Former ‘All-World’ NFL tight end Russ Francis still flying high

Former NFL tight end Russ Francis has accomplished quite a bit in his life thus far. But all he ever wanted to do was fly.

He’s done just that. And his football career empowered him to soar even higher.

Francis won a Super Bowl with Joe Montana and the 49ers after the 1984 season. Before that, he made three Pro Bowl teams as a New England Patriot. 49ers coach Bill Walsh convinced Francis to end a promising career in broadcasting — the tight end had retired early to pursue off-the-field interests. Namely, he had a passion for skydiving, surfing, motorcycles and aviation.

Although he lives in Wyoming, Francis regularly attends 49ers alumni weekend. He was in town for Week 2 of the NFL season to serve as co-host on “The Point After” with Mark Ibanez on KTVU Channel 2, and the “Mercedes Benz Sports Report,” a 49ers pregame show on the same station. He also found time to galavant around the Bay Area with Petaluma memorabilia maven and agent Rob Hemphill.

While his love of flight prompted his early retirement, it was also the reason Francis, 65, chose to play professional football in the first place.

“I wasn’t really thinking clearly because I had an addiction,” Francis said, intentionally misleading his audience. “The decision for going into football, a lot of it had to do with being able to pay for that addiction. That addiction was an addiction for airplanes.

“I thought ‘I’ve got to play football because they paid me enough money. So I really did play football so I could fly.”

Francis’ fondness for the air grew from an early infatuation with natural flight.

“When I was younger I used to draw birds,” Francis said. “Taking off, with their wings coming back and pushing, creating thrust, and then rotating up for lift. And when they come in they rotate the other way to stall, to tiptoe in. I was fascinated by that.”

His boyhood wonder was still intact when he attended the University of Oregon, where he was an accomplished decathlete and baseball player before taking up football. Francis walked eight miles from the center of campus to the Eugene Airport. He knew there was a flight school there, and he walked right in.

“Guys are in there smoking cigars, grey haired guys,” Francis recalled. “I said I didn’t have any money. And they said ‘you don’t need any money. We’ll take you up.’”

Francis was in the air for the first time on a Monday. On Friday of that week, he took his first solo flight.

The school’s owner, Milt Ruburg, took a liking to the then 21-year-old athlete. He co-signed on Francis’ first airplane purchase. Francis needed a larger aircraft to fit his 6-foot-6 frame.

When Ruburg passed away, Francis kept the school going.

“The name of the company is McKenzie Flying service. Same name — I stole it, in honor of Milt,” Francis said.

His love for being in the air led to a passion for skydiving. Francis has over 3,000 jumps under his belt.

“It’s like being a bird,” Francis said, emanating the satisfaction of a dream fulfilled.

Francis was selected in the first round of the NFL draft — a dream for many young athletes — in 1975, although he played just one full season of college football. His career with the Patriots included two playoff games to go with his Pro Bowl selections. He was regarded by some as the best tight end in the game when he retired for the first time at age 28.

By the time Francis announced he was leaving football on legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell’s “Sportbeat” show, the two had fostered a relationship while appearing on ABC Sports’ “Superstars” competition together. Cosell had seen enough to find Francis a spot at the network.

Francis called college football games with another broadcasting legend, Keith Jackson. He was also slated to work the 1984 Olympics, and Francis was in line for the coveted “Monday Night Football” job.

In fact, when Walsh recruited Francis, it was after the retired tight end had interviewed him at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii — the state in which Francis was raised. Walsh opened his pitch with the notion of a Super Bowl win. His 49ers had won the NFL title the year before. Francis said no. That didn’t interest him. Walsh took it a step further.

“He [Walsh] said, ‘You’ll never get a chance in your life to work with people who are as dedicated to getting better every day as these players are. Since you’re not interested in Super Bowl wins, how about being the best there is in the league, or the world, at your job? Who can say that?’

“I thought about it and said, damn, he’s right. These guys are the best at what they do. I handed over the Monday Night Football gig and the ‘84 Olympics,” said Francis, a member of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame.

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Francis played six seasons in San Francisco. He had five catches for 60 yards in the team’s Super Bowl XIX win. He would often fly to practice in a 1941 Stearman biplane during those days.

“I’d love to wave at the fans coming across the San Mateo Bridge. I’d get right down on the water in that flat section and the section that goes up. I’d go up with them. And they’re all stuck in traffic bumper to bumper,” Francis said.

The 49ers fans would wave back. Raiders fans gave Francis a less friendly hand gesture.

Francis may have been destined to fly, but he was also meant to play football — despite the fact he was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1974 and barely missed making the Olympic track team while at Oregon. He even dabbled in pro wrestling. His father, Ed Francis, was a wrestling promoter in Hawaii.

But at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds with a 4.5-second time in the 40-yard dash, he was an early prototype of the modern NFL tight end. Francis was dubbed “All-World” by Cosell in his first season that saw him make the NFL All-Rookie Team. More recently, he was listed on the Pac-12 All-Century squad.

And Francis still loves the 49ers. He’s excited about quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who has also been a Patriot and 49er, and defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, an Oregon alum. He has affection for the team’s fans, too.

“The fans were so knowledgeable. They knew what our plays were called,” Francis said.

He told a story about a Hawaiian family that had seats near the player entrance at Candlestick. They have similar seats at Levi’s Stadium. The family asked Francis to flash them the Hawaiian “shaka” hand gesture during an alumni weekend. In what must have been an exciting moment for the family, Francis gladly obliged.

“Well,” said Francis. “It was a thrill for me.”

It seems Francis’ entire life has been thrilling. He currently exhilarated about the 49ers’ 2018 season and his television appearances on KTVU. Also, there’s the prospect of doing business at Hemphill’s National Sports Memorabilia storefront at the Petaluma Premium Outlets in the future. Francis loves to visit the Bay Area, a place he still enjoys.

Above all, Francis was born to fly. He didn’t hesitate to chase his boyhood dreams, and his two main passions — aviation and football — went hand in hand.

“It was my therapy,” Francis said of flying. “And it really, truly worked.”

Author: Luke Straub

Luke is a freelance sports reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area. A Petaluma native, he's covered sports in his hometown since 2017, writing for the local Argus-Courier. Luke also covers the Oakland Raiders for Raiders Wire of USA Today Sports Media Group and hosts The Raider Larry Show, a Raiders podcast.

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