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.”

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Casa Grande football has another rough outing, loses to Maria Carrillo 41-7

Casa Grande fell to Maria Carrillo 41-7 Friday in another disappointing night at home. The loss dropped the Gauchos’ record to 0-4 before they hit the Vine Valley Athletic League circuit.

Turnovers and porous run defense did the Gauchos in, as Maria Carrillo had 262 yards rushing out of their misdirection-based offense. Casa Grande had five turnovers — including four interceptions. All of those miscues occurred after Casa pulled to within seven points of the Pumas in the second quarter.

Casa Grande went three and out in its first drive of the game, and Maria Carrillo answered with an excruciatingly long scoring march. They converted two fourth-down plays on the way to a six-yard touchdown run by running back Tyler Van Arden.

The Gauchos yielded another Van Arden score in the first quarter, this time a 20-yard run up the middle. The Pumas led 14-0 just 10 minutes into the game. But Casa Grande’s Dominic Mchale answered with a slick kickoff return that put his team at the Maria Carrillo 40-yard line.

Tough running by Alex Johnson and a first-down catch by wide receiver Nate Busse moved Casa Grande to the Pumas’ 15-yard line. Quarterback Miguel Robertson misfired on third and seven play, but he didn’t miss when coach Denis Brunk decided to go for it on fourth down. Mchale adjusted in the air to beat his defender in the right corner of the end zone for a touchdown.

Trailing just 14-7, Casa Grande stopped Maria Carrillo from scoring again after a long drive. Strong tackling by Jordan Gramajo, Aaron Krupinsky and Jack Green helped to complete a goal-line stand. The Gauchos had the ball again but at their own 1-yard line.

Casa had little trouble getting out from under the shadow of their own goalpost, thanks to a Robertson to Gramajo connection and a 16-yard run by Johnson. Momentum seemed to be shifting.

But then disaster struck the Gauchos. Puma lineman Jackson Petty batted a first down pass from Roberson high into the air and intercepted the ball. Maria Carrillo was in business once again, this time at the Gaucho 24-yard line.

Casa Grande’s defense forced a fourth-and-six try by the visitors, but Van Arden converted. Hard hitting defense by Cole Shimek and Gramajo couldn’t stop Puma QB K.C. Kelly from tossing a third down score on a rollout to the right. Maria Carrillo missed the extra point but led 20-7 with 4:16 left in the half.

Robertson led the Gauchos on another drive–fueled by Johnson and wide receiver Rashad Nixon–and almost closed the scoring gap. A missed connection to Mchale in the end zone and a sack by the Pumas ended the opportunity, however.

To make matters worse, Maria Carrillo connected on a 52-yard touchdown pass with mere seconds remaining in the first half. The Gauchos hit the locker room down 28-7.

But Casa Grande got a chance to put a dent in the Pumas lead to begin the third quarter after a fumble recovery by Jadon Bosarge.

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The Gauchos worked the ball down to Maria Carrillo’s 6-yard line but were pushed back by two consecutive QB sacks. Robertson ended up being intercepted in the end zone on a fourth and goal throw from the 15-yard line.

The Pumas needed just two rushing attempts to notch another touchdown, with Van Arden converting on a 67-yard jaunt. Casa trailed 34-7 with 6:48 left in the third quarter.

A try for a touchdown pass from 32-yards out by Robertson resulted in another interception in the end zone. The defense didn’t give up though. Tackles by Shimek, Logan Walsh, Carson Kerrigan and Zach Odetto forced a Puma punt, which was shanked.

Hard running by Matt Herrera helped push Casa to midfield. Robertson connected with Shimek to convert a fourth and long.

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The Gauchos drove all the way to the 6-yard line, but their hopes were dashed when Maria Carrillo intercepted the ball on a third-down play, taking it 94-yards for a touchdown. The play ended the scoring for both teams.

The Gauchos assembled on their field after the loss and took accountability for their 0-4 record. They know the majority of the season remains.

“Mostly [we were] just saying that it’s pretty much all on the players and that we just need to come together and figure it out,” Busse said.

They’ll get their next shot on September 14 in Casa Grande’s Vine Valley Athletic League home opener against Justin-Sienna of Napa.

