Retired soldier has become a football player for the ages Tim Frisby, 39, has made the grade at South Carolina.

Posted: October 07, 2004

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Tim Frisby walked out of the locker room wearing denim shorts, a T-shirt and a blue headband, not looking much different from the other University of South Carolina players heading out after football practice. He wasn't dressing to fit in, Frisby said.

"These guys, they're the hip-hop era," Frisby said of his teammates. "My generation started off the hip-hop era."

A few days after Frisby walked on to South Carolina's team in the spring, a Gamecocks player went to receivers coach Rick Stockstill and said, "You know we've got a 35-year-old receiver?"

The coach didn't believe it, and upon investigation, found the rumor to be false.

"Tim, how old are you?" Stockstill asked Frisby.

Frisby told him: "39."

This fall, the native of Allentown made the team - Stockstill immediately dubbed him "Pops" - and his story quickly went national. He's not just a 39-year-old college football player, but a 39-year-old father of six just retired from a 20-year Army career.

Now Frisby's getting more publicity than most Heisman Trophy winners. Last week, Frisby found himself in his own dressing room backstage at the Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York, waiting to go on the David Letterman show. The guest ahead of him, John Travolta, talked to Letterman about his own days as a high school quarterback after Letterman brought up Frisby's story. Pearl Jam also was on the show that night. Lead singer Eddie Vedder talked to Frisby backstage and asked him his jersey number. Vedder said he wasn't a big football fan, but he'd watch out for him.

"Crazy," Frisby said of the whole experience.

The morning of his first game, executives from Paramount Pictures showed up at his house unannounced. Dreamworks and other major Hollywood studios have called. Even after he was on Letterman, Jay Leno still wants him on.

"It's funny. You're growing up, we always had dreams," said Rob Rindock, Frisby's closest friend from Allentown, who has known him since kindergarten. "Tim never was going to let the dream die. Eighty years old, in a wheelchair, he'd be saying, 'I'm going to make it.' . . .

"A lot of the questions have been kind of accusing him of doing this for the celebrity of it. That's not Tim. We know him. He's not going to get hit by 250-pound guys just to get attention. He's kind of a shy guy."

While stationed in Italy near the end of his Army stint, Frisby wrote to football coaches at two schools - Penn State and South Carolina - about the possibility of walking on.

"Joe Paterno himself wrote me and said if you're enrolled in school, you'll have a chance to come out," said Frisby, who got the same response from South Carolina. "I was coming back here. I was assigned here to Fort Jackson [outside Columbia] for my last tour."

The recruiting coordinator he had written to at South Carolina had left, but Frisby enrolled part-time two years ago while still at Fort Jackson, and then went out for this team. He wasn't the fastest guy out there - think 4.6 speed in a league where starters go 4.4 - but he's part of a team coached by Lou Holtz that is now 4-1 and ranked 25th nationally by the Associated Press.

Frisby doesn't claim he was any high school superstar. He played one year of football as a junior at Allentown Central Catholic, as a backup, where he was remembered as a good athlete. He transferred as a senior to Allentown Dieruff High, where he had a better chance to be a starter in basketball, which was his first love.

Two decades later, does he see a generation gap between him and his younger Gamecocks teammates?

"I have two teenagers myself, so there's no musical generation gap," he said. "The generation gap I've seen maybe is when you're talking about television. They see stuff in syndication, on TV Land [on Nickelodeon]. I saw that stuff live."

Frisby has gotten into one game for mop-up duty. Making no predictions about future playing time, Stockstill, the receivers coach, said Frisby had earned his place on the field and was a positive presence in the locker room.

"I think maybe the extra things he did, being in the service, bring some leadership, bring some stability," Stockstill said. "Guys know he's been around."

The coach added that Frisby had really improved since the spring, and joked about how on his first day, Frisby had fits with footballs flying out of the Juggs passing machine.

"It was beating him up pretty good," Stockstill said.

In the locker room, Frisby said, he tries to act more like an older brother than a father figure. The experience has been consistent with the approach he took in the service: "I can't speak for other soldiers, but I always wanted to keep adding to what I was doing. I wasn't satisfied with staying in one stagnant spot and kind of doing the same thing for 20 years. I wanted to build on that. A lot of times, the military will say, 'Oh, you can't do this because you're not a certain job title.' I wanted to kind of break those walls down."

After eight years in the Army, he applied for Ranger school. He said he met some initial resistance, but got a waiver and made it through on his first try.

"Since you didn't start off at infantry school, you didn't have any bad habits," Frisby said. "So if you listened intently to everything the Ranger instructor said . . . you end up doing very well on the mountaineering and the rappelling and your infantry patrols, and your raids and your assaults. You do well because you're following every direction to the point."

From there, he was assigned to the Pentagon for three years, and then worked as a communications specialist based near Venice, Italy. He said he wasn't on the front lines during the first Gulf War and the Kosovo conflict, but was in a support position.

In the meantime, he was always playing ball. He played for military football and basketball leagues in Europe. A "good high school player," a starter and single-digit scorer as a senior at Allentown Dieruff, Frisby had an offer to play at Tennessee State. Disappointed that local schools weren't interested, he decided on the Army.

"I had four brothers, a single mother. My dad died when I was young," Frisby said. "We had what we needed, not necessarily what we wanted all the time. I wanted to kind of do something. I had struggled enough."

Frisby played pickup basketball with guys playing professionally in Europe and found he wasn't getting embarrassed, so, what the heck, he put his name in for the 1996 NBA draft. Told that he should try out for the minor leagues, he realized he was making more money in the Army.

He said he's not in college just to play a sport. He always planned to go to back for a degree. With his wife working and his children ranging from high school to six months old, days start before 6 a.m. and keep going for 17 hours. A junior academically, Frisby has a 3.8 grade point average in broadcast journalism.

"When they say student-athlete, that's what I am," Frisby said. "I'm a student first, then an athlete."

He decided to try for football instead of basketball because these days, he said, a 6-foot-1, 188-pound guy fits in better as a wide receiver. He also found his military background helpful when got on the field for the first time, for the last four plays as South Carolina ran out the clock in a victory last month over Troy State.

"You're taught to do certain things in certain steps, or it could cost you your life," Frisby said. "It wasn't that serious, but I thought back to that and said, 'OK, this is what I need to do out here.' Everything else was blocked out."

His only disappointment was that Troy State's cornerback was playing off him. He ran toward the defender, he said, but decided he'd better not hit him. He'd arrived at the place he'd been thinking about forever, was in a spotlight like he'd never imagined, and didn't need it commemorated with a penalty flag.

Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

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