The best linebacker you've never heard of is now even better than you didn't realize. Baylor senior James Francis bats down passes as if he were King Kong swatting biplanes. He rushes the passer like a phantom or a freight train—it depends on whom he's up against. He shadows receivers like a cornerback. And he wears a lot of new shirts, because his old ones are too tight.
That's because Francis added 20 pounds of muscle in the off-season with a five-times-a-week, two-hour weightlifting regimen. He now stands 6'4", weighs 245, and runs the 40 in 4.5 seconds, which, in the opinion of some, should require him to register his body with the Texas division of motor vehicles. This season Francis will move from weakside to strongside linebacker, where he will enjoy more freedom to pillage and roam.
Though Francis is probably the best at his position and a certain first-round NFL draft pick next spring, every so often this friendly yet reserved young man can't resist a melancholy look back, waxing nostalgic for what might have been. For two years, he laced on hightops for the Bears' basketball team, becoming the first Baylor athlete to letter in both sports since Del Shofner, the former NFL great—whom Francis does not know from Del Shannon—did it 35 years ago.
Francis is given to fits of doubt, wondering whether he might have made it in the NBA. "I think if I'd concentrated strictly on basketball, I could have really done something," he says. If so, he would have done it in Europe or in the World Basketball League, a.k.a. the under-6'5" league, considering today's sluggish NBA market for 6'5" power forwards.
September 3, 1989
Francis's newfound strength is evident in his game. Basketball, that is. On a July evening in the stuffy confines of a YMCA gym in Waco, Texas, he and his Y-league summer basketball teammates, the Boys Club, were having trouble pulling away from a much less talented squad of Baylor law students. It was clear that they were nascent lawyers by the frequency with which they stopped play to bicker over calls, the score, the timekeeping and other perceived injustices.
Francis's weight training was most evident in his shooting. His jumpers clanged off the rim at acute angles; he missed several free throws. On a spin move to the hoop, he turned into a triple team, scattering law students like duckpins. There was no foul call. The lawyers-to-be began to harangue the referee, and by the end of the game, most of the calls were going against the lawyers. Big surprise there. They lost by nine.
Afterward, despite his cinder-block-like field goal attempts, Francis seemed wounded by suggestions that he is anything but a deadly marksman. "I usually have a real nice jump shot," he said. That may be true—he averaged 24 points a game in his senior season at La Marque (Texas) High. But as Baylor's sixth man for two seasons, he never scored more than eight points.
"In basketball, one man can dominate a game," he says. "In football, if you don't have 11 guys clicking, you're not going to win."
If Francis thinks one man can't dominate a football game, he should keep a closer eye on himself in the Bears' video sessions. Last season, as a "Will." or weakside linebacker, playing at a whippetlike 225 pounds, he made 82 tackles, most of them after sprinting 30 yards from the far hash mark. Quite sensibly, teams tend to run away from Francis.
Francis also had eight sacks in '88. "There is no offensive tackle fast enough to get back on him," says Baylor head coach Grant Teaff. "A lot of guys can accelerate upfield fast, but James seems to be able to move laterally at full speed. Other guys get tangled up with the blocker. James doesn't mess with the blocker." If he suspects the blocker is expecting a dodge, though, Francis runs the blocker over.
To complete the resume, Francis deflected eight passes, blocked a kick and in one especially balletic display, recovered an onside kick in the final minutes of the Houston game, which bought the offense a chance to win it (the Bears eventually lost 27-24).
Life on the strong side will be different. Francis's days of hurdling and outrunning blockers are at an end. He will hit or be hit; using his new poundage, he must shed the blocks of mammoth offensive linemen. It was in this department, under the patient instruction of linebacker coach John Goodner, that Francis made the most progress this spring.
"He taught me how to read linemen." says Francis. "Those big guys get tired fast. They aren't wasting their energy trying to fake you out. They give it away. For a pass, they get back on their heels. If it's a run, they're leaning forward, and their fingernails turn white. Sometimes they just look right at who they're going to block."
"We used to just run away from him," says Arkansas offensive line coach Larry Beckman of Francis. "Now they can put him on the tight end and use him as a cover guy, or send him on the pass rush and create a mismatch with some poor running back."
When asked to compare Francis with Baylor linebacking legend Mike Singletary, who broke 12 helmets during his college career and is now an All-Pro with the Chicago Bears, Teaff says. "Mike was special. But James has more athletic ability than any player I've ever coached, and you've got to put your best athlete at linebacker. He'd better be able to take on tackles and stuff the run. And he also better be able to cover backs out of the backfield. If he can't, they'll throw to that guy all day, and you'll get killed."