*photo credits: Tony Campbell (campbellsportsphoto.smugmug)

Ex-Petaluma High coach Steve Ellison says new Ellison Field is ‘a jewel of a facility now’

Petaluma High School’s newly refurbished Ellison Field hosted its first football game since its extensive makeover, and before Friday’s game, there was one particularly interested observer.

It was Steve Ellison. Former head coach of the Trojans and the facility’s namesake.

He made his way to the new artificial turf, complete with end zones filled in with the school’s color, purple, with the look of a man who just landed on the moon. He had seen the place before but never like this.

Ellison eventually found Trojan coach Rick Krist. The two shared a word in the middle of the pristine playing surface.

“I said ‘I’m in awe.’ I mean, I’ve seen the field but I haven’t seen it with everybody here,” Ellison said. “I’m thrilled to see it.”

Ellison spent 31 seasons as Petaluma’s head man, compiling a 204-126-7 record according to John Jackson of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. His last season on the sidelines was 2009, when his team posted a 12-1 record, won the Sonoma County League championship and reached the North Coast Section semifinals. 

Almost a decade later, the field where Ellison made so many memories is not just a place the Trojans are proud to call home. It’s a facility the whole city, or at least the west side of town, can be proud of.

“It’s fantastic,” Ellison said. “It’s something that I always hoped we’d see someday. I think we’ve gone from a cozy facility to really, a jewel of a facility now. It’s beautiful. Everything about it. The field’s great, the whole surrounding area, it’s just fantastic. And I think it really speaks well for the Petaluma city schools, and Petaluma High School and Petaluma football, and all the other sports, lacrosse and soccer. I’m thrilled with it.”

Ellison has countless fond recollections of the old, natural grass field that would get markedly worse as the football season wore on. There was a reason for the renovation, after all. “They’re all great memories. Nothing changes it. Some of the great memories were probably because of the field and the way it was. You know the conditions weren’t perfect, but we never let it stop us,” Ellison said.

The Trojans couldn’t be stopped in the inaugural game at new Ellison Field either. They beat Terra Linda 21-7 behind two touchdowns from running back Garrett Freitas.

And with that, a new era of Petaluma High School football has begun — one that links the Trojans’ past with its present. Their home is no longer an old field with a new name. It’s a new field with the proper name. And those purple end zones really pop.

“I love this place,” Ellison said. “So now to see it dressed up, it’s really special.”

Steph Curry on his favorite Draymond story: ‘The times him and coach Kerr get into it’

Warriors guard Stephen Curry appeared on The Bill Simmons Podcast for an in-depth interview covering a wide array of topics, including the sometimes volatile forward Draymond Green.

Simmons asked the three-time NBA Champion and two-time MVP for his favorite story involving Draymond. Curry pointed to the creative friction between Green and Warriors coach Steve Kerr. According to Steph, the two ‘get into it’ during practice periodically.

“You’re inside practice, and you don’t know whose side to take. I guess they’re both right, or they’re both wrong,” Curry told Simmons.

He asked Curry what the two argue about.

“About a play call,” Curry said. “Or maybe something that coach Kerr has been thinking about for a couple games, about a tendency that we’ve been shading to and [Green’s] like ‘don’t over coach. We know what we’re doing.’ And coach is like, ‘well I know you know what you’re doing, but let me just help you along as I’m supposed to do and that’s what my job is to do, to point out things that could be important for us to win a championship.'”

The situation isn’t at all serious according to Curry, who sounds like he eats his favorite snack, popcorn, while the two go at it.

“The respect level between them two is at an all-time high, but they have their moments,” Curry told Simmons. “And it’s just amazing entertainment to watch.”

Curry didn’t mention Green’s emotional outburst toward Kerr during halftime of a 2016 game at Oklahoma City. Draymond was loud enough for ABC sideline reporter Lisa Salters to hear him from outside the locker room, and she reported the tirade, including some juicy details which can be found in this report by CBS Sports’ James Herbert.

The stress of that season has given way to two more Larry O’Brian Trophies, however, and Curry finds the dynamic between Kerr and Green entertaining. Green’s fire and competitiveness is one of the reasons Golden State is in the midst of a dynastic run, and winning’s the bottom line — for Curry, Green and of course Kerr as well.

