Patriots tight end Russ Francis tries to break away from Detroits Derrel Luce during a game on Sept. 12, 1976. Francis died Sunday in a plane crash. Chet Magnusson/Associated Press

Before NFL tight ends dated pop superstars and before pro wrestlers like “The Rock” were rock stars, there was Russ Francis.

Francis, who died in an airplane crash on Sunday, was an All-Pro tight end, a pro wrestler and much more.

At different points in his 70 years, he owned a bar in Montana, was a sports director for KGMB-TV in Hawaii, worked as a sportscaster for three networks, co-starred with singer Melveen Leed in a series of popular American Savings Bank commercials, ran for Congress and, in recent months, owned a scenic-tour business in Lake Placid, New York.

“He lived the kind of life I think other people wish they could have,” sportscaster Larry Beil said. “Anything he wanted to try to do, he would go do it, seemingly without any fear at all. And he was pretty much great in whatever he tried to do.”

Through his junior year at Kailua (Hawaii) High, Francis was a standout football player … as a 6-foot-6 quarterback.

As a senior at Pleasant Hill (Oregon) High in 1971, he set the national high school record for the javelin, a mark that stood for 17 years.


He then played 14 games as a tight end in three seasons at the University of Oregon.

“He caught my first collegiate pass,” said former Hawaii football coach June Jones, who was Francis’ Oregon teammate in 1972. “I still remember the play: South wide 5. He was an incredible athlete. He was intelligent and mild mannered.”

Despite sitting out his senior season, Francis was the New England Patriots’ first-round pick in 1975. He played six seasons with the Patriots, six with the San Francisco 49ers, then three more with the Patriots. He won a Super Bowl ring, was selected to the All-Pro second team twice, and made the Pro Bowl in 1977, 1978 and 1979.

“The Russ I knew lived life to the fullest,” sportscaster Al Michaels texted to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “He loved having fun, and it made it fun to be with him. (Sportscaster) Howard Cosell once called him ‘the all-world tight end,’ which made for a great description. He was a gem.”

Jesse Sapolu, a former Hawaii and 49ers offensive lineman, remembered Francis as a fierce competitor and prankster. In 1982, the 49ers veterans attempted the rookie-hazing tradition of using “official” team stationery to invite players to Lucky supermarket to pick up a free turkey. To enhance the hoax, Francis gave his “invitation ” to Sapolu.

“I’m smiling,” Sapolu said. “When you’re an 11th-round draft choice, a free turkey helps. Even though he was my mentor, he set me up. I went there with two letters.”


Coach Bill Walsh caught word of the prank, and told Lucky’s management he would pay for the turkeys. The next morning, the veterans were laughing until they learned the rookies actually received free turkeys. “Randy Cross and all the veterans were mad,” Sapolu recalled.

After six seasons in New England, Russ Francis played six seasons for the San Francisco 49ers where he won a Super Bowl. George Rose/Getty Images/TNS

Sapolu also remembered when Francis suffered a bloodied nose from a hit from linebacker Phil Villapiano of the Oakland Raiders. Francis and Villapiano appeared to make up. When both were in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, Francis, a licensed pilot, invited Villapiano for an aerial tour of Oahu. “Russ got him up there and spun the plane upside down,” Sapolu said. “Phil was yelling. Russ did that as a payback.”

In the twilight of his NFL career, Francis moonlighted in the family business of pro wrestling. Beil’s father, Ted Sax, worked with wrestling promoters “Gentleman ” Ed Francis and “Lord Tally-Ho” James Blears to draw interest in cards at the Honolulu Civic Auditorium and then HIC (now the Blaisdell Arena ). Ed Francis’ sons – Russ and Billy – were a tag-team.

“They were responsible for so much of the success of wrestling in Hawaii,” Beil said. “Everybody thinks of Russ as the football player and a maverick-type dude where he would do unpredictable things.”

Entertainer Kimo Kahoano, who worked on projects with Francis, described his friend as “a very special man. He was an inspiration, somebody we could feel like, ‘Oh, yeah, we can be like that.’ It’s not about the sport. It’s about the man. So, thank you, Russ Francis, for being a great local man.”

Leed said Francis was “a real gentleman” during their 20-plus commercials together. Each ad had a theme. For an in-the-future commercial, the makeup artists transformed Leed and Francis into senior citizens with white hair and wrinkles.


On the drive to the set, Leed, in full makeup, was stopped for speeding. She showed her driver’s license to the officer, who said, “You don’t look like Melveen Leed.” She then asked the officer to follow her to the set in Hawaii Kai. After arriving, she spotted Francis, also with gray hair and wrinkles, and asked him to verify her identity. The officer said, “That’s Russ Francis? He looks old in person.”

During a shoot next to the waterfall in Waimea Valley, Leed and Francis intentionally flubbed lines to force retakes.

“They had a diver, and he was our friend,” Leed said. “We messed up our lines just so he would have to go up there and dive again. We’d do pranks like that. … Sometimes we had to do 40 takes (for other commercials ) because we were having so much fun.”

Dick Grimm and Don Rockwell were KGMB’s general manager and news director when they concocted the idea of hiring Francis as sports director and sports anchor.

Francis “told some wonderful stories,” Grimm said of their meetings. Grimm, now retired, said Francis aced his auditions. “He looked good and we thought he’d get better,” Grimm added. “He was a great guy.”

But after several months, it was apparent Francis was not comfortable in the job. His one-year deal was not renewed. “It just wasn’t the medium for him,” Grimm said.

But Francis remained undaunted as he pursued other endeavors. He did volunteer work and opened a bar in Stevenson, Montana. Huey Lewis (without the News ) frequented Lonesome Dove Riding, Drinking and Flying Saloon.

“He was all world,” Beil said, echoing Cosell’s description, “and he was a huge part of the world in anything he tried to do. … He lived everywhere. One day he’s in Montana, the next day he’s in the Pacific Northwest, then he’s in Hawaii. Then he’s in Lake Placid, New York? Sure, of course. You know the old expression, ‘march to the beat of his own drummer?’ He did everything he wanted to do. He did it his way. He excelled at about everything he did.”

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