JAMESVILLE – Martin County native Frank Modlin is a game changer.
As a full-time professional Cornhole player, he is helping change the way people see the game and even the way they play it.
Modlin, who went from middle school teacher to Cornhole Pro, makes his living, as he says, “throwing a square bag into a round hole.” He is one of the top paid sponsored players in the Pro Series.
He is competing this weekend in the American Cornhole League’s (ACL) World Championships in Rock Hill, SC, the finals of which will air on the ESPN network Sunday, Aug. 7.
This past weekend he competed in the USA Cornhole League National Championships where he won first place men’s singles, and second in mixed-doubles, which was also in Rock Hill and televised on ESPN2.
“We won the highest event you can win in USA Cornhole, which is the USA National Championships,” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”
This is not his first Cornhole rodeo.
The ESPN broadcast this past weekend referred to Modlin as, “the winningest USA Cornhole player ever with five USA National Cornhole titles.”
He also won the Worlds in 2015 in doubles and finished in second place in doubles at last year’s ACL World’s.
Modlin, who is now 54, was first introduced to the sport in 2011, while camping on the Outer Banks.
“I joined in and got hooked immediately,” he said. “Of course, I got beat, which sparked my desire to get better.”
His wife, Brenda, and their three girls, then teenagers, (Brooke Speller, Kayla Vernelson and Logan Modlin) bought him a set of boards and bags for his birthday that year and he began the journey which led him to being recognized across the country for his talent.
In fact, Modlin’s backstory seems to be borrowed from the pages of a fairytale. He grew up in Jamesville and married a girl he first met in Kindergarten. They went through school together, but not as sweethearts.
“I liked her for the longest time. It took me a while to wear her down,” he said laughing.
Eventually, they went to the seventh grade dance together.
But didn’t really date again until the night of high school graduation.
“We’ve been together ever since,” he said. The couple has been married for 33 years.
Both worked with Martin County Schools before Cornhole eventually changed their lives.
Brenda taught at Jamesville High, (then) Williamston Middle, Bear Grass, eventually becoming Media Coordinator for Riverside Middle. She retired in 2020.
For years, Modlin juggled his duties of being a teacher and competing in weekend Cornhole events. In 2020, he realized he had to decide between the two.
Modlin knew he had to leave his day job as a Health and PE teacher at Riverside Middle if he was going to take his playing skills to the highest level possible.
“We travel at least 30 weekends out of the year. I was at a point I was going to either have to pull back on playing or step away from teaching. I miss teaching. I hated leaving — I love my kids,” he said.
“This is something I have a passion for, and I want to see how far I can take it. We [he and Brenda] now do this thing full-time.”
They have four grandchildren, two girls and two boys: Leighton Speller, 3, Everly Speller (1-month), Watson Vernelson, 8-months and Bella Gaylor, 6.
Soon after he became hooked, Modlin began playing in local tournaments, which led to regional tournaments. He then started winning state and national tournaments.
He saw that for many, the game was more than a recreational hobby.
“These guys took it seriously and they were competing for cash prizes,” he added.
Modlin is now one of those guys who takes it seriously. He competes as a Pro for the ACL and, a branch of the ACL — the USA Cornhole League.
He said being a part of the USA League is similar to how some NBA basketball players play for the USA (Olympic) basketball team.
Modlin has made the USA team for the past three years in a row.
“We are not in the Olympics yet, but the USA League and the ACL are tag-teaming to help this become an Olympic Sport,” he said. “There are a lot of boxes you have to check off. You have to have a certain number of other countries who participate in the sport.”
He hopes it could happen during his career.
But if not, “At least it will be there for the future of the younger guys who are playing,” he said.
Modlin said he can earn a living playing Cornhole because of his sponsors. Also, in 2019 he designed and patented a type of Cornhole bag called Game Changers, from which he earns royalties.
“We have a US patent on the bags. It is the only Cornhole bag that has a patent,” he added.
Wirecutter, the product research company owned by the New York Times rated his Cornhole bags as the best gear for Cornhole.
“After surveying the sport’s pros and testing out their favorites, we chose AllCornhole’s GameChanger Cornhole Bags and Tournament Series Cornhole Boards as the best setup for anyone who wants to push their game as far as it can go,” they stated.
His main sponsors are allcornhole.com, AAR Cornhole of NC, AAR Apparel and Game Changers Cornhole bags.
“Allcornhole, my sponsor out of Utah, actually produces and sells the bags for me” he said.
“One of the coolest things about this sport is that there are not a lot of limits, as far as the age or physical abilities of players. At 54, I am still able to compete at the highest level of the sport. But I might compete next to a teenager. If someone puts in enough time they can compete at higher levels,” he said.
He’s not able to practice as often as he used to.
“I’ve always heard it takes 10,000 hours to perfect something. I don’t know if I’ve put in 10,000 hours but I guarantee I’m not missing it by much. When I first started playing, I would practice about three hours a day. Of course, you can always make improvements, but at some point, it becomes a mental thing,” he added.
Modlin has had two hip replacements in the past couple of years, not related to playing the sport.
“I have avascular necrosis of the hips. It’s kind of strange – it cuts the blood supply off to your hip and it eventually dies,” he said.
“But I’ve still been able to compete at the pro-status. I had to take some time off for the surgery and rehab, but not much. I am almost three months out from my last surgery now, and I got my first national win back [this past weekend].”
He said his biggest fans are his family, especially Leighton, the 3-year-old grandson.
“They follow me religiously — no matter where I’m playing. Leighton loves, loves, loves to watch it on TV,” he said.
During COVID, televised exposure to the sport grew. When most other sports teams were benched, major sports networks were looking for content.
“We would live-feed our events — competing with other players virtually. We started doing virtual tournaments throughout the US and then, we were easily able to compete with players from other countries because we didn’t have the travel involved,” he added.
He feels like the sport is finally getting the recognition it deserves.
“Two or three years ago, we would get the strangest looks,” he said, when trying to explain what he did for a living. “We still get them now occasionally, but it has helped it has been so visible on the networks.”
The exposure has also led to him becoming more recognized.
“I have been on ESPN2, ESPN3, regular ESPN, CBS and CBS-sports and NBC-sports,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate, I’ve been in good positions in tournaments that have given me a lot of exposure. Now, instead of having to explain [what I do]I am beginning to be recognized for what I do.”
Modlin is grateful he and his wife have been able to do things “we would never have been able to do before,” he said.
After graduating from high school, Modlin attended Martin Community College and earned an electrical degree. Later, he received his degree in education from East Carolina University.
He taught at South Creek Middle the first 10 years of his 15-year teaching career. The last five years he was at Riverside Middle School.
“I taught Health and PE and Drivers Ed. I got to know a lot of the kids throughout the county, even if I didn’t teach them,” he said.
One of the highest compliments, he said, is receiving a [Facebook] friend request from a former student.
“I think it’s awesome that they think it’s pretty neat,” he said.
Some come up to him in grocery stores or restaurants and say, “Coach, I finally saw you on TV the other day.”
“Things like that are so cool. I get goosebumps thinking about it,” he added.
“It’s unbelievable how supportive everyone has been. When I’m at a tournament, I get so many messages and comments [on Facebook Live] from people, some I never even really knew. You never know who is watching,” he said.
He sometimes can’t believe how his life has changed.
“I certainly don’t deserve any of this. I am just decent at throwing a bag into a hole in a board,” he said.
“It’s pretty cool you can do something that connects you with so many people.”
For more information on this weekend’s ACL World Championships, visit iplaycornhole.com.