Casa Grande falls flat in home opener, loses to Montgomery 35-7

Casa Grande couldn’t contain Montgomery’s passing attack early and failed to slow the Vikings’ run game throughout their home opener. The Gauchos allowed 28 points before their offense got on the board and lost 35-7 Friday.

“We’re not a good football team right now,” Gauchos coach Denis Brunk said. “It’s a great group of young men, but they have to figure out blocking and tackling. Until they figure that out, we’ll continue to lose.”

The Vikings amassed 499 yards in total offense, and 297 of those yards came on the ground. Kham Perkins had 137 yards on 13 carries, including a 76-yard touchdown romp in the third quarter.

Casa Grande finished with just 192 yards from scrimmage. The lone bright spot for the Gauchos, apart from a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from QB Jadon Bosarge to Cole Shimek, was wide receiver Dominic Mchale’s 70-yard kickoff return. The Gauchos failed to turn Mchale’s third quarter effort into points, however, and that wasn’t the only time the offense stalled in the red zone.

Casa Grande had the game’s first possession and went three and out, almost turning the ball over on a high snap to the punter. Montgomery went deep on their first third-down chance of the evening and connected. Quarterback Cole Hallin found B.J. Johnson for a 54-yard touchdown pass to take a 7-0 lead.

The Gauchos failed to move the ball their second drive of the game as well but forced a Montgomery punt on the ensuing possession. Faced with 4th and 2 near midfield, the Gauchos rolled the dice and came up empty as Bosarge was sacked. The Gauchos were 2-6 on fourth down on the evening.

Hallin tossed a 53-yard score to Devin Ramirez after the turnover on downs, and Casa Grande was in a 14-point hole in the first quarter. The Vikings relied on the running game the rest of the way to keep the Gauchos at a distance.

Still, Casa Grande had a chance to tighten the score near the end of the half, but they missed on two straight pass plays from the Montgomery 11-yard line. The drive was helped along by Viking miscues — they had 14 penalties for 115 yards.

More effective running by the Vikings culminated in a one-yard touchdown tote by Hallin in the third quarter, setting up Mchale’s return to Montgomery’s 17-yard line. Once again, the Gauchos missed connections on two pass plays to end their red zone opportunity. The score still sat at 21-0.

But a nice pass-break-up by Casa Grande’s Zac Register forced another Viking punt. The Gauchos drove to the Montgomery 12-yard line, aided by tough running from Julian Gaona and more penalties on the visitors. The Gauchos’ offense stalled, and Brunk opted this time for a field goal try by Ian McKissick. The 29-yard attempt fell just short.

Practical hopes for Gauchos fans came to an end as the third quarter buzzer sounded — Perkins ran 76 yards for a touchdown as time expired. It was 3rd and 6 play for the Vikings, and Casa Grande blitzed right by the runner and couldn’t catch up until he was in the end zone.

The Gauchos didn’t give up though and scored after a 65-yard drive. Bosarge evaded the defense for a new set of downs on a 3rd and 11 play and finished the march with his nine-yard pass to Shimek.

Down 28-7 with 9:49 left to play, the Gauchos defense allowed another score on a 33-yard run by Montgomery running back Jevon Heard, sealing their fate.

“The defense, we couldn’t hold the edge. Offense, we couldn’t catch footballs. We couldn’t do our assignments on run blocks. We were just a mess,” Brunk said. “On both sides of the ball.”

The Gauchos got off to a 0-6 start a season ago, and Brunk told his team that’s where they’re headed unless they renew their focus. “I challenged them. I said ‘do you want to go 0-10?’ If you want to win some football games, let’s make some changes.”

Changes start in practice, and Brunk plans on teaching his pupils some of the basics.

“Football knowledge,” Brunk said.” [We’ll] try to teach kids more football knowledge. We lack that right now.”

Petaluma High School football’s Garrett Freitas vaults Trojans past Montgomery, again

Freitas intercepted Montgomery twice in the end zone and provided the game’s turning point — a 61-yard touchdown run in the third quarter of Petaluma’s 21-7 win

Petaluma High School beat Montgomery of Santa Rosa to open its football season for the second year in a row, and just like last time, Petaluma’s Garrett Freitas stole the show.

