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Throwback Thursday: Former Notre Dame Football Player, Frank Pinn

Set your goals, focus, and never look back.

Photo: Sports Illustrated (April 1986)

As a Chicago native and south-sider, Frank Pinn really had no choice but to go to the University of Notre Dame. His dad (Frank Pinn Sr.) not only went there, but also played football at Notre Dame. Frank, growing up in a town filled with Notre Dame fans, and in a family that religiously watched the Irish on Saturdays, decided to follow in his father’s footsteps to chart his own unique path at Notre Dame. In speaking with me and looking back a bit, Frank feels truly fortunate to not only have been able to attend the University of Notre Dame, but to have played on the football team, as well. As it is with all of us, Notre Dame is still a large part of his life, and we had a little fun on a Tuesday evening reminiscing about his days spent under the Golden Dome. Here is Frank Pinn’s story.

“I am a proud south side Chicago boy who is also a Notre Dame legacy. I went to high school at Mount Carmel high school where I played football and ran track. Being a south-sider, and being a part of that Chicago south-siders Irish community, Notre Dame was definitely a part of our lives. My dad not only went to Notre Dame but he played football at Notre Dame as well. He was the real Notre Dame Fighting Irish football player of the family if you ask me. He played with Paul Hornung and they were good friends. I grew up in a family that listened to or watched Notre Dame football every Saturday. We were either very excited or had a lot of tears on a Saturday, depending on how the Irish played. I had the opportunity to be around Notre Dame a lot because of my dad, and I was very fortunate to have had the chance to go there.”

“When I was trying to decide where I was going to go to college, I looked at a number of different schools. I really wanted to play football at the college level, and was extremely driven toward achieving that goal. However, going into the second half of my senior year something started to change. I started to ask myself, ‘do I really want to play football? Or do I really want to go to Notre Dame?’ Prior to deciding to attend Notre Dame, I was looking at several Ivy League schools. The schools I was looking at included Cornell, Holy Cross, and West Point. I was also looking at the University of South Carolina because of their style of play, and Duke University because I could both play football and run track there. In hindsight, I wish I would have played football and ran track at Notre Dame, but balancing football and academics at Notre Dame was more than enough to keep me challenged. And I enjoyed snow skiing in the winter.”

“Pat Eilers and I were at Notre Dame at the same time, but we became connected to one another even before he transferred to Notre Dame. Pat played at Yale for a year before transferring to Notre Dame. My cousin Kevin Brice, who is the same age as I am and played running back at my rival high school (in the Chicago Catholic League), Saint Laurence, went to Yale and played with Pat his freshmen year. After Pat decided he was transferring to Notre Dame, Kevin gave me a call to tell me his friend and teammate Pat Eilers was coming to Notre Dame and asked me to look out for him. One day, Pat appeared. Pat made quite a connection with Coach Holtz, and the team, and Pat and I connected early on as well. It was a nice link for us.”

“Years later I was making a trip back to Notre Dame and was talking to Pat about it. I told him, ‘I don’t really know anyone at Notre Dame anymore.’ Immediately he said, ‘Here, I’ll get you connected.’ He set my son and me up with some tours and fun stuff to do. It is awesome to be friends like that years later. Pat told my son, ‘You see this guy? (Pointing at me.) He was dip champion at Notre Dame in 1986.’ I think I did 83 or 86 dips in a lifting competition, which was the most on the team at the time. It was funny to me that he remembered something like that. Even now, my path continues to cross with Pat. One day I was coaching my son, and heard a familiar voice yelling on the other sideline. Who was it? Pat Eilers.”

No matter how ready you are to leave your high school days behind you and head off to college, the transition can still be challenging to say the least. Frank spoke with me about his transition from Mount Carmel high school to the University of Notre Dame. “Mount Carmel was a high school with many soon-to-be collegiate athletes playing there, and three of my high school teammates went on to play in the NFL. That is significant for one high school. The guys I played with in high school went on to play for some impressive college football programs: Michigan, Nebraska, UCLA, Vanderbilt and Notre Dame to name a few. Mount Carmel was a very successful program competing for Championships every year.”

