Frank Orgel

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Frank Orgel, 1956 AHS Indian

   A Special Story ...

                    A Special Man ...

                                    A Special Wife ...

Frank Orgel - 1954 Thronteeska

FINDING HOPE AT CHRISTMAS

By Jack Smith
Auburntigers.com

When a linebacker went down with an injury during the first scrimmage of spring practice in Athens in 1958, Frank Orgel stepped up.

He had something to prove to legendary Georgia Coach Wally Butts.

So Orgel did the only thing he knew to do when Butts snatched the whistle out of his mouth and barked at the team.

"I need another player!" Butts yelled.

Everyone just stood there. Except for Orgel.

Frank had been moved from running back to tight end, a position that would not have been his first choice. But like all great or even good players of his era did, the gritty South Georgian had played on both sides of the ball at Albany High School. He knew the basic idea of defense. See ball, hit ball.

He actually knew a lot more about defense, which came naturally to his football mind.

Orgel buckled his chin strap and hustled to the spot on the field where he guessed he was supposed to be, the steely eyes of Coach Butts boring into the back of his helmet.

Frank scanned the field with intense eyes and took off with reckless abandon on the next play. He made the first of what would be many tackles on that warm spring day. Orgel also made a name for himself during that first scrimmage.

"I don't think Coach Butts even knew my name, but I jumped up and went out there and played it," Frank said. "I had a really good day. I made a lot of tackles. Then Coach Butts came over there, and he was jumping on the offense and pointing at me and saying, 'Can anybody block this guy here?'" 

After practice, Butts told Orgel he could eat at the dorm with the rest of the team, which included the likes of Fran Tarkenton and an All-American by the name of Patrick Fain Dye.

"I can't eat at the dorm," Orgel told Butts. "I'm not on scholarship."

Butts just looked at him as if he were trying to figure out who he was.

"You are now," he said.

Thus began Orgel's two-year football career at the University of Georgia, where he met Dye not long after he suited up for his first practice in Athens. The pair could not have possibly known that a lasting friendship, and one of the great coaching partnerships in Auburn football history, had been born.

"I met him probably the first day I went out to practice," Frank recalls. "We just got to be good friends."

He recalls Dye as a great player. He was quick. He was tough. And he was mean when he needed to be.

'Get your butt off the ground'
In a twist of double irony, Orgel had wanted to play at Auburn but ended up signing at Wyoming out of high school. The Wyoming coaches told Frank he could play running back during the recruiting process.

But they moved him to tight end after a few practices of his first season, when rules prohibited freshmen from playing in varsity games.

Orgel never complained. He just wanted to play ball.

He was named Freshman of the Year for the Big Sky Conference but transferred to Georgia after one season. Wyoming was just too different and perhaps too far away from the farming town he called home in Southwest Georgia.

"Wyoming was cold," he says, his friendly blue eyes curling up in a squint. "Real cold. And my high school coach talked with me when I got home. I told him I didn't really want to go back."

His coach made one phone call to Coach Butts.

"Coach Butts said, 'Well I offered him a scholarship one time and he didn't want to come. This time he's gotta earn it."

He did earn it during that first scrimmage, and he proved his toughness time and again in Athens.

Orgel's junior year was a special season in Georgia football history. The Bulldogs went 10-1 in 1959 and won the SEC Championship. "The Comeback Kids" were led by Fran Tarkenton, who marched Georgia down the field in the waning minutes for a dramatic 14-13 win over Auburn.

Tarkenton won the game on a 4th and 13 touchdown pass to Bill Herron with :30 seconds remaining. The victory sent Butts and the Bulldogs back to the Orange Bowl, according to a history of Georgia football on www.georgiadogs.com.

But Orgel is more likely to tell you one of his many spell-binding stories from the South Carolina game that season. Butts decided to attempt an onsides kick at some point during the game, and Orgel was on the kickoff team. He barreled down the field as soon as the kicker pooched the ball, but something strange happened.

Orgel looked up and couldn't find the ball. The kicker had booted the ball about 10 or 15 yards farther downfield than he was supposed to, and Frank was sprinting full speed when he looked back over his shoulder to find it. That's when a train wreck of a collision happened.