That is why Francis is at linebacker; but as one regards the peeling, dingy 39-year-old Baylor Stadium on a soggy 90° day in Waco, the question arises: Why is Francis at Baylor? Certainly he could have found some place more scenic—or at least cooler. A big part of the answer is Teaff, now in his 17th season as head coach at the Baptist school, and one of the game's rare gentlemen. Teaff and his assistants seem to genuinely care for the young men they recruit. "They talk to you, call you up, or you can call them up," says Francis. "They're your friends. I hear it's not like that everywhere else."
So Baylor hasn't made anyone's list of top 10 gorgeous campuses. For Francis, accustomed to the oil refineries, smokestacks and grime of La Marque, which is just north of Galveston on the Gulf Coast, Waco seemed like Waikiki. And his older brother Ron, now a Dallas Cowboy corner-back, was there.
That Francis wanted to escape La Marque is understandable. "It's not that big." he says, "but everything's out there—crack, you name it. You've got to watch who you hang out with." Yet, considering the loving atmosphere in which he was raised, it's equally understandable that Francis wanted to stay fairly close to home. At Baylor, a 3½-hour drive away, he could do both.
James was in the fourth grade when his mother, Mary, died of cancer. "She didn't smoke or drink, but it got her," he says. Rather than leave James and his three siblings with their father, who had divorced their mother, their aunt Maggie Frank took the children in. James can boast of a truly distinguished career if he becomes half the hero his 48-year-old aunt is. When she adopted her late sister's children, Maggie was separated from her husband and raising five kids of her own. Self-pity was forbidden in her home. "Anytime you think you got it bad," she told the children, "look around. There's always someone worse off."
After working from eight to four as a laundry aide at a hospital, Maggie would come home for half an hour to greet her legion of dependents as they trickled in from school, then head off for her second job—driving a delivery truck until 10 at night. The hospital gave her weekends off, but she drove the truck seven days.
The household of 10 shared three bedrooms. "Boys in one room, girls in another and Aunt Maggie in the third." recalls James. No one was reminded of the Brady Bunch. Time with the children was scarce, so on Saturday mornings. Maggie would wake them all for a weekly family council. She opened each session with the pronouncement: "Whatever you got to say, now's the time to say it." If they had any complaints, requests, news, this was the time to sound off.
"They ran my legs off, but I never had a minute's trouble with any of them," Maggie says now. "They didn't come home drunk, didn't get with the wrong crowd. I'd lock the doors at 10:30 every night. If they weren't in, they slept outside. I'd lock the windows, too."
One night nine years ago, before they fell asleep, Ron said something memorable to his younger brother. James remembers that Ron vowed to "make it" in the NFL, so that he could make his aunt's life easier. But the summer after his freshman year at Baylor, he told his siblings that he would not go back to school because the academic load was getting him down. And while he didn't dare inform Aunt Maggie of his decision, she got wind of it, anyway. "Let me tell you something," she said to him. "You are going back if I have to borrow the money to send you!"
Ron did return, and three years later he was the Cowboys' second-round pick. Last January Ron moved Maggie into a five-bedroom house in Texas City. He had made good on his promise.
Upon arriving at Baylor in 1986, James was not happy to be labeled "Ron Francis's little brother." For one thing, James had been taller than Ron—who is 5'9"—since the seventh grade. And growing up in a 10-person household had taught him to value his identity. "Of course I'm proud of Ron." he says. "But I just felt like. Hey, I'm my own person, recognize me for what I do."
From the outset it was hard not to, though Francis at first appeared to be less than a gleaming linebacking prospect. As a 205-pounder who had played fullback, wide receiver and defensive end in high school, he had little knowledge of the linebacking position and even less of the upper-body strength required to survive at it. Yet midway through his freshman season, he found himself splitting time with the starter, a senior.
After helping the Bears hold Colorado to 83 rushing yards in a 21-9 Blue-bonnet Bowl victory. Francis took five days of rest, then reported to basketball practice. By the end of the season, which the Bears completed with a first-round NIT loss to the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, he was sixth man. With hoop season over at last, Teaff graciously granted Francis a week off before requesting his presence at spring practice.
"The next year I did it all over again," says Francis. This time the basketball team made the 1988 NCAA tournament, only to be eliminated in the first round by Memphis State.
Francis decided not to play basketball his junior year in order to spend more time pumping iron, and to "be a college student for the first time in three years. I could come home from class and get my legs out from under me." It also allowed him more time to eat, which he does quite well. Life with eight brothers and sisters, he says, taught him to "eat a large amount in a short time."
Barring something unforeseen, like an impetuous decision to run off and join the World Basketball League. James will soon join Ron in the NFL. Then it should only be a matter of time before Ron finds himself being introduced as "James Francis's big brother."