I was the second generation to grow up on the West side of Youngstown. My parents grew up on the same street where I live and went to high school together at Chaney in the late 1930’s. I remember dad talking from time to time about the great Frank Sinkwich, who played under one of Chaney’s legendary coaches, Chet McPhee. Sinkwich won the Heisman Trophy in his senior year with the Georgia Bulldogs. He went on to a brief pro career.
Sinkwich was born in the town of Starjak in Croatia October 10, 1920 (the same year my parents were born). The family moved to Youngstown two years later, where his father Ignac operated a grocery store. When they first came to Youngstown, they spelled their name Sinkovic’. By 1940, the Sinkwich’s owned a family restaurant. The Wikipedia article on Sinkwich attributes his competitive drive to growing up playing football on the streets of the West side, “I learned early in neighborhood pickup games that I had the desire to compete. When people ask why I succeeded in athletics, I always tell them that I didn’t want to get beat”
Sinkwich was one of the great players to come out of Chaney but was nearly overlooked by the college scouts. Georgia Bulldog assistant coach Bill Hartman had visited Youngstown to recruit another top pick who committed instead to Ohio State. Hartman supposedly was refilling his car at a local service station when an attendant told him about a good player who lived down the street. He met Sinkwich’s dad on the front porch and persuaded Sinkwich to visit Georgia. The rest was history.
As a freshman, he led a team known as the “point-a-minute” Bullpups to an undefeated season. Sinkwich plead with Head Coach Wally Butts to be a fullback but Butts wanted him to play halfback, a position where he would both run and pass. Butts said of him, “He acquired, through hard work and endless practice, the ability to pick the open receiver better than anybody I ever saw.” In 1940, his first year on the varsity squad, UPI named him to the All-Southern First Team. In 1941, his junior year, he set an SEC record with 1103 rushing yards, in addition to 713 passing yards. From the third game of the season on, he did this with his jaw wired shut when it was broken in a previous game. He had a specially designed helmet. He led Georgia to a 40-26 victory over TCU in the Orange Bowl with 139 rushing yards and 243 passing yards and three touchdowns. He was a potent double threat.
The big year was the 1942. He had 795 rushing yards and 1392 passing yards (an SEC record at the time) for a total of 2187 yards. That year, he led the Bulldogs to a 9-0 victory over UCLA in the Rose Bowl, scoring the winning touchdown with two sprained ankles. He was a unanimous All-America choice and was awarded the Heisman Trophy. In three years, he rushed for 2,271 yards, passed for 2,331, and accounted for 60 touchdowns—30 rushing and 30 passing. He was the very first pick in the first round of the NFL draft, being picked by the Detroit Lions.
His first two years looked like the beginning of a stellar career. In both 1943 and 1944 he was named All-Pro, and MVP in 1944. Then he went into the service, and while playing for an Air Force service team, he suffered a serious knee injury that basically ended his career. He tried to return to the pros in 1946 and 1947, but was never the same and retired. He briefly tried coaching, with positions at Furman and at the University of Tampa, and a semi-professional team in Erie, PA in 1949.
After this, he returned to Athens, Georgia where he operated a successful beer and wine distributorship. Apparently, he never contemplated returning to Youngstown after his years in the South. He was reported to have said, “I’m from Ohio, but if I’d known when I was 2 what it was like down South, I would have crawled here on my hands and knees.” He died October 22, 1990 in Athens after an extended battle with cancer. Vince Dooley, then athletic director at Georgia said of him, “We’ve lost one of the great legends in football history. He was not only a great player but a wonderful person and citizen of Athens”
In addition to the Heisman, his greatness was acknowledged both in life and after his death. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954 and the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1967. He was inducted into the University of Georgia Circle of Honor in 1996 and his jersey was retired, one of only four Bulldog players to receive th8s honor.
Frank Sinkwich was one of the great football players to come out of Youngstown, and out of Chaney High School. As he said, the streets of the West side gave him his competitive fire. But then Youngstown has always been a football town.