October 2, 2023
RIP, Russ Francis.

Russ was on Oregon's freshman team in 1971, my father's final season as the Ducks' head coach. I believe that was the final season freshmen weren't eligible for NCAA varsity football. His freshman squad teammates included future New York Giants great George Martin and eventual Atlanta Falcons, Hawaii and SMU head coach June Jones. Other quarterbacks in the program at the time were Dan Fouts and Norv Turner.

Here's the weird part, retold with admittedly foggy memory about the specifics. 

Russ had moved during high school from Hawaii and enrolled at Pleasant Hill High, just outside Eugene. His father, Gentleman Ed Francis, a popular professional wrestler, bought a ranch in the Pleasant Hill area. Russ immediately drew notice as one of the top all-around athletes in the country, setting a national high school record in the javelin. My father's staff successfully recruited him to play football for the Ducks, and he was billed as a QB-TE on the 1971 frosh roster. He also was expected to compete for the Ducks' powerhouse track and field program.

Back a step: In the 1970 and '71 baseball seasons, I worked part-time at Eugene's Civic Stadium, as a jack-of-all-trades type for the Pacific Coast League Eugene Emeralds. (Details.)  I wedged in as much time as I could at Civic when the Emeralds were home as I also played school ball (Spencer Butte Junior High, then South Eugene High) in the springs and State Junior programs in the summers. It helped that Civic Stadium was across the street from the high school. 

My task one day before regular batting practice in 1971 was to throw BP to a local high school senior who had piqued the interest of the Emeralds' parent club, the Philadelphia Phillies. 
It was Russ Francis.   

To add to the intrigue, Francis didn't even play high school baseball.
Never varying from the catcher's snap throw, I was adept at grooving pitches in BP, and Francis pounced.  
 I'm not sure if this was right before or right after the 1971 MLB draft, for which Francis was eligible as he left Pleasant Hill High. He was impressive that day at Civic Stadium, hitting several of my pitches out of the park. It wasn't Chris Berman narrating Home Run Derby, but was eye-opening.

Regardless of the timetable specifics, Francis was not taken in the 1971 draft. He went through with his plans to join the Ducks for the 1971 football season. I also don't remember if I told my father I had just thrown to Francis, his prized recruit, and/or that the Phillies were interested in him. 

This gets a bit confusing. The Phillies apparently worked out Francis again two years later. Blaine Newnham's column on Francis ran in the January 25, 1974 Eugene Register-Guard. Newnham wrote about the Phillies taking a look at Francis in a similar private sesson a few months earlier at Civic Stadium, in the summer of 1973, with both Phillies batting instructor Wally Moses and former pitching great Jim Bunning present. He had Francis pitching off the mound and impressing Bunning.
If Francis also pitched as the Phillies watched him in the earlier 1971 workout, I don't remember it. I probably would have been the one catching him, too. 
In the early 1974 column, Newnham mentioned the possibility of Francis signing with the Phillies and playing for the Emeralds -- about to move down from the PCL to the short-season Class A Northwest League -- in the summer of '74 and then playing his senior football season for the Ducks. The NCAA was about to allow athletes to be pros in one sport and play collegiately in another.  
Francis was eligible for the draft again in June 1974, five months after Newnham's column ran, and the Kansas City Royals took him in the ninth round, with the 210th overall choice. He didn't sign with the Royals and a year later the Patriots picked him in the first round of the NFL draft, at number 16 overall. Newnham wrote that both the Phillies and Royals had made him offers.
"I talked it over with my parents, and we decided it would be best for me to stay in school and play football," Francis told Newnham.

I'm guessing that if he put his mind to it, he could have had an MLB career.

Wait! There's more! Call in the next 11 minutes and we'll double your order!
A year later, after my dad joined the Broncos staff, we moved to Denver and I became a Wheat Ridge Farmer, I was catching Dave Logan, who eventually would be one of three athletes drafted in all three sports -- MLB, NBA and NFL. Dave pitched and played played shortstop and the Cincinnati Reds drafted him in 1972, when he was a Wheat Ridge senior.

Francis and Logan's NFL careers overlapped, Russ' with the Patriots and 49ers, and Dave's mostly with the Browns.

I knew both of them were great all-around athletes who could hit the ball out of the park.

We've lost Russ Francis too soon.  


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