“I was comfortable with the competition, the talent, the winning expectations, and the rich traditions that came with playing football at a school like the University of Notre Dame; but the overall speed in college at every level is a huge step up from high school, and a big adjustment. At the college level, the difference between a great play and an average play is literally inches. For a running back, it is the difference between being hit on the front side of the body, or being hit on the backside of the body. You are only talking about a handful of inches. Yes, you are still being hit, but every inch counts. I learned this lesson from watching Allen Pinkett, Hiawatha Francisco, and Mark Green, the guys who played ahead of me on the depth chart. They had great speed and acceleration, but they also knew that speed was harder to attain at the college level, and they knew how to make every inch count.”

“I studied marketing in the business school at Notre Dame, and my wife Liz “Majewski” Pinn was getting a business degree as well, and that’s how we met. We both graduated in 1989, and then she and I got married on campus at the basilica in January of 1992. We were the first couple to be married in the newly named ‘basilica’ (on January 17th, the day before we got married, Sacred Heart church became a basilica).”

“Balancing my academics and playing football at Notre Dame was definitely a challenge. You had to manage your time very closely. Learning time management in conditions such as that was very good for us. It helped you to be able to have sense of urgency in getting things done and not waiting or procrastinating. When you play football at such a high level, you have to work hard for everything. When you are like me, a player who was not a starter, you had to work extra hard for everything. I had to prove myself every single day. It can start to wear on you a bit, as each day is very long, and it is a long season, but you learn to persevere. Your days are filled with lifting, watching film, and team meetings in addition to practice. It does take a lot of time away from your studies.”

“You very quickly need to understand what is important and prioritize your to do list, especially when it comes to your classwork. Putting so much of your time into football and your academics put a dent into our social life, for sure, because that was the lowest priority. There were times when I had to say no to things because I had to study. It was a tough balance, but being a student-athlete at the Division I level was terrific. It was an amazing experience to be involved in the University in such a deep way. Being a student-athlete ingrains you even deeper into the University. Of course, it is special being a regular student, but it was cool to have the connection and purpose that we did as student-athletes. The bonds I have with my teammates were strong not only because we played for the same goal, but because of what we went through together.”

“I went back for one of the Lou’s Lads reunions a few years ago, and it had been a while since I had been back to campus, or had seen many of my teammates. Even so, it felt like we had just been there yesterday. Like we had just graduated. I picked up with people without even missing a beat. That surprised me, but it just goes to show you how important those bonds were that we created with one another. Obviously you had strong bonds with your roommates and classmates, but your teammates are even more strongly bonded to you because of the blood, sweat and tears you survived together.”

“Being a scout team player, I had limited interactions with Coach Holtz, compared to some. While I did practice some of the time with the quarterbacks and running backs, my primary job on the team was to run the other team’s offense in order to prepare our defense for the upcoming game on Saturday. Because of that, I spent more time with the defensive coaches. When I did get to spend time with Coach Holtz, though, I learned so much from him. Coach Holtz would walk around at the beginning of practice as we were all stretching and warming up. You were not always focused on practice at that point. Maybe you just finished a tough test, or were thinking about an upcoming test, or you just did not really feel like being at practice that day. However, by the end of stretches and warm up, after listening to Coach Holtz speak, you couldn’t help but feel energetic and motivated and ready to practice just as hard as you possibly could. He would crack jokes and set the right tone/attitude for the team to put in the necessary work during practice. Yes, he was all business, but he got the team in the right frame of mind for what needed to be accomplished that day, whether it was practice or a game. He always set the tone for us. You may have arrived with a mindset of just going through the motions, but after he was done with you, you were ready to run through a wall for him. He brought out the best in all of us.”

