It has been said that it is not the size of the dog in the fight that counts; it’s the size of the fight in the dog. By that standard, former Jesuit standout Frank Massa was a smallish but particularly tenacious beast of a player both for the Blue Jays and later at Memphis State, in whose sports hall of fame he has been enshrined.
The 78-year-old Massa — who scored three touchdowns for Jesuit in its 47-13 rout of Holy Cross in 1953 in New Orleans’ biggest prep rivalry, and was a key member of the school’s state championship team that season — will be honored as the Jays’ “Legend of the Game” during Friday’s 93rd edition of the classic series in Tad Gormley Stadium.
Massa’s counterpart for Holy Cross is Billy Truax, 71, who was 6-foot-5 and nearly 240 pounds during a legendary high school career in which he physically dominated opponents with size and strength as well as skill. It will seem a Mutt-and-Jeff situation with Truax standing next to Massa, whose program measurements for that 1953 contest listed him at 5-8 and 141 pounds.
But Massa said he packed a bit more heft than that. He certainly played like it that memorable Sunday afternoon in the since-renamed City Park Stadium, scoring on a 32-yard interception return and on runs of 35 and 37 yards, as well as on a point-after-touchdown.
“I was actually about 155 pounds,” Massa said. “The story that listed me at 141, that wasn’t right. I was bigger than that, but not by very much.”
Massa clearly was used to being a good thing in a small package. He was the best player, at just 100 pounds or so, as a 13-year-old for a NORD all-star team, the New Orleans Fleas, that won a national championship bantam football game against a squad from Knoxville, Tennessee, the year before he entered Jesuit.
“Mayor (Chep) Morrison game me my trophy, which I still have,” Massa said. “My little chest was popping out that day.”
Undersized though Massa might have been, Jesuit’s renowned coach, Gernon Brown, wanted Massa for his football team, along with the just-as-small Sidney Gelpi, another key member of the 1953 powerhouse that finished 12-1 and beat Byrd 7-6 in the state championship game.
“Frank and I are about the same height, although he probably was a little heavier than me,” recalled Gelpi, who has remained a close friend of Massa’s through all these years. “I was listed on the roster at, like, 125 pounds when I was a senior. We were both small guys when we came in as freshmen, so the coaches sort of paired us up.
“But Frank played bigger than his height and weight. He had a lot of heart. Just a real tough guy.”
Massa recalled that Jesuit was coming off its only loss of that ’53 season, 7-6 against Pensacola (Florida) High, a game in which the Blue Jays felt they were victimized by a snafu over the amount of time remaining.
“We outplayed those guys up and down the field, and we were on their 2-yard line when the game ended,” he said. “The stadium clock had broken, and they were keeping the time down on the field. We were told we had 15 seconds left. We were going to run one more play, and if we didn’t score, I was going to kick a field goal. But when we broke the huddle, they told us the game was over.”
It was with a chip on their shoulders that the Jays went into the Holy Cross contest the following week.
“We wanted to show the people what we really were,” Massa said. “We wanted to make a statement that day and, fortunately, I played really well. We all did.”
Did they ever. Jesuit — in its first season under coach Eddie Toribio, who had succeeded the retired Brown — scored on the opening kickoff, a 90-yard return by Mickey La Nasa. And by the time the first quarter was over, the Jays were up 28-0.
Massa’s size, or lack of it, apparently scared off recruiters from LSU and Tulane. He went on to have two successful seasons at Perkinston Junior College in Mississippi. After one of his games, an LSU scout got around to extending the scholarship offer he had hoped to get a couple of years earlier.
“He said, ‘We like you, Frank, but we have a guy named Jimmy Taylor coming in, and he’s probably going to be our first-stringer. So you’d be playing behind him,’” Massa said. “I didn’t want to be a backup; I felt I was good enough to be a starter somewhere else.”
At Memphis State (now the University of Memphis), Massa played fullback and linebacker — he was listed at 170 pounds, but he insists he was closer to 185 — and as a senior in 1958 served as a co-captain, was voted team MVP and averaged 5.3 yards per carry while finishing as the Tigers second-leading tackler.
His football career continued as a second lieutenant with the Marines, for whom he played with the base team at Quantico, but he was advised to quit the sport after suffering a second concussion — he also had suffered one while at Memphis — in a game against the team from Camp LeJeune.