Fifty-eight years ago, 1952, one hundred budding football players turned out for their first practice at Vanderbilt University in Nashville Tennessee. Running across the turf at Dudley Field, they attempted to please their coaches with their speed. Next they banged into the blocking sleds with sandbags to move them as far as they could.

In the following three seasons the Vanderbilt Commodores won only eight games. However, there was a fourth season for 17 of the original players, now seniors, and what a year it was. The team’s record was 8-3, and in the final game at the Gator Bowl, December 31, 1955, Vanderbilt upset the Auburn University football team. A beautiful camaraderie has grown among these players each and every year since their glory days on the gridiron came to an end.

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Three members of that team and their spouses recently visited Israel for 10 days in early May as the guests of their teammate Larry Frank, the squad’s only Jew, and his wife Lois. Charles Horton, an All-American halfback and the first draft choice of the then Los Angeles Rams in 1956, and two other players from that era, Jim Cunningham, a center, and Bill Stack, also a halfback, took up the Franks’ invitation to travel to Israel for the first time. He has been a close personal friend of theirs since they graduated over a half century ago. Moreover, they have been impressed by the deep commitment of Larry and Lois to Israel over the years.

The Franks now own a home in Jerusalem, wanting to be closer to their son Adam, his wife Lynne and the Frank grandchildren living here. They made aliya a decade ago and Adam is the rabbi of the Masorti congregation, Moreshet Yisrael.

His teammates can never forget the manner in which Larry Frank began his Vanderbilt career. The initial game of that first season was on September 20, 1952 against the University of Georgia. Even though a freshman player, Frank did not hesitate to inform the coach that he could not play since it was Rosh Hashana. He still hears from his fellow players how he gained their respect with his Jewish commitment.

A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Frank’s roots in the city extend to the early 20th century. In fact, in August 1915 when the terrible lynching of Leo Frank occurred, the Franks, even though not related, had to close down their store because the hatred in Atlanta was so intense.

Unlike most Jewish boys of the post-World War II era, Frank began to play football seriously when he was under 10 years old. Developing into a fine athlete, he was one of several Jews who played for Henry Grady High in the 1950-1952 seasons. Frank was both a fullback and a linebacker and starred at both positions. For the Jewish kids of Atlanta, including myself, he was known as “The Bull.” One sports writer described him in this fashion: “Larry Frank, a lad with the heart of a lion, strength of an ox, and tenacity of a bulldog.”

“Sadly,” Larry told me during a recent conversation in Jerusalem, “anti-Semitism was rampant in Atlanta in that era. I was called so many pejorative names – I cannot remember them all. Before one game the tenor of the anti-Semitic epithets rose in unprecedented intensity. The two principals and the two coaches, ours and theirs, were frightened and felt it important to have a pre-game ‘sitdown’ to diffuse the exaggerated situation.”

He described what happened next. “When all the players were together in that quiet setting at the ‘sitdown’, tolerance prevailed. But two days later on the field both words and punches were thrown. You can imagine; we had to protect ourselves, and we did.”

Historians of anti-Semitism have found that the “Anti-Jewish Party” based in Atlanta sent out circulars in the early 1950s reading: “Free America from Jewish Domination.”

When Frank graduated from Henry Grady High, he was offered a number of football scholarships. His father, Morris, felt that his son needed to be equipped with the tools to make his way in life. Finally, with the encouragement of his mother Rae, Larry chose Vanderbilt as a school where he could play football and acquire a solid education. He was the only Jew on that college team in the four years he was there, 1952-1956.

Larry Frank is an outstanding example of a Jewish athlete who played both in offense and defense positions. After all he had endured in his high school years because he was Jewish, he found that his teammates and everybody he played against in his four college years did not raise the “fangs of anti-Semitism” at all. In his senior year, his teammates elected him co-captain along with Jim Cunningham.

“As co-captains, Larry and I were able to enforce a training code for all the players – including no drinking and no smoking; drugs were not a problem yet. Our intention was to see the victories pile up during the season,” Jim said.

A deeply religious man, Cunningham also explained that they recited “The Lord’s Prayer” in the locker room before each game. “This was really innovative at that time, and we made it work for everyone, Larry in particular, by not including the name of Jesus.”

If you surf the Internet, you will see that in the 1950-2000 history of football, Frank is singled out as blocking a punt against Tulane in a 1955 game. For the record, he actually blocked two punts that year. “To block a punt, you have to give 100% and the opposing lineman has to give less than the maximum,” Frank stressed.

His intensity in football was such that he can replay almost every single game for the listener right on the spot. In 1955, Vanderbilt was honored and went to the Gator Bowl, when there were only five bowls each year. That 1955 game was the first-ever coast-to-coast sports event telecast in the US. Their quarterback Don Orr gave a sterling performance and Vanderbilt won.

