In April the weather on the north shore of Oahu can be pretty foul, and now it was windy and overcast for the third straight day. "You really want to jump in this?" asked Mike Gennis, a two-time member of the world-champion U.S. skydiving team. Gennis has 2,100 jumps to his credit and California license plates that read AIRGASM but he himself was clearly reluctant to jump.
Russ Francis, erstwhile skydiving student and budding skydiving nut—and tight end for the New England Patriots—nodded eagerly. For the past week Gennis and Merle Clawson—the indefatigable Claw, Francis' best friend in the whole wide world—had been teaching Francis how to skydive so that a world-famous aerial photographer could get a shot of him jumping out of a helicopter. The whole thing had probably started back in 1978, at the Pro Bowl game in Tampa, when Clawson mentioned to an ABC fact finder that Francis had promised to learn to parachute that summer. Somewhere along the way that information was exaggerated, and by the time it came out of Howard Cosell's mouth during the game, Francis was already a sky-diver. Stories of his prowess had persisted and now, two years and 25 dives later, Francis was ready to back them up. Besides, to invent a word, Francis is a photophile. He loves having his picture taken. It would take more than a stiff breeze to stop him.
"You've got an advantage over me in this wind," Gennis pointed out. Gennis weighs 135 pounds, Francis 240.
Francis stopped buckling up his harness. "You're the expert, brah. If you don't think it's safe, just tell me."
"You're the guy with 25 jumps, brah. I'll survive."
"If you don't think I will, say so."
"You sure you want to?"
"Look, if it's too windy for you..."
"It's not too windy for me, brah."
"What do you say then?"
So up they went, Clawson taking them to an altitude of about 6,500 feet in Francis' helicopter. It is illegal to parachute through cloud cover, but with the copter they could hover until a hole opened up. More hazardous was the wind, which was gusting to around 25 mph and could easily carry a novice like Francis the quarter mile to the Pacific. (Drowning is the primary cause of death among sky-divers.) Or, should he overcompensate, into the boar-and scorpion-infested bush from which the Dillingham Airfield drop zone was carved. Other dangers—appreciably more remote—included the possibility of Francis' leaping up into the helicopter blades upon his exit and, of course, the chance that his parachute wouldn't open.
Skydivers speak of this last misfortune with a sort of gallows humor, often crying, "Blue skies! Black death! Bleep! Sky-dive!" at odd moments. The Grim Reaper is an everpresent member of their fraternity, a fact that was impressed upon Francis when he was ordering his skydiving suit. He told Gennis he wanted it trimmed in earth tones—tan, rust, brown, chocolate. Gennis grinned.
"Bounce and blend, eh?"
"Bounce and blend?"
"Bounce..." Gennis said, dipping his fingertips earthward to depict an unchecked plummet that suddenly comes to a halt. Then his palms went flat and slowly spread outward. "... and blend." Earth tones, you know.
Over Oahu a hole opened in the clouds, and Francis, taking care to duck, waved at a camera boomed out from the struts of the helicopter and flung himself earthward, following Gennis. Freefalling, they flew to each other and touched hands. "Hello, bran." From the ground, the Whuffos pointed and gasped. Whuffos, it should be known, are direct descendants of the farmers into whose fields the earliest parachutists came down. "Whuffo you jump out of parachutes?" the farmers would ask, approximately.
To which the standard skydiver reply was, "I don't jump out of parachutes. That would be really dumb, to jump out of parachutes."
Had Darwin been a skydiver, the Whuffo would have fit in nicely just below the sponge.
After a freefall of about 25 seconds, Gennis and Francis deployed at 2,500 feet, their chutes bright squares of color in the gray sky. The Whuffos cheered. Expertly working his directional lines, driving his ram-air chute into the wind, Francis maneuvered to the middle of the drop zone and touched down softly, causing a local instructor to grumble, "I don't mind him picking up skydiving, but what makes me mad is he's so good at it. It took me two years to get to where he is right now."
In a minute the waiflike Gennis landed slightly downwind. Stumbling to his knees, he retrieved his chute. "That's enough of that," Gennis said with relief. "It's time to drink beer and cavort with women."
Skydivers are by nature a hedonistic lot, and their motto consists of three words. The first is eat, and the third is skydive.
Clawson set down the helicopter, obviously pleased with the progress his best friend in the whole wide world had made since his second jump, when he had landed in the junglelike bush bordering the drop zone. The camera on the copter had worked perfectly. "That'll be a hot shot, brah," Clawson said. "You're not falling like a greased manhole cover anymore. You went down almost like a normal person." Said Francis, grinning and still pumping adrenaline, "It's fun...the clouds. Pulling in the clouds...it's all fun."
Said Clawson, "Sure it is, brah. It's a common fact that skydivers have more fun than real people."
Said Francis, "I don't care what anybody says, catching a touchdown pass, playing in a Pro Bowl, playing in a Super Bowl—well, I've never played in a Super Bowl, but I don't care what you name—skydiving is a thrill that beats them all."
Football. It is not a favorite off-season topic of Francis'. He claims that he cannot even remember what the Patriots' record was last season (9-7), only that it left them short of the playoffs. In his five years with the Patriots, on paper one of the better teams in the NFL during that period, the club has been in only two postseason games and has lost both. Says one NFL coach, "There's a missing element there somewhere, and it could be character."
Francis, the Patriots' player representative, denies this, blaming injuries to key players for the team's reversals. There have also been some unusual distractions—the 1977 holdouts of All-Pro offensive linemen John Hannah and Leon Gray; Darryl Stingley's crippling injury; the bizarre resignation of Coach Chuck Fairbanks on the eve of the 1978 playoffs. "That sort of stuff creates a lot of turmoil," Francis says. "There were times in the past when I didn't think the team was getting along. But I had a really good feeling about us last year."
