — which means he may one day be making daily uniform checks of his own.

"If they want to play, it'll probably be difficult to stop them," he said.