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Smith: Lankewicz made right choice by picking Dogs

When Georgia was invited to play in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, in December 1964, few Bulldog partisans knew anything about the bowl game or the Texas border town.

The only bowl game in the western part of the country with a shred of familiarity was the Rose Bowl.

The Sun Bowl was the first bowl game of the Vince Dooley era, and it had many defining features.

First of all, it gave the hard-nosed Bulldogs (Vince’s early teams were recognized for their rock-jawed toughness) an opportunity to win eight games, which they did.

Except for a season-opening 31-3 road loss to Alabama, which was led by Bear Bryant and Joe Namath, the Bulldogs were in every game, losing only to Florida State and Auburn in tight contests.

The South Carolina game ended in a 7-7 tie, but the upstart Bulldogs won the rest of their games.

Second, it introduced the Bulldog Nation to Frank Lankewicz.

Lankewicz scored the first bowl touchdown of the Dooley era in a 7-0 victory over Texas Tech.

Lankewicz’s 2-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was enough for Dooley, then 34 years old, to claim his first bowl victory.

Lankewicz, now living in Sewanee, Tenn., is a native of Butler, Pa., just north of Pittsburgh.

With an opportunity to play almost anywhere – he had 29 college offers – Lankewicz sought “something different.”

He had developed an interest in Georgia because of Wallace Butts. Sam Mrvos, who played for Butts, recruited Lankewicz to Athens.

“At the time I was first contacted, coach Butts was still the head coach, and I knew about him and his success with players from the state of Pennsylvania,” Lankewicz said. “I thought it would be nice to play for him. Even though that didn’t work out, it was a good decision for me to sign with the Bulldogs. I had a lot of fun in Athens, and that is where I met my wife, which was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Among his many opportunities was an offer from Notre Dame. Lankewicz was one of the few who declined that chance.

“I think everybody in Butler thought I would sign with the Irish, and they really recruited me hard, but something just felt right about Georgia.”

Lankewicz had played against Namath, a good friend, in high school, but didn’t know the future NFL matinee idol was at Alabama until he enrolled at Georgia. “I thought he was going to Maryland and lost track of him for a while,” Lankewicz noted.

Playing both offense and defense, which was dictated by the rules in the early ’60s, Lankewicz, from his linebacking position, almost sacked his friend in the game at Tuscaloosa in 1964.

He got up from a pileup, patted Namath on the helmet and said, “I almost got you, buddy.”

In 1962, Lankewicz caught a 77-yard touchdown pass in the Clemson game, which puts in perspective his remarkable talent.

He could run inside for the tough yard, and he could go all the way when he broke into the open field.

While on campus, he met Linda Bright, who is the provost of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.

Lankewicz enjoys golf and has worked as a color announcer for the Sewanee football team. He also works as a volunteer track official (discus and shot put) for local competitions.

John Kasay, longtime Georgia coach, remembers Lankewicz from his circle of friends back home in Pennsylvania and provides this insight into Lankewicz’s career – one of those, “might have been” stories.

Unfortunately, people don’t realize how great Frank really was. He was a high school hero in Pennsylvania, the best running back in the state his senior year. He could have played college football anywhere he wanted and surprised a lot of people back in Butler when he didn’t sign with Notre Dame. Everybody wanted Frank.

You have to credit Sam Mrvos with one of the greatest recruiting jobs ever at Georgia. Sam knew all the high school coaches in Pennsylvania and worked the state very hard. In one year, he signed one of the best linemen in eastern Pennsylvania (Ray Rissmiller) and one of the top two backs in western Pennsylvania. When I say two, I am referring to Frank and Joe Namath. They played different positions, but a lot of folks thought Frank was as good a running back as Joe was a quarterback.

To fully appreciate how good Frank was, all you have to do is know that Frank was a member of the gymnastics team. His football coach also coached the gymnastics team and said that Frank was his best gymnast. One day his coach – I’ve forgotten his name – was visiting spring practice in Athens. He told me about Frank’s background as a gymnast.

“Ask him to walk on his hands,” the coach suggested.

I yelled at Frank, “Let me see you walk on your hands.” Frank walked the length of the field at Sanford Stadium on his hands.

Frank had one of the worst knee injuries you could imagine. If he hadn’t gotten that knee injury, he would have probably played 10 years in the NFL. He got stood up and somebody hit him and drove him backward . . . just one of the unluckiest things to happen to a very talented football player. No telling what he could have accomplished if it hadn’t been for that unfortunate injury.

He overcame the injury to play for the Bulldogs, but anybody who knew him and his background will tell you that he could have been a great one if he had not been injured. In his time, you had to play both sides of the ball, and he was a helluva linebacker, too.

Frank made a nice contribution to Georgia football, but I always wonder what might have been if he had not been injured.

• Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for the Athens Banner-Herald. E-mail:
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@JeffSchultzAJC @SethEmerson @BizWriterKristi Less than 3 weeks until basketball opener. Not that we are counting down.

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