Auburn Football

Orgel is told he was drilled by a big Gamecock tight end he didn't see until it was too late.

"I look up and here comes this big tight end they had running full speed and we ran headgear to headgear," Frank recalls. "It knocked both of us out. I laid on the ground, and all I remember is Pat saying "Get your butt off that ground! Get up! Get in the huddle! Make 'em carry him off! Get up and get in the huddle!"

Those who were there said Orgel got up and played the rest of the game, but he doesn't remember it. That was before there were rules about concussions.

It was an early test of adversity that would serve Orgel well in his later years when he would face a far bigger test.

On the bus ride home, Coach J.B. "Ears" Whitworth, who had been fired at Alabama after compiling a 4-24-2 record that included a 14-game losing streak, found Frank and handed him a $5 bill.

"Coach Butts bet me $5 you wouldn't get up," Whitworth told him as the bus rumbled down the highway.

Orgel said Whitworth then gave him the cash.

"He gave it to me, and I said, 'You better give that to Pat, because if it wasn't for Pat, I probably wouldn't have got up.'"

Orgel went on to play in the NFL. He had a brief stint with the Washington Redskins before he was cut. They told him he was too small. So he and good friend Jimmy Wester went home to Albany.

They volunteered for the service together because they were told if they went in on "the buddy system" they could stay together. The pair heard one tough servicemen talk about being an Airborne Ranger at orientation. It paid $50 a month more than being a regular soldier.

"Jimmy said, 'Man, that's us.' I said, 'Naw, that's not me. I don't even want to ride in a plane much less jump out of one.'"

Despite the buddy system promise, Wester was sent to Ft. Belvoir in Fairfax, Va., (with his Auburn University education) to be an engineer. Orgel was sent to jump school at Ft. Benning.

He tells one legendary story about a fierce instructor who made the recruits hold chin-ups for painfully long periods. Orgel never dropped no matter how long it went. But one time, he made a mistake and dropped early, landing on the edge of the instructor's boot.

His punishment was following the testy instructor around for an entire day, polishing his boots every single time he stopped.

When jump school was over, the man in charge told the recruits none of it was personal. It was all about preparation. He told them to speak up if anyone had anything to get off their chests. Frank thought he was serious, so he spoke up.

"I've got a problem with that one over there," he said, pointing at the instructor.

The commanding officer looked puzzled and told them to go around back and work it out. The instructor told Orgel he'd never had anybody take him up on the offer, and he'd get in big trouble if they had it out like Frank wanted to.

So Frank just agreed to act like it never happened.

They returned to formation and the rest of the recruits were told it had been worked out.

The instructor over his jump team at Benning also happened to be the football equipment manager at Ft. Campbell, Ky., and he tried to talk Frank into playing there.

But Frank wanted to stay at Ft. Benning with his friends and went to talk to the coach. He didn't know the equipment manager had already called General William Westmoreland, the legendary general who commanded U.S. troops in Vietnam, to have him sent to Ft. Campbell.

Orgel played two years of "service ball," and his team won the Missile Bowl. Dye was playing at rival Ft. Benning when the two met again on the gridiron for a game the day Kennedy was shot. Orgel scored two touchdowns in front of a gaggle of pro scouts.

A career cut short

He was invited to try out in Buffalo and New York, but he never made it to New York after the Bills offered him a $2,000 signing bonus.

"I liked to broke my arm trying to sign that paper," he said. "That was more money than I'd ever had in my life."

He roomed with former Auburn quarterback Mailon Kent his first year in Buffalo, where people would often ask where he was from.

"All-binny," Frank would reply, as folks from Southwest Georgia say.

They would look confused until he told them he was actually from Albany, Georgia.

Orgel's pro career ended prematurely when he broke his leg and ankle in only his second season. It was another test of adversity, and he responded the way he always did. He didn't quit.

He tried to come back and signed with Denver, but he was in too much pain after surgery to remove bone spurs that were slicing into his Achilles' tendon.

That's when Joe Sumrall from Thomasville, Ga., called to see if he was interested in helping him coach high school ball. He went to Thomasville midway through the season and the team played for the South Georgia Championship, falling to Jessup 7-6.

