At 5-foot-8 and maybe 170 pounds at some point, Frank Criniti Jr. was the Little Big Man on the 1966 Notre Dame national championship football team.
But he was no Rudy. As a second-string halfback behind Rocky Bleier and Bob Gladieux, he played a lot and he played well — scoring three touchdowns and often flummoxing the first-string defense during practice.
Before joining the Irish in 1965, Frank was a three-sport star at Charleston Catholic High School and was named the West Virginia high school player of the year.
“But I’m not even sure I was the best player on my team (a team that only lost two games in three seasons),” he told me during an interview a few years ago.
Frank Criniti, a CPA and a longtime South Bend resident, always was a humble man. That was one of the traits that made him so likable — as a teammate, as a family man, as a friend and as a community supporter.
So it was sad news to learn that he had died last week at the age of 76.
You won’t find him in any Notre Dame record book but he will be in the hearts of his Irish teammates who loved him for his effort and for keeping them close in later years as the corresponding secretary for those 1960s teams.
He leaves behind his wife Pat, three children and six grandchildren. He met Pat at St. Joseph’s Medical Center when he was getting a broken nose fixed and she was a nursing student attending to him. He asked her out from his bed.
She said yes despite how he looked. “My face was black and blue and I had to wear one of those plastic face masks,” he recalled. “My mother-in-law later said that she was very proud of Pat because she went out with me even though I was very, very ugly when I first met her.”
They were happily married for more than 51 years and spent most of their lives together in South Bend where Frank was very active in the community. He was honored by the United Way as Man of the Year, for decades of outstanding service.
As his obituary read: “Over the past 40-plus years, Frank’s contributions to the South Bend community are too great to measure and too many to count: a dedicated husband and father, a selfless mentor and colleague, a proud and generous Notre Dame alum, and an active philanthropist. He has supported South Bend Rotary, the Youth Service Bureau, South Bend’s Center for the Homeless, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and Prevent Child Abuse of St. Joseph County.
“However, as accomplished as Frank was, he was even more humble and gracious. Frank would deflect all compliments and accolades faster than he ran the 40-yard dash in college.”
Because of his size, he knew most people would laugh if they were told he played football at Notre Dame. That was OK with him. He had his 1966 national championship ring to prove it, but he didn’t need to. “I was proud of what we accomplished, but I don’t want to wear it on my sleeve,” he said.
He loved playing for Ara Parseghian. ”I think Ara appreciated my effort,” he said. “But to be honest, I might not have ever played as a sophomore (during the 1966 national championship season) if we hadn’t been so good. In our 10 games, eight were over by halftime.”
Frank probably could have been a standout at a lot of other schools even though he always downplayed his own talents. “It took me four years to realize that I was too small to play college football,” he said with a laugh.
He wasn’t a star, a stud or even a starter. He was a stalwart, though, as the smallest performer on one of the greatest college football teams ever.
“And when I put on my two-inch cleats, I thought I was as big as everyone else.”
Frank Criniti may not have been bigger than life but he certainly was a man in full.