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Sonny Franck
Sonny Franck in 2005, in 1999 with his jersey from the 1941 college All-American game, and playing football for the University of Minnesota in the early 1940s. (Times file photos)

Sonny Franck always insisted that talent was a secondary consideration when it came to sports - or anything else in life.

"If you have a little ability or a lot of ability doesn't really matter," Franck, who died Wednesday at the age of 92, said in a 1991 interview with the Quad-City Times.

"The ‘I want to be good' is more important than how good you really are. That's more important than anything. I was lucky; I had great speed. But I was awfully small. I succeeded because I wanted to be good."

George H. Franck, known to almost everyone as Sonny, was good at almost everything he tried and great at quite a few things - football, track, bowling, storytelling.

Franck, of Rock Island, achieved national fame as a rival of Nile Kinnick and Tom Harmon on the football fields of the Big Ten 70 years ago and later returned to his home community to teach and coach, collecting friends and admirers everywhere he went.

"You wouldn't have known that he was national figure as a player," said Bob Motz, who taught biology with Franck at Rock Island High School and was the school's tennis coach when Franck was the football coach. "He didn't talk about those things in his classroom. He had a modesty about him."

Franck's passing happened fairly quickly. His daughter, Landee Roth, said he was diagnosed with acute leukemia only about a month ago.

"This past week or so, it really got him,'' she said.

A memorial service will be 11 a.m. Saturday at Broadway Presbyterian Church in Rock Island, where visitation will be 10 to 11 a.m.

Franck grew up in Davenport and was so scrawny as a ninth-grader that other players had to talk the football coach at Sudlow Junior High into keeping him on the roster. Franck loved to tell people that he began his career as "the 23rd man on a 22-man team.''

By 1935, everyone in the area knew who Sonny Franck was. He was an all-state end for Davenport High and led the school to a state track title, anchoring an 880-relay unit that set a state record.

He was recruited to play football and run track at the University of Minnesota, where he became a starting halfback in 1938 and led the Golden Gophers to a national championship as a senior in 1940. He was third in the Heisman Trophy voting that year behind Harmon and John Kimbrough of Texas A&M.

"The Heisman wasn't a big deal back then,'' Franck said in later years. "You know how I found out I finished third? My father read it in the newspaper and mentioned it in a letter to me.''

Franck made 12 All-America teams and seemed headed for a glorious pro football career. He was the most valuable player in the 1941 Chicago Tribune College All-Star Game on a team that also included Harmon and future baseball great Jackie Robinson. The New York Giants selected him with the sixth pick in the NFL draft.

Franck often said he had a "bad'' rookie year with the Giants in 1941 although he averaged 14 yards per punt return. It remains the second-best mark in the history of one of the NFL's oldest franchises.

Late that season, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Franck's life took a swift turn.

He spent the next four years as a Marine fighter pilot although he also spent some time fighting on the ground, too. In a foxhole during the fierce fighting on the island of Iwo Jima, he was alongside former Notre Dame star Jack Chevigny when Chevigny was killed by an airborne missile. The Navy insisted on listing Chevigny as "missing in action." When he returned home after the war, Franck made a trip to California to tell Chevigny's family what really happened.

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The war took its toll on Franck, too. He had surgery on his legs six times and the speed that allowed him to come within a tenth of a second of the world record in the 60-yard dash in 1940 disappeared.

He still played 22 games with the Giants in 1945, '46 and '47, catching an 88-yard touchdown pass on the final play of his career.

Franck then took a job as the football coach at a high school in Oklahoma City, but his father died four years later and he returned to the Quad-Cities, landing a job as an assistant coach at Rock Island under H.V. "Shorty" Almquist. He later became Rocky's head coach and compiled a 28-18-1 record from 1962 to 1966.

Rock Island High School colleague Motz recalled that Franck was a favorite teacher of many students.

"They always seemed to like him very much,'' Motz said. "He had a good teaching voice to project in the classroom, and I'm sure he projected even more on the football field."

Franck briefly returned to coaching in 1985, serving one year as Rocky's soccer coach.

Mostly, his later years were spent taking bows for things he'd done decades before.

He was inducted into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame in 1991, the University of Minnesota Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Iowa High School Football Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame in 2002.

Franck remained spry and active despite the advancing years. At the age of 85, he took part in a flag football game at the College Football Hall of Fame ceremonies in 2002. He also was an exceptional bowler. As late as 2007, he carried a 196 average in league play.

He never missed attending the annual Quad-City Times Salute to Sports event and never passed up a chance to talk about the old days.

He gathered regularly with old friends from the war, spending long afternoons munching on special burgers cooked by Helen, his wife of 57 years, and reliving his adventures. He frequently told a story of holding a live torpedo on the deck of the USS Hornet while munitions experts defused it.

He also loved to tell of how some of his Giants teammates were found to be fixing games and how owner Tim Mara eyed him suspiciously when he fumbled one day.

Franck threw out his chest and proudly told Mara, "Tim, I fumble for free."

His circle of cronies included Elmer Mapes, who coached four different sports at Bettendorf High School and also fought in WWII at such places as Okinawa.

"I never knew him before the war," Mapes said. "I knew of him a long time before I knew him. He was what I would call a confident, efficient guy. He sure could tell a story."

Obituary: Page XX

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