Proper Planning and Practice Prevents Painfully Poor Performance

“Coach Holtz was the ultimate motivator, and was very demanding. One of the things I learned from him was how to be a smart player. It is not just a physical game, but a mental one as well. That is one of the many things that I admire about Coach Holtz. He motivated us and showed us how to compete at the highest level by making sure we were prepared for anything and everything. Both Coach Holtz and his entire staff, they taught you how to look at things with the right frame of mind. He had a lot of sayings and teachings that I still use every single day. We have a sign hanging in our house as you walk out of our front door: Love. Trust. Commitment. Do What’s Right. It’s what Coach Holtz taught us, and they are the rules my family and I live by.”

“He also taught us the importance of teamwork, and the importance of knowing what your role is to the team (or organization). He made sure that every single person on the team knew what his or her role was, and why it was important to the team/University. He talked to each person on the team, and he set goals for everyone. Goals that ranged from winning the Heisman to making sure the team was prepared for the upcoming game on Saturday. That has stuck with me to this day. In business, it is so important to get everyone on the same page, to get everyone to work together as a team, and to make sure that everyone understands each individual’s role. Not only that, they also need to know why every role is important to the team and to the bigger goals of the organization. He ingrained a never quit, never lose attitude. Never admit defeat. You are always still in the game as long as you are still playing. Life is a game. Keep competing and keep setting goals and you will keep moving forward. It’s a process”

While it is difficult to pick a favorite memory from your time at a place like Notre Dame, where every moment is truly memorable, Frank did not have much trouble picking out some of his. “Since my dad played football at Notre Dame, having my family (my parents, grandparents, uncles, cousins) come to Notre Dame, and having them on the field, was probably one of my favorite memories from my time at Notre Dame. Having my coaches close enough to see me play was awesome, too. However, being in Sports Illustrated (April 1986), I will never forget that one. If you look at that photo, the photo is more than a bunch of guys at football practice. That photo shows how Coach Holtz made everything into a competition.”

“The reason why that particular group of guys (me, Mike Gatti, and Brad Alge) got in that photo is because we were the first ones to sprint over after practice to hear coach’s final words at the end of practice. You see, at the end of practice you had to run over to him and he would give the team his final words of the day. You did not just walk or jog over, you ran. It was a prize to be in the first row when he started talking. That was one of the last competitions of the day, and I always did my best to be in the front row. I wanted to be in front to show that I cared. I tried to be up front as much as possible, and on that particular day, it was captured in Sports Illustrated. I was in my dorm getting ready for practice and my phone started ringing. It was one of my high school buddies and he blurted out, ‘You’re in Sports Illustrated!’ I said, ‘What? Stop messing around, I have to go to practice!’ When I got to practice, everyone was staring at me. ‘How did you get in Sports Illustrated?’ And that’s when I realized it was true!”

“My daughter, Mary, is a Division I college swimmer. She did a swimming camp at Notre Dame, and when we got to the Rolfs Aquatic Center, I went up to the top and sat down. When I was up there, I had a weird feeling, and then all of the sudden a fond memory came rushing back to me. Coach Holtz had taken us up there to prepare us for Michigan, his first game at Notre Dame. He had us lay down on the floor and talked us through some meditations and visualizations for the game. He had us imagining plays, and going through exactly what we would do, and how things would play out. He would fill our heads with positive and relaxing thoughts, 30 to 40 minutes. It was not a physical thing it was all mental. It was so funny to be sitting up there 20 years later, and get this chill, and have the memories come flooding back. I had completely forgotten about it until that moment. When my son played hockey in grade school, I used this very same meditation technique on them. They made it to the championship game, and I filled the locker room with positive signs before they came in, and then we did a 5-10 minute meditation with them where I positively walked them through how the game was going to play out. They easily won the championship game.”

