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Blessing in disguise: career-ending injury didn't stop BYU athlete

Published: Friday, Aug. 28 2015 9:31 p.m. MDT

Former BYU football and basketball player and one of the first blacks to serve a mission, Danny Frazier broke his neck in a football game. He went on to become a lawyer. His son Jameson plays for BYU now. Danny poses Monday, Aug. 29, 2011 for photos in his office for a profile story. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Former BYU football and basketball player and one of the first blacks to serve a mission, Danny Frazier broke his neck in a football game. He went on to become a lawyer. His son Jameson plays for BYU now. Danny poses Monday, Aug. 29, 2011 for photos in his office for a profile story. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

SOUTH JORAN —The first thing you notice about Danny Frazier is that he fills a room. He is 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, with wide shoulders and a flat stomach. At 52, he looks like he could still line up for BYU's defense, if not the Pittsburgh Steelers. Then there is his booming laugh, which punctuates every other sentence and is so loud that it used to scare his grandchildren until they realized he is a warm, engaging man who tends to draw people in.

"It's hard to miss him because he's so tall and so loud," says his son Jameson. "You can hear him across the room. He's always been loud, warm and loving."

Frazier is an attorney with his own private practice — Frazier Law Firm — specializing in criminal defense. But when he is shopping or out in public, here come the questions that come naturally when you are big and black.

Jameson Frazier works out in a spin move drill during BYU football practice. He plans to follow his dad into law. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Jameson Frazier works out in a spin move drill during BYU football practice. He plans to follow his dad into law. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

"Where did you play football/basketball?"

"I never get mistaken for a lawyer," he says, laughing again."

He played football and basketball at BYU, and the story ends there, although if circumstances had been different, he might have gone much further.

He seemed destined for gridiron greatness when he took the field at starting outside linebacker for BYU as a sophomore, going up against national powerhouse Texas A&M. A lanky and ripped 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, he was a rare combination of speed, athleticism and size. With his instinct for the ball, could the NFL be far behind? He was such an all-around athlete that he played basketball for BYU in 1977, earning mop-up duty at power forward as a freshman (he and Keith Rice were the first blacks to play basketball for the Cougars).

"Athletically, he had it all," says former BYU head coach LaVell Edwards. "He looked like he had tremendous potential as a football player."

Former BYU football and basketball player and one of the first blacks to serve a mission, Danny Frazier broke his neck in a football game. He went on to become a lawyer. His son Jameson plays for BYU now. Danny poses Monday, Aug. 29, 2011 for photos in his office for a profile story. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Former BYU football and basketball player and one of the first blacks to serve a mission, Danny Frazier broke his neck in a football game. He went on to become a lawyer. His son Jameson plays for BYU now. Danny poses Monday, Aug. 29, 2011 for photos in his office for a profile story. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

And then it was finished.

He broke his neck against A&M and that was that. He will tell you today that it was a blessing in disguise. The injury launched the rest of his life. He became one of the early black missionaries of the LDS Church after the ban against blacks holding the priesthood was lifted in 1978; he went to law school; he married; he started a law firm; he raised a family.

Jameson, the second child, is co-captain of the 2011 BYU football team. At 6-21/2 , 230 pounds, he plays outside linebacker, like the old man. A senior and former walk-on, he cracked the starting lineup last year, although his season was interrupted by injuries. After following his father's footsteps to BYU and to outside linebacker and on a mission, he plans to attend law school, as well.

"Yeah, I hear it all the time — people ask me, 'Are you Danny Frazier's kid?'" says Jameson. "They remember my dad. They tell me what a great guy he was and that he was a freak athlete who was amazing to watch."

Former BYU football and basketball player and one of the first blacks to serve a mission, Danny Frazier broke his neck in a football game. He went on to become a lawyer. His son Jameson plays for BYU now. Danny poses Monday, Aug. 29, 2011 for photos in his office for a profile story. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Former BYU football and basketball player and one of the first blacks to serve a mission, Danny Frazier broke his neck in a football game. He went on to become a lawyer. His son Jameson plays for BYU now. Danny poses Monday, Aug. 29, 2011 for photos in his office for a profile story. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

Danny Frazier, one of four children raised by a divorced single mother in Glendale, Ariz., joined the LDS Church in 1974. The Mormon missionaries knocked on the door, Frazier's mother invited them in, and thus began a new life. Danny, 15 at the time, was baptized along with the rest of the family.