He soon got a call asking if he'd be interested in being the head coach in Warner Robins, Ga. Orgel told them he had only coached five or six games as an assistant. When he asked how many games they'd won at Warner Robins, Frank was told they'd won about 10 in the previous decade.

"I said, 'That's your trouble right there. Y'all are hiring guys like me. You need to hire Joe Sumrall."

Orgel ended up coaching as an assistant in Warner Robins with Sumrall for five seasons. He was named head coach in 1969 when Sumrall became principal.

Orgel went 28-2-4 at Warner Robins in three seasons before leaving to work for defensive guru Mickey Andrews at North Alabama. He was there just one season before an old friend called. Pat Dye had just been hired at East Carolina University, a program without much history of success. Dye, his staff and a collection of great players they tirelessly recruited put East Carolina football on the map.

Dye was preparing his team for a bowl game when he called Orgel.

"I told Pat I needed to talk to Sarah (his wife), but go ahead and pencil me in. So we left."

A legendary coaching partnership was born. Orgel recruited all the way to Greenville after that career-changing phone call. The pair coached together at East Carolina for five years, where Orgel successfully recruited the likes of Doug Smith (who later transferred and became an All-American at Auburn) and many other great players before Dye left for Wyoming. Orgel went to Clemson.

"(Coach Dye) had recommended me for the head job, and I came back and didn't get it. I was going to Wyoming, and Danny Ford called me and wanted me to come to Clemson. He had tried to hire me the year before and I turned him down --cause I wasn't `gonna leave Pat."

Dye got the job at Auburn the next year. One of his first calls was to Frank Orgel.

"He got the job on Saturday I guess, and he picked me up Sunday morning. We went recruiting."

 

Auburn Football



'Everybody worked hard'
Days were long with Dye. They would start with staff meetings at 7 a.m. and often last until at least 10:30 or 11 p.m.

He credits Dye's work ethic and ability to motivate young men for his success.

"Well, he's great with the kids, but he's tough. You know, he was tough with them, but at the same time, he respected 'em. And he was tough on the coaches. He was very demanding. Everybody worked hard, and he set the example of how to work."

Auburn

But Dye didn't just talk football.

"A lot of times it wasn't about football. It was about how to live your life and how to be the right kind of person. When he would talk to them about football, he told them that they were the ones going out on the field and doing it. He would say, we're going to teach you everything we can to help you, but when we put you out there on Saturday, you guys are going to be the ones playing and winning the game and doing things the right way."

He said Dye was big on his players being "solid citizens."

Orgel was with Dye through the 1986 season before leaving for South Carolina after falling just short in an interview for the head job at Tulane. The Green Wave hired Mac Brown instead. He enjoyed his time at South Carolina but left for Georgia after three seasons. He coached there for eight years but left with one year on his contract when Ray Goff was fired.

That's when Orgel was hired as Athletic Director for the public schools in Albany. He and Sarah went home!

Orgel told the superintendent what he'd learned at Auburn. They had to make a commitment to be great. He talked them into and helped raise the money for field houses at all four high schools. He started a summer program for junior high kids with the help of assistants and volunteers. He hired a full-time trainer from Georgia and an equipment manager.

Orgel surely angered regional equipment salesmen when he and his staff started buying shoes and shoulder pads in bulk at big events. They once bought 1,000 pairs of Pony cleats for $5 each.

It worked. Kids bought into the program, worked hard and Dougherty High School won the state championship his third year as AD.

Orgel retired ... and came back to Auburn three years ago with his lovely wife, Sarah .... who is 72 years old but looks at least a decade younger.

Sarah Orgel ...

Theirs is a love story born out a passion to help young men succeed. Sarah was the guidance counselor at the school in Warner Robins when they met.

"I had to get in good with her because she kept my players eligible," Frank said with a chuckle.

Sarah was the rock in the relationship in many ways, equally committed to helping the young men on every one of Orgel's teams. She pursued her job with the same passion Frank put into coaching.