Then, in the blink of an eye, four years at Notre Dame are in your rear view mirror and you are headed out into the world. “Weirdly enough, I always thought I could play in the NFL, but that was not how things played out. I truly believe there is a reason for why things happen the way they do, and my path was not to play in the NFL. I earned a marketing degree from Notre Dame, and headed back to Chicago where I got a job doing sales in the food industry and have done that for 28 years now. Ten years after I started in the food industry I ended up buying a division from the company I worked for, with a couple of partners, and became an owner/partner in the business.”

“We’ve since gone through a number of mergers and have grown from a local Chicago company to a national company (KeyImpact). I am a food broker/sales agent in Foodservice and we sell food for Schwan’s, Cargill, Johnsonville, Domino Sugar, among many others, and we represent these companies across the country and earn a percentage of what they sell. Being in sales, I do a lot of coaching with my team in my current role, and I coached my own kids on their sports teams as well. My wife Liz (who I met at Notre Dame) and I have three kids (Mary, Frank and John and a dog, Rex), and live in Lake Forest, which is a northern suburb of Chicago. We keep busy with our kids and enjoy paddle boarding, jet skiing and playing tennis. I’m fortunate that I have a lot of good friends in the area, and am very blessed to have been with my wife for 28 years!”

“During the recent pandemic, our business was hit pretty hard, but we have a terrific CEO and management group, and they treat our employees like family. Currently we have approximately 800 employees, but when we originally took it over, we only had about 40. We have come a long way in the last 18 years since we purchased this division. While it is tough to have a positive attitude when things like this (the pandemic) are happening, it is funny how challenges can give you energy. They can either be a draw or help charge you. In the past few months, I have gained a lot of energy, and a strong charge and resolve. I have tried to share that with our associates. Making sure that everyone in our company could see the positive side of what was going to come out of this. Innovation is crucial when it comes to surviving something like a pandemic”

WIN: What’s Important Now

Frank spoke with me about how being a student-athlete at Notre Dame prepared him for his life after sports. “The great thing about being a student-athlete is that you learn how to manage and prioritize your time, which is very important in everything in life. As coach Holtz use to say to us, ‘WIN: What’s Important Now.’ As a student-athlete you also have to understand how to compete, how to be a good teammate, how to continue to improve and learn new things every day. All of these being important skills as you move into the workforce. Learning how to compete and how to maintain a positive attitude are two of the most important things that I use every day. I try to keep things simple. If I am looking to hire someone, first I look at his or her attitude. How do they look at the world? If they have a good attitude, I have confidence that they will be successful, and will get the job done. Over the years, I have done many interviews and been in many interviews. There is a difference between being a hard worker/having a positive attitude, and being smart. In my opinion, having a positive attitude and determination are the biggest factors in a person being successful. Being positive, sharing your strengths and passion, and knowing that some things are bigger than you, are so important in your path toward success.”

“When we took over the division, our goal wasn’t just to make money; we wanted to help our employees reach their goals as well. If they were trying to put kids through college, we wanted to make sure we were helping them reach that goal. Having a passion for what you do is important. Having a purpose, (something that is bigger than you), or being a part of something that is bigger than you (a team, your work, your family), is important, too. The more you can create that purpose in your work environment and culture, the more you are going to win as a whole. As a coach in youth sports, I can tell within a couple of days/week if we are going to be a winning team based on how the kids treat each other and work together. That is not to say that from time to time I am not surprised, but for the most part I can tell. I can try to change how they treat each other, change the dynamic, and influence them; but it starts with how they treat each other and then I build from there. These are the lessons we learned as student-athletes, through the wins and losses. You learned who you were and what you were all about.”

Set your goals, focus, and never look back.

Frank also passed along to me some words of wisdom for young adults wishing to play sports at the Division I level in college. “Here is some general advice from my perspective. You have to enjoy what you do, you have to enjoy competition, and you have to embrace it and soak every little bit up. I learned that over the years. I did not always feel that way, but it was something I got better at over time and through playing sports. You really do have to enjoy and embrace it. You also cannot be caught up in what other people think, or more importantly, what you think other people are saying, because it really does not matter. The minute you start worrying about what someone else is saying or thinking, you have lost.”