"Most of my friends were black," he says. "I had to sneak to seminary. I didn't want our friends to know we were Mormon. I wasn't very forthcoming about that at the time."

Things were simpler on the athletic field. Frazier was recruited by all of the Utah schools, along with Nevada-Las Vegas and Colorado State. Some schools promised to let him play both basketball and football. He chose BYU.

"My mom chose BYU," says Frazier, followed by one of those booming laughs. "She fell in love with LaVell Edwards and (assistant coach) Norm Chow."

Former BYU football and basketball player and one of the first blacks to serve a mission, Danny Frazier broke his neck in a football game. He went on to become a lawyer. His son Jameson plays for BYU now. Danny poses Monday, Aug. 29, 2011 for photos in his office for a profile story. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Former BYU football and basketball player and one of the first blacks to serve a mission, Danny Frazier broke his neck in a football game. He went on to become a lawyer. His son Jameson plays for BYU now. Danny poses Monday, Aug. 29, 2011 for photos in his office for a profile story. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

His mother wasn't troubled by the church's restriction against blacks holding the priesthood, or about sending him to a predominantly white church school. "I've got to give my mom all the credit there," he says. "She said this is right. It wasn't easy, even at BYU. There were a lot of students who let me know where I stood. It was just the attitude of the times and the LDS culture at that point. There had been one way of doing things for a long time."

Frazier was equipped to deal with such challenges. Edwards was not only struck by the kid's athleticism, but by his engaging personality, as well. "He was very friendly and very well-liked," says the legendary coach. "He went out of his way to meet and talk to people. Not in a phony way, but a real genuine way. I remember that smile. He was like Magic Johnson that way. He had success written all over him, not just in athletics, but in anything."

Lawyer Danny Frazier was one of the first blacks to serve an LDS mission. He broke his neck as a BYU football player. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Lawyer Danny Frazier was one of the first blacks to serve an LDS mission. He broke his neck as a BYU football player. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

Frazier was everything the Cougars hoped he would be when he stepped onto the field, and he saw playing time as a redshirt freshman in 1977. When he took the field as a starter a year later, he appeared to be headed for stardom. That promise was dashed on a single play.

"They ran a draw play, and I was chasing down the running back," he recalls. "The other linebacker on the strong side, Glen Redd, and I met the ball carrier at the same time. I guess the running back got lower than we did, because Glen and I smashed head-on pretty much. I had dropped my head. I popped vertebrae. I felt it."

He was down on the field for a couple of minutes, but felt no numbness and was able to walk off the field. One of the doctors on the sideline was a neurosurgeon; he quizzed Frazier about his symptoms. Frazier complained about pain between his shoulders and was taken to the hospital, where X-rays revealed fractured vertebrae. He underwent a surgical procedure a few days later in which doctors removed bone from his hip and used it to replace the damaged bone in his neck. He was told he might be able to play football the following season.

Former BYU football and basketball player and one of the first blacks to serve a mission, Danny Frazier broke his neck in a football game. He went on to become a lawyer. His son Jameson plays for BYU now. Danny poses Monday, Aug. 29, 2011 for photos in his office for a profile story. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Former BYU football and basketball player and one of the first blacks to serve a mission, Danny Frazier broke his neck in a football game. He went on to become a lawyer. His son Jameson plays for BYU now. Danny poses Monday, Aug. 29, 2011 for photos in his office for a profile story. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

Frazier left on a mission at the end of the school year instead, believing he would play football again. When he returned two years later he reported to the team in the spring and began preparing for a return to the game. "They were telling me they could rig up a helmet and do things to help," says Frazier. Then one day Edwards took him aside. "You're done with football," he told him. "You don't want to do this. Get on with your life."

As Frazier recalls, "Who's going to argue with LaVell Edwards?"

He tried to play basketball again at BYU, but there were no spots open on the roster for him. One of the BYU assistant coaches suggested that he play for BYU-Hawaii. "It took all of about two minutes to convince me," he says. After sitting out a redshirt year, he played two seasons for the Seasiders, starting as a senior. A self-described late-bloomer, he continued to grow until he was 25, adding more than an inch and eventually 40 solid pounds to his frame, which certainly would have served him well in football.