An Unexpected Turn ...
They were a perfect match. Her loyalty and commitment to the marriage became critically important when Orgel's life took an unexpected turn for the worse in the late 1990s. One of his former players at Auburn noticed something strange when watching his old coach on the sidelines. It was Greg Carr, the small but cerebral Auburn linebacker who became a renowned orthopedic surgeon after a brilliant collegiate football career.

'Man, it's killing me'
"Greg came out to my house after the game," Orgel recalls. "He said, 'I noticed you were standing there with your legs crossed bending over. Does your back hurt?''

"I said, 'Man, it's killing me.' He said, 'Well, I need to get you looked at after the season.''

Carr connected him with a doctor in Birmingham. Orgel was diagnosed with a painful condition known as spinal stenosis, when the spinal cord is basically squeezed. Surgeons removed several vertebrae.

"The next year was the last year we were there (at Georgia). Boy, my back was hurting all through the fall. It was a different kind of hurt. I was just so weak. I had to sit down a lot."

He then went to see a specialist at Emory in Atlanta. They had no other option but to insert a titanium plate and fuse his spine together.

Orgel retired and tried to start playing the game he's probably most passionate about: Golf. He once shot a 68 and became addicted to the sport.

"I was retired, and I was trying to play golf at the highest level. I was playing every day and I was really struggling."

He all of a sudden couldn't hit it anywhere, and he knew his weight transfer was off when he swung.

"I was moving on it, and I couldn't stop moving. I knew what I was doing wrong. Boy, I hit thousands and thousands of practice balls. I just couldn't get out of it."

One day he was playing a par four in Albany that he could often birdie by smashing a drive over a pond and landing his ball about 20 yards from the hole...if he short cut it just right.

But that day, the course was wet from overnight rain, and his drive must've hit a tree. The ball came to rest in the mud right by the pond. Frank, ever the optimist and never the quitter, decided against taking an unplayable lie.

A friend in the foursome who once played on a pro tour advised against trying to play it.

"He said, 'Coach, don't swing and hit that ball.' I said, 'I'm gon' get it out. Right up there on the green.''

Orgel stood over the ball and started his swing. But he couldn't stay still.

"Oh, hell," he said to himself. "My feet are moving."

He slid all the way into the water and couldn't get out.

"They had to hand me a club and I had to hold onto it and they pulled me out. I was so embarrassed. I said, 'That's it. I quit.' And I haven't hardly picked up a club since, except to just show my little grandson (Weston, the son of their daughter Leigh Ann and her husband, Cary) how to swing."

That was in 2007 or 2008. Frank isn't sure. He had gotten where he could not fully flex his left foot to the point he had to wear a brace to keep his foot from dragging.

Orgel ended up at the Cleveland Clinic, where nerve conduction tests revealed news that was both bad and as clear as the mud on the golf course where he first began to fear something could be seriously wrong.

"The doctor said he thought I had PLS, which is a form of ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), but not exactly ALS. Then he said, 'I don't know.'"

Commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. There is no cure, and it doesn't end well for victims.

Searching for answers
Frank went home to Albany and saw a good friend who was an infectious disease specialist. He turned over all his scans and test results. His "really, really smart" friend said he needed a week to research it. He called Frank and shared more puzzling news.

"He came in and he said, 'You know, Frank, I've been through all these tests, I've been on the Internet, I've looked at everything I could look at. You either got severe nerve damage or you've got a disease that nobody else has ever had.' I said, 'I like that first statement.''

His back pain worsened. He started taking up to eight Percocet a day. His doctor was alarmed and told him to cut it in half.

"So I go home and I get to thinking," Orgel says from the chair of his living room, decorated with priceless pictures of Auburn's 23-22 win over Alabama and other iconic Auburn moments. "I said, 'Well, if I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it right. I'm just going to quit.'"

Orgel now admits that was a bad thing.

"I quit taking the pills all at once, and I was so miserable."

He did the only thing he knew to do. He went to the driving range.

"I got out there, and boy, I got so dizzy. I was sweating, I got nauseous. I thought I was going to throw up all over the place. I thought my bowels were going to run all over the place. I thought, 'Man, I don't know what's wrong with me. I got to go home.'"

He got sicker at the house and called his doctor.

"I said, 'Man, I think I'm going to die.'"

