The Patriots head coach said “if you’ve got tight ends that can do the same things as your wide receivers, you’re just more flexible”. Bill Belichick talking about Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez? Nope, that was Ron Erhardt 32 years ago; Erhardt was talking about Russ Francis, who turns 59 today.
For those that never saw Francis play the first thing I would point out is that today’s game is entirely different than it was when he played. Therefore, don’t look at his stats and compare it to today’s players, because that’s an apples and oranges thing. I will point out that Francis made three consecutive Pro Bowls despite being on what was primarily a running team: the Pats ran on 63% of their plays, for 3,165 yards in the last of those three seasons. Francis did his part; he was a terrific blocker, though that doesn’t turn up on the stat sheets and all-time rankings.
Younger fans that like Gronk’s personality would have loved Francis. His family urged the Hawaiian native to spend time on a ranch in Oregon before his senior year in high school. Next thing you know he set the national high school record for the javelin in 1970 with a distance of over 259 feet – a record that would stand for 18 years – and nearly made the US Olympic team in that event. That in turn got him a scholarship to the University of Oregon – for the track team; he still wasn’t a football player yet. While there he did join the Ducks football team and performed well enough to be selected as the 16th overall pick of the 1975 draft – despite not playing his senior year when he was upset at his coach being fired.
Want more? He was an excellent baseball pitcher, drafted by the Kansas City Royals. He enjoyed hang gliding, parachuting, and was a licensed pilot at age 21. By that time Francis had already worked at a rodeo, dove off cliffs in Hawaai, wrestled sharks and wrestled professionally; as a young kid Andre the Giant would babysit him.
Francis quit the game of football after just six years and was being groomed by ABC to work Monday Night Football, back in the days when MNF was a big deal. He was working the Pro Bowl and interviewed Bill Walsh; Walsh convinced him to go back to playing football while still could. Francis signed with the 49ers and three years later was a Super Bowl champion.
Eventually Francis returned to the Patriots, but at age 35 he was nowhere near the player he was when he first played in Foxboro. However, for a few years Russ Francis and the Patriots brought a lot of excitement to the Patriots, and success their fans had never seen before.
Happy 59th birthday to Russ Francis, wherever you are.