He did so in a completely different way, however.

He intercepted Montgomery twice in the end zone and provided the game’s turning point — a 61-yard touchdown run in the third quarter of Petaluma’s 21-7 win.

Freitas scored two touchdowns on kick returns a season ago to lift his team to a 55-42 win over the Vikings. He said this year’s triumph had its own feel.

“Very different. I feel like it was a lot more intense, emotions were a little higher. It felt hard-hitting. They were after us for sure, they wanted last year’s game back,” Freitas said.

During the first half of play, it appeared Montgomery would get its revenge. But the Trojans were able to regroup, in large part because of Freitas’ interception in the end zone late in the second quarter. The play left Petaluma down just seven points, and halftime adjustments proved valuable.

“The whole first half, they were blitzing the “A” gaps,” Freitas said. “After we picked that up at halftime, we made the adjustment and [the] outside was wide open,” Freitas said.

Freitas’ 61-yard jaunt came on a 3rd-and-1 toss play, and it electrified the Trojan sideline.

“That got us pumped up, that was amazing,” lineman Nick Siembieda said. “The o-line saw that and we were like ‘I think we can do this the whole game.’”

Petaluma scored two more times — both on run plays in goal-to-go situations. Freitas closed the door on Montgomery’s last scoring chance with another interception in the fourth quarter.

“I went up to press [the wide receiver], he said some words to me, like, ‘you don’t want to do this’ so I backed up off of him. One of the kids on the [Montgomery] sideline yelled, ‘go up and get it,’” said Freitas, who actually did go up and get it. His back landed in the end zone for a touchback, all but ending the Vikings’ hopes.

Freitas appears improved on defense, but last season’s Sonoma County League Back of the Year’s scintillating running style acts as a catalyst for his team.

“Great feeling. So much energy,” Freitas said of his score. “I love it, not because of myself, but it gets the whole team going. Everyone picks up the momentum from that and it just turns the game around.”

Freitas provided the lift his team needed in their season opener once again. The only difference was how he did it. The 2018 campaign is just underway, and Trojan fans must be waiting to see what he does next.

Mark Davis a lot like Al, according to Raiders greats

Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis is becoming more like his late father, Al Davis, according to two Raiders legends with close ties to the organization.

Cliff Branch, a four-time All-Pro for the Raiders, and Hall of Famer Willie Brown talked about Davis from National Sports Memorabilia in Petaluma, CA.

“He’s just like Al,” Branch said. “Smart. Brilliant. He knows the game, and he knows that he needs to be a little more hands-on. That’s going to be the next step for him.”

Mark Davis, who has controlled the Raiders since 2011, guided his franchise to a 12-4 record in 2016, but the Raiders fell apart this season after starting 2-0. Their record sits at 6-9 after losing to the Eagles on Christmas night.

Jack Del Rio may be coaching to save his job, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk.  Offensive coordinator Todd Downing will almost surely be fired, according to the same report.

“It’s been really hard on [Davis] because we were expecting to get back to the playoffs,” Branch said.

Branch does community and public relations for the Raiders and sometimes travels on the team plane. Brown, according to the Raiders’ website,  works for Oakland’s squad development department.

“He’s getting tougher, and meaner,” Brown said, with a chuckle, of Davis. “He’s having fun you know? It’s not as good when you’re losing of course, but he’ll get it all together.”

Davis has already made Oakland’s dreadful years that followed its Super Bowl XXXVII loss a distant memory.

“The era of bad drafts, and bad coaches,” Branch recalled. “[Mark Davis] brought in Jack, Jack has turned this thing around.”

The Raiders’ performance towards the end of the season, however, may be the deciding factor when it comes to Del Rio’s future in Oakland. Mark Davis, much like his late father, wants to win. And he’d rather not wait.

“His goal is to try and win a championship in Oakland before we go to Las Vegas,” said Branch, who earned three Super Bowl rings playing for Al Davis. “I have a lot of respect for Mark, and I think he’s doing a hell of a job.”