Since returning to Atlanta 50 years ago, Larry Frank married Lois, raised four sons, who also grew to be fine athletes, and built an outstanding business. He has also been a key leader in the Atlanta Jewish community, in particular in assistance to Israel.

“The Six Day War inspired me and made me realize how important it was to have a strong, viable State of Israel. From the early ’30s, my late mother worked for Hadassah [Women’s Zionist Organization of America] and rose to be the Southeastern Regional President after [the state of] Israel was born. I was inspired by her commitment throughout the years and have tried to emulate it.”

Forty years ago, Frank’s first impact nationally in American Jewish circles was a program he created whereby synagogues would put up their synagogue buildings as collateral and then take a large loan from the bank. With that money a high denomination Israel Bond was purchased. Then synagogue members would be asked to contribute funds to cover the interest related to the Bonds. Millions of dollars were made available to Israel in the early 1970s as a result of this effort. The Beth Jacob Synagogue of Atlanta, whose rabbi emeritus Emanuel Feldman lives here in Jerusalem, was the first congregation in America to adopt this program.

Having visited Israel many times, Larry and Lois Frank, a noted American Jewish leader in her own right, decided to purchase an apartment in Jerusalem both to be near their children and to welcome their friends from abroad. For the last six months the visit of the Vanderbilt players and their wives has been uppermost in the minds of the Franks.

Cunningham, Horton and Stack are practicing Christians who have supported Israel in various ways. They have been anxious to see Israel up close since, through the years, they have learned much about the country from their friends. Like many visitors, they also wanted to see some of the trees which they had planted in various JNF forests in Israel during the past 20 years.

After graduating in 1956, Horton, the All-American halfback, “who blasted his way into the end zone for his team’s final touchdown at the Gator Bowl,” could not go to the LA Rams who had drafted him because he had to fulfill his Reserve Officers Training Corps, a college scholarship commitment which was underwritten by active duty branches of the US military services. In his case, he served in the US Navy for two years. Subsequently, since the Rams only offered him a salary of a meager few thousand dollars, he played instead for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League coached by an American, Peahead Walker.

“I am amazed,” he said, “at the size of the college football players now. I weighed 180 pounds and all my coaches were satisfied. Now college halfbacks can carry as much as 230 pounds, and they are just as fast as I was.”

Horton noted that the size of football players in the US has spurred the growth of soccer. “There are so many talented American athletes today who are not even considered for recruitment by college football coaches. So they are starring in soccer, and the sport has been raised another notch in the minds of Americans.”

Stack, a halfback, never lost a stride. After a thirty-year career in business, he entered the field of scientific development, establishing a company called Private Energy Solutions, when he reached his 70th year.

Living in Nashville, Tennessee he has a patent pending on a new energy system which can be installed anywhere in the world and monitored from his offices in Nashville. The process is known as waste heat energy utilizing and utilizes recirculated water and steam to produce heat more economically.

Cunningham is a native of Winchester Tennessee, born in the post-Depression years. He lived away from his home for four years of football and subsequently for six years of coaching, after which he returned to Winchester and went into the insurance business.

“One of our city’s heroes is Dinah Shore, a local Jewish girl, who was one of the leading singers in the USA from the 1940s through the 1970s. She starred on the stage with big bands, on the radio and then on TV. Her father was one of the few Jewish merchants in the city from the ’20s into World War II.”

It was quite an experience to watch the expressions on the faces of these recent visitors, both the men and the women, and to listen to their meaningful comments. As they walked the Via Dolorosa, they stared closely at the Stations 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.

Being at the Kotel and walking through the tunnels there gave them a true sense of the antiquity of the Jewish people in this land. The model of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period and the Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum were for the group a prelude to a visit to Yad Vashem, where the meaning of the Holocaust is now even more powerfully portrayed.

Their itinerary also included many important Christian sites in the Galilee.

They left before Shavuot, but there is much that can be learned from these individuals, who are all in their mid-70s.

Horton, Cunningham, Stack and Frank speak with precision about every game they played for Vanderbilt. They can easily explain to you why each play worked or why it did not. However, what quickly became clear from them was not Walter Mitty-style fantasizing; on the contrary, they each have been inspired, even motivated, by football to live productive lives in which there is a celebration of every moment while they are still in the game.

Our Torah, with its mitzvot and details, constantly reminds us that we can never get enough of the words of God, given us at Mount Sinai. We must repeat, respect and learn them bechol yom, each and every day.

Symbolically speaking, we are all “footballers,” laboring diligently to insure that each play works. However, when we fail, we must learn from our mistakes, so that we can do better in the future.

The seal of Vanderbilt University contains an oak leaf and an acorn. Let the lives of our guests and the teachings of our Torah help us live so that “from little acorns mighty oaks will grow.” We believe that the recent experience of our guests will inspire many other American Christians to visit Israel. Lois and Larry Frank have scored a goal once again.
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