Frazier in 1970s (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News, Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Frazier in 1970s (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News, Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

After graduating with a degree in accounting in 1986, Frazier was accepted into BYU's law school. He has worked as a criminal defense attorney for 21 years.

"It was the closest thing I could find to sports," he says.

Looking back now, he calls the neck injury "the best thing that ever happened to me. I say that mostly because of the mission. If I hadn't gotten hurt, I wouldn't have served a mission. Here's the deal, man. I played football from junior high all the way until I got hurt, and I was good at it, but I didn't know how to do anything else. All I did was work out. I didn't think I could do anything else. I really believe I'd be in a world of hurt if I hadn't gotten hurt. I got into academics. I learned the importance of education. I moved on with life. I actually enjoyed it more. I had to change my life. Reality sets in sooner or later."

His son Jameson notes that his father didn't discuss regrets about his football career when he discussed his life with his children. "He mainly focused on his mission and how much he loved it," says Jameson. "It was never, 'Oh, man, I wish I hadn't gotten hurt.' It was about his mission and how he came back and did well in school and married my mom. He reminds me all the time that if he hadn't gotten hurt, I probably wouldn't be here. He probably would not have gone on a mission and he would have played in the NFL and never met my mom."

Frazier served his mission on the tough streets of Oakland, Calif. There were a few other black missionaries in the field at the time, but Frazier's mission companions were white. He must have been conspicuous on the street, given his size, manner of dress, and his white sidekick. "We went into some harsh areas," he says. "We had to rely on the spirit to avoid issues. We never had a physical confrontation. We were in some places where people wondered what we were doing there."

He met his future wife, Joy Hobbs, a white woman from Canada who was living in Utah, before his mission, but there was no immediate spark. After Frazier returned from his mission, they reconnected at a fireside in which he was the speaker. They dated for 10 days and then eloped.

"Her parents were not happy," he says. "It's cool now, 28 years later." This is followed by the boisterous laugh again.

A year later Danny and Joy were married in the LDS Laie, Hawaii, Temple.

How did her parents feel about the mixed marriage? "The issue was more with my mom than with my wife's parents," he says. "They were more upset that we eloped. She didn't tell her mom and dad we had eloped until three or four days later."

Their four children — three sons and a daughter — are all tall and athletic, but Jameson is the only one who competed at the Division I level, and that required Rudy-like persistence on his part. After a quiet prep career as a wide receiver at Alta High, he tried to play the same position as a walk-on at BYU only to be cut. Following his church mission to Montreal, he walked on again at BYU in the fall of 2007, this time as a safety, but didn't make the roster. That meant all he could do with the team was lift weights every day at 6 a.m.

He got few reps in spring ball and again failed to make the list of 105 players who could compete in fall practice. But a few days before camp opened the Cougars offered him a spot as a receiver on the scout team. The following spring, he was moved to outside linebacker and found a home. In 2010, he earned a starting job.

Says Danny, "One time he called and said, 'I'm not sure I'm on the team.' This happened several times. At first we were freaked out about it. After a while we just laughed. It worked out."

For that matter, it has all worked out for Frazier. The career, the mission, the family. He has three grandchildren. They didn't know what to make of him at first. "I'm kind of loud," he says. "It's startling at first. They get used to it. They don't even flinch anymore."

He has continued to stay in shape over the years. Says Jameson, "I definitely wouldn't take him on. My two brothers and I have taken him on for years, trying to wrestle him to the ground. He could take all three of us easily all the way through high school. Easily! It's a little easier for us now because we figured out how to get him from different angles so he's a little outmatched."

Looking back, Danny says, "I wanted to do what I'm doing now. I chase my grandkids around the house and we go for walks. I'm teaching my granddaughter to ride a bike. This is what it's about. This is what I wanted to do."

Give the final word to Edwards, his old coach: "He had all the athleticism to be a great football player; the accident was tragic that way. But he didn't use that as a crutch. He moved on. A lot of people would have been bitter and let it ruin their lives. Danny never thought that way. He found other challenges. The guy was one of the real choice people you ever work with because of his attributes. Athletically, he had it all, but equally, and maybe even more, was his outlook on life and the type of person he is."

email: drob@desnews.com

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