His doctor asked what was wrong. Frank told him he was sweating, he was nauseous and he could not stop vomiting. The doctor asked how many Percocet he had taken that day.

"I said, 'I haven't taken any.' And he said, 'Oh no! You got withdrawals. You can't quit like that. You can't quit all at once.'"

Orgel slowly began stepping down off the sometimes addictive pain pills as the doctor instructed. He now takes only one Percocet a day, maybe two if he's going somewhere to raise awareness or cash for ALS.

Frustrated by the lack of a conclusive diagnosis, Frank and Sarah went elsewhere looking for answers, including the world-famous Mayo Clinic. They didn't have a definitive diagnosis, either. They went to Duke University a year or so later and Frank heard what he thought he wanted to hear. An answer.

It wasn't a good one.

"The doctor walked in the room and looked at me and sat down and said, 'You got ALS.' And I said, 'That ain't what I wanted to hear. Boy, that (ticked) me off. I said, 'Doc, you need to hit me with that hammer or something. Do something to me instead of just walking in here and saying `You got it.' You didn't do any tests or anything.''

The renowned doctor told Frank he'd seen enough to know, but he sent him over for more nerve conduction tests anyway.

"He came back and he said, 'You got it.' I said, 'Well, it's only on my left side.' He said, 'Well, it'll move to the right side. Then it'll either move to your throat where you can't talk or it'll move to the vital organs.'

The doctor didn't exactly give Orgel hope. But he did tell him one thing he clung to. "He said, 'You know, it might be a while before yours moves.''

That was about five years ago. Frank insists he hasn't really gotten worse, but Sarah concedes he's gotten weaker lately and more and more foods cause him to choke. That means his throat is starting to fail, to put it in the simplest terms.

Despite the grim prognosis, Orgel has never stopped fighting, even seeking desperate answers such as a controversial stem cell cleansing procedure that Sarah was adamantly against. Frank did it anyway and didn't tell her in advance.

Holding out hope
Today, Orgel can't use his left arm or his left leg. He's been confined to a wheelchair for more than a decade, and he requires round-the-clock assistance and help to make exhausting transfers from his wheelchair to the chair in his living room and back to the bed at night. Paid helpers come over every night and morning to get him in and out of the bed.

But he has not lost hope. Sarah has stayed by his side the entire time.

He swims like a wounded dolphin at Health Plus in Auburn several times a week, where's he's popular with the ladies who do water aerobics. He's like a rock star with the staff.

Orgel can't swim with all four limbs, so he takes a deep breath and fights to stay above water as long as he can without breathing, usually about three-quarters of the way down the pool. A therapist works with him in the pool doing stretches and exercises in a tireless effort to keep his limbs from further atrophying.

Auburn's old defensive coordinator still attends every Auburn home game with his former player and dear friend Rusty Deen, who this year wheeled him to a choice spot in the Nelson Club at Jordan-Hare Stadium so he could have a good view of the action. Deen says his analysis of the game is still amazing.

XXX

Deen is just one of the many former Auburn players who come to visit and who pitched in to help make modifications to the Orgels' home. Many members of the tight-knit college coaching fraternity who will tell you say Frank tells the best stories and jokes of anyone they've ever known stay connected or check on him.

Orgel believes he can keep getting better, just like he believed in this year's Auburn team despite a tough year. Orgel remained relentlessly positive the team. He liked them because they never quit fighting. Sort of like him.

He attends practice most every Tuesday, where he has been welcomed with open arms by Coach Gus Malzahn. Players often walk by and slap him five or say hello. Frank smiles and swaps funny stories with Coach Dye, who drops in on the day his old friend comes to help keep him company.

Seeking and serving

Sarah seeks encouragement and tries to help the families of other ALS victims at a monthly support group at Auburn University Montgomery, where they meet in a room provided by the athletics department. Frank set it up with the help of an old friend.

While Sarah finds motivation to keep going at the meetings, she's also devastated when those she gets to know die from the disease. She sometimes looks around the room and can guess who will be next.

"I get pumped up when I go to those meetings, but it's also hard," Sarah says.

Orgel doesn't like to attend support group meetings. He'd rather go to football practice at Auburn.

