You wouldn't have known it because this tough kid never lets it show, but it has been a challenging past year-plus for Nick Frank. The affable yet tough-as-nails fullback for Stanford has battled with a series of stingers that made football painful and at times difficult for him, yet he started 13 straight games in the Cardinal backfield and never once complained.
But the stingers have lately come for him a little more frequently and with a little less provocation. During this past Saturday's warm-ups before the game at San Jose State, a light hit gave him another stinger. This was nothing at all like the crushing blows Frank takes blocking or running the ball in a game, and that raised a red flag that something out of the ordinary was wrong with the 6'2" 250-pound senior.
More worrisome was the incidence of a bi-lateral stinger that affected both sides of his body. That, according to Stanford doctors, is not actually a stinger but instead a sign of a much more serious problem. A stinger results from a compression or stretching of a network of nerves just outside the spinal cord. The athlete feels a stinging, burning or tingling sensation in the arm or shoulder, where those nerves reach. For Frank to feel something on both sides of the body meant that something other than these nerves were being impacted.
The Stanford senior sat out of Tuesday's practice, and though we did not report it under the team's injury policy, we knew that he was feeling the effects of Saturday's stingers. Thoughts of concern left our mind when we saw Nick practice the breadth of Wednesday's workout, and we took particular note of his smiling face as he jogged off the practice field talking with a teammate.
Only 18 hours later, we were as stunned as Frank to learn that the Chief of Neurology at the Stanford Medical Center had discovered a birth defect in the 21-year-old's spinal column upon examining new MRIs. The column is too small, relative to the size of his spinal cord, for proper and normal protection - an alarming revelation. While the fullback and defensive lineman had played three-plus years of college football, and years before that as a prep in New Orleans (La.), the risk of a permanent and debilitating injury was severe.
Moreover, the recent increase in both frequency and ease with which Frank was feeling "stingers" was a flag that he was progressing toward a particularly heightened danger. There was no room to roll the dice and see if he could squeeze in a few more games or plays.
Nick Frank immediately made the decision, with the advice from both Stanford's medical team and his parents, to end his football playing days. He told the Cardinal coaches Thursday afternoon, shortly after The Bootleg received the shocking and heartbreaking news. It was even harder for him to deliver than for all of us to hear.
The layers of anguish we are left to feel with Frank's career-ending diagnosis are a tapestry of torment. Though an angry cuss in the trenches when he played nose tackle or fullback, Frank was as nice, polite and warm-hearted as any young man you will meet. He was a quiet kid and not the "life of the locker room" with loud jokes that lit up teammates' faces, yet he was beloved and respected by every last person on the team - players and coaches alike. The idea that something so bad happens to somebody so good is cruel, and difficult today to come to grips with.
The timing is even more vicious. Frank found out the news of his spinal condition just two days before playing in the grand opening of the new Stanford Stadium. It is an honor envied by thousands of former and future Stanford student-athletes to be on the field for the first time in the first new stadium on The Farm in 85 years. Moreover, even fewer could say that the started for Stanford in that game. Only a choice few can say they were team captains for the Cardinal that day. Nick Frank had been selected by the coaches earlier this week to be a captain for Stanford on Saturday.
While a hundred-plus teammates race onto the field in a gala celebration tomorrow evening, enveloped in an experience that no other Stanford players have felt before, Frank will trot with a slow and steady gate. Dressed in street clothes. Carrying a heavy heart. It will be utterly impossible for him to not boil with angst at the knowledge that he missed by only hours the fate of playing in this game, and carrying the honor he so richly deserved.
In a program that has not been completely filled with quite enough talent and desire the last few years, Frank was a shining beacon of what can turn around the Cardinal. The high-RPM motor with which he played both defense and offense was the model with which coaches taught his teammates. His toughness was an inspiration to teammates. His production on the field was an avenue to better days. There is not a doubt in anybody's mind that his addition to the offense was a pivotal point in turning that unit away from its Buddy Teevens doldrums and toward more glorious days.
The fact that Frank has to end his Cardinal career with the bitter taste of the last two weeks' defeats (which rightfully hang more on the shoulders of the defense and special teams) rather than suckling the sweet taste of victories sure to come with this much-improved offense, is utterly unjust. His contributions deserved and demanded a chance to participate in the success toward which he toiled.
"I think Nick Frank has been a tremendous football player for Stanford University," offers head coach Walt Harris. "He was embarking on a tremendous senior year... Nick will always be part of the Stanford family and we know he will be successful in his future endeavors."
And there is the additional disappointment at what would have likely been a nice NFL career for Frank. He blossomed in spectacular fashion since being moved to fullback in 2005. After just one season at the position, out of a lifetime playing football, he already was rated #4 in the nation among the 2007 senior draft class by NFL Draft guru and ESPN personality Mel Kiper. Frank had the big frame, nimble footwork, explosive power and a surprisingly gentle receiving tough. He was an outstanding defensive lineman all his life, but the ingenious switch made last year by Walt Harris for Frank to fullback showed us that he was born to play the position.
Unfortunately he was born to not play football, or any contact sport, with his condition. There is one and only one positive to take away from this news. The world-class team at the Stanford Medical Center found this defect before some irreversibly crippling injury struck Frank. Both he and his parents remarked yesterday, amidst their tears, the fortune that he is at Stanford. Not only for the degree he will receive this spring that sets him on a lifelong path of sweet success, but also for the elite expertise that uncovered his condition. Playing football anywhere else, he might have learned about the birth defect while sitting in a wheelchair. Catching the condition while he still maintains his full health is a blessing that, eventually, we all will celebrate above all the heartache and disappointment.
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