“You have to drive your own goals and dreams from within. You have to set them, and strive toward them. You cannot listen to the negative thoughts, or think about what the negative thoughts from others might be. Most of the time we battle with ourselves in our own heads. You cannot let your inner thoughts over take your thinking, and disrupt you striving toward your goals, because that will end up being a shortfall. Be yourself. Be real. Chase your dreams. Also, experiment by learning new things and challenging yourself with stretch goals. Always be looking for ways to improve or adjust in order to find an edge. That is important. Do not leave anything in the tank. Do not worry about anyone else except for you. Set your goals, focus, and never look back. You basically need to be able to jump off a cliff. Have no fear and don’t hold back.”

“In my opinion, you cannot smell the roses enough. You need to enjoy your time in college because it goes by so fast. Yes, everyone will tell you that, and you will roll your eyes, but it is true. I did smell the roses, I did enjoy my time at Notre Dame, but it still went by way too fast. Enjoy every moment, stop, slow down, and enjoy it all. Do not rush through it. You only get that college experience once, make the most of it!”

You know what is coming next! I have to ask every guy who played for Coach Holtz … so, do you have a funny Coach Holtz story? And of course, Frank did. “We were doing some drills, and coach would constantly move you back and forth into position. Here you are, in college, and he would be out there with you taking you through how to stand in the backfield. He would move you one half inch that way, and then a quarter of an inch the other way, and then a quarter of an inch back. He was obviously a perfectionist. This one day he was doing a drill with the quarterbacks and the mesh with the running backs, and I (the last guy on the depth chart) got my chance to get in there. I (accidentally) brushed up against the quarterback. Coach immediately gets in my face. ‘Do you know what you did? Do you know what you did?’ I’m shaking, but I respond, ‘No.’ He asks, ‘Did you do that on purpose?’ And I squeak out, ‘No.’ And he says, ‘Okay,’ and just walks away. In hindsight, I think he did that to get everyone’s attention, not just mine, and to motivate all of us. Here I was, the last guy on the depth chart, who probably was not going to play, and coach still gets up in my face. This sent a clear message to everyone: you had better be on your A-game today. He would motivate the entire team by making an example out of one person in different ways. That day it was me. I was surprised, however, that he cared about little ole me. I definitely appreciate him more now that I understand what he was trying to do.”

Like many of Lou’s lads, Frank gives back to his community in Chicago. “We’ve done a lot of charity work over the years. I work with Feeding America (FeedingAmerica.org) through my company KeyImpact. It is a tremendous cause, especially right now with so many people in need of food. Our organization volunteers two days per employee every year to help Feeding America. It’s a special cause to us being in the food business. With my daughter, wife and son being a swimmer, we also support Swim Across America. Our daughter has done it before at Holy Cross and we have really gotten behind the cause. They hold a big college swim off the coast of Rhode Island and in many locations across the country. You can participate by donating or by swimming in the event. (You can learn more at: SwimAcrossAmerica.org). The Lou’s Lads/Holtz’s Heroes foundation is also near and dear to my heart. (LousLads.org)”

Frank and his wife Liz currently live in Lake Forest, north of Chicago, with their three children. Their daughter Mary is a junior at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. She is a swimmer (Patriot League athlete honor roll) and a Chemistry major. They also have two sons in high school. Frank IV is a senior @PinnFrank (and plays hockey, football, water polo, and is finishing his Eagle Scout project), and has an offer to play football at Valparaiso University (and is looking at all of his options … maybe even Notre Dame). John is a sophomore and plays football and swims. Both boys also play guitar in their own band- F.L.A.M.E. and have composed a number of their own songs- one of which is currently on Spotify (search “Collapse Flame”).

Cheers & GO IRISH!