"This is my support group," Orgel said during a practice earlier this fall, his wheelchair parked on the sideline not far from where Dye took in the action and occasionally wandered by to tell a story or listen to one of his friend's jokes.

Orgel doesn't like to go to practice on days it rains and the team moves indoors. He doesn't care if he gets wet, but he misses the smell of grass and the chirp of the whistle echoing off the trees. The shrill sound of whistles careening off the walls of Auburn's $16 million indoor practice facility just isn't the same for this old coach, who still loves high school ball and even watches film and helps mentor several Auburn High players to this day.

Frank Orgel is the most optimistic person many say they've ever met, and he admits that Sarah is a big reason why. She hasn't given up hope, either.

An early Christmas gift
The two were like children on Christmas morning when a new machine known as the Quadricizer arrived at Health Plus in Auburn just after Thanksgiving. It's a fancy black leather chair that moves all four of a patient's limbs like something out of a sci-fi movie, but simpler.

The steady churn of the device is the sound of hope in the fight against ALS symptoms and even for stroke victims and disabled children. The machine won't cure the cruel disease, but it at least gets the joints moving and the blood flowing.

Frank could not lift his left arm off his lap three weeks ago when the machine arrived. Now he can grimace and lift it slightly. But for it to be effective, the machine needs to be used several times weekly, and each session is expensive.

If ALS is diagnosed early enough, some say the Quadricizer could potentially help delay the onset of ALS symptoms and at least improve a patient's quality of life. That's an oversimplification of a complex problem that has baffled the brightest minds for decades, but Orgel says it works.

And it gives him hope.

Auburn


Orgel and former Alabama player and fellow ALS patient Kevin Turner were honored by the ALS Association of Alabama last February with the association's first "Changing the Game" award.

The event was held at the former Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham. Dozens of former players from Auburn and Georgia attended. Players like Deen, Carr, Randy Campbell and Al Del Greco and scores of other former Auburn greats came to support their coach. Old friends from the coaching fraternity like Ray Goff, Wayne Bolt, Steve Dennis, Larry Blakeney, Joe Whitt and many others were there, too. Dye gave a few touching remarks, helping to set the tone for the evening.

 
Best-selling author John Feinstein was the featured speaker, but it was Orgel's story about his fight against ALS that stole the show after he was hoisted onto the stage.

Emotional guests swarmed the Orgels after the event. The success of the night sparked a new energy in the movement to raise money for research and patient care in Alabama, and the Orgels began accepting challenges and speaking engagements to help raise awareness and money.

"It was important to us to get involved with an organization that helped fund research and helped ALS patients in Alabama," Sarah says.

Frank has spoken at several events and called to encourage ALS countless patients, including former NFL players who wanted him to reach out.

He's really just doing the same thing he's done his whole life: Coaching and encouraging.

Bo knows compassion
Bo Jackson once gave Orgel the highest compliment of all. He sent Orgel an autographed picture with a note that he was the best coach to ever come through Auburn.

It's only fitting that Jackson, who was arguably the greatest athlete on Earth during his prime, had to leave pro sports with mythical status after suffering a hip injury that ended his career when a rare condition that prevented proper healing was discovered.

The Orgels found out last week that Bo will speak at the next ALS "Changing the Game" awards event they are playing a huge role in organizing. It will be held in Birmingham on Wednesday, February 24, 2016, at The Club atop Red Mountain. Sarah had nearly given up hope when she discovered by accident that Jackson's manager was not actually receiving her messages because the old mobile phone number she had been texting had changed.

She nearly gave up.

"But then I thought that's not what Frank would do," Sarah says.

Frank Orgel will not likely be healed by the Quadricizer. It won't stop the progressive disease.

But that won't stop him from fighting until the final whistle blows and his time here is up. It won't stop him from loving his wife and family and grandson, nor the countless former Auburn football players who visit and call on a regular basis.

God only knows how many Christmas mornings Coach Frank Orgel has left with his family. That's just the hard reality of a relentless and incurable disease.

His rare form of ALS may eventually take everything but his mind.

But it won't ever take his heart.

That should give us all hope this Christmas.

 

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Also you might like this presentation ...

Changing the Game Awards Dinner: ALS Alabama