A vicious blocker blessed with outside speed (4.6 in the 40), the 6'6", 240-pound Francis is regarded as the prototypical tight end. Yet after catching 35 passes as a rookie in 1975, he was held to 26 and 16 receptions in 1976 and 1977 respectively, prompting critics to contend that Fairbanks was not properly exploiting Francis' talents.
"If Steve Grogan [the Patriots' quarterback] was a jerk, or didn't know what he was doing," Francis says, "I might have said to the coach, 'Hey, let me help the team out and catch a few balls.' But I wasn't unhappy. The team was going pretty well. The next year, I promised Steve my first child. It was a drastic move, but after three years I was getting pretty desperate."
Francis cannot discuss football without throwing in such a line every couple of minutes. But his humor isn't always well received. A couple of years ago defensive linemen around the league were not particularly flattered when Francis estimated their IQs as five points higher than geraniums'. What Francis said, in fact, was that if their IQs were five points lower, they would be geraniums. "They proved me right, though," he says. "Every time I picked myself up the next few weeks, all they could do was grunt at me. 'Yuh, yuh, yuh,' " Francis grunts, rolling his eyes.
In 1978 Francis had a big year, with 39 catches for 543 yards and four touchdowns. It was the first time he had led the Patriots in receptions. Then last season new Coach Ron Erhardt opened up New England's offense, and Francis, though he had suffered multiple injuries in a motorcycle accident the previous January, was among the league leaders over the first half, with 29 receptions and five TDs after eight games.
"If you've got tight ends that can do the same things as your wide receivers, you're just more flexible," Erhardt says. "Francis gets deep quick, and he can run after the catch. He really got his reputation as a great blocker and a deep threat. Before now, his reputation as a receiver has always been average at best."
At midseason the Patriots were riding high with a 6-2 record and a one-game lead over Miami in the AFC East; Francis was having his best season ever and threatening to supplant Oakland's Dave Casper as the premier tight end in football. Then came the injuries. Kicked in the back during the Patriots' 28-13 defeat of Miami at Foxboro on Oct. 21, Francis cracked a transverse process—one of the appendages extending from the vertebrae.
He missed the next two games, returning in time for the 45-10 humiliation in the snow at Denver. Then he suffered a severe concussion in a Thursday night game at Miami on Nov. 29—the Patriots lost, 39-24—which forced him to miss the final two games of the season. New England limped home 3-5 in the second half, losing a playoff berth to the Dolphins by a game. Nevertheless, Francis had caught 39 passes for 557 yards and five touchdowns, stats as good as any in his career.
The night Francis learned about the cracked bone in his back, Colby Jones, a friend from Hawaii, was visiting him at his house in Wrentham, Mass. Jones, a vice-president of a marine-supply company, had a cast on his leg, the result of a tumble down Francis' stairwell at 3 a.m. while searching for the bathroom. They were sitting in the library, virtually immobile. Francis, his back ramrod straight, had a six-pack of Michelob in his lap so he wouldn't have to lean forward to grab one. One thing about Francis: he's not a complainer. He may go moody and sullen on you, but he won't gripe.
Unable to move, they talked, first about flying—Francis has been a licensed pilot since he was 21—then about other things. Francis is a keen, but impulsive, student of other things. He throws himself into pursuits with abandon and, having experienced them, abandons them for new ones. He was a fine enough pitcher in baseball to be drafted in the ninth round by the Kansas City Royals in 1974. He set the national high school javelin record of 259'9", and while at the University of Oregon he just missed making the Olympic team.
Francis used to hang glide. He used to wrestle professionally for his father, wrestler and wrestling promoter Big Ed Francis, who is now a scout for the Patriots. He used to play college football, too, but before his senior year, miffed that his old coach at Oregon—Dick En-right—had been fired, he quit. He wants to go to law school. He'd like to be a vet. He started an air-charter business in the Islands (Clawson was his chief pilot), buying one plane and one helicopter and leasing four other planes, but after two years the novelty wore off and expenses mounted; now the operation has been virtually closed. Still, that business gave him a good excuse to study celestial navigation.
Closer to earth, Francis went rodeoing when he was 18 and living in Oregon. He tells about the first bull he rode and the kindly old cowboy who helped him rig the bull rope, pulling it tighter and tighter and finally wrapping it once around Francis' thumb, so that the last thing he heard as they opened the chute was, "Hey! Somebody put a suicide hitch on that guy!" And Big Red, the bareback bronc that could buck your arm right out of its socket—"the most exhilarating experience I'd had up to that time, besides diving off cliffs in Hawaii and wrestling a couple of sharks."
Next, Francis is off in the wild blue again, musing on the time he was flying Phil Villapiano, the linebacker Oakland recently traded to Buffalo, in his plane. Francis says he turned the plane upside down, remarking to Villapiano, "Now, about that interference call last year." Some of the stories might even be true.
"So much of it is just beer talk," says Jones. "I have never seen him do anything that a prudent man wouldn't do. I have flown with him, sailed with him, drunk with him, and I can honestly say that the craziest thing I have ever seen him do is play football. Even the motorcycle accident was just that—an accident. It wasn't as if he was fooling around. It wasn't even a Sunday ride. He was just going from one place to another to watch a football game."
The mishap occurred on Jan. 7, 1979, when Francis drove his Harley-Davidson into a turning car. He was in a daze for two days, and suffered broken bones in his left ankle, right wrist and left hand, and severe gashes above his eye and in his right foot. Francis was in a wheelchair for a month and, as a result of not being able to run, reported to training camp out of condition. Asked whether he would ban motorcycles in the future, Erhardt said, "If you don't let a guy like Russ ride motorcycles, he's just going to jump out of parachutes or something even worse."
Good read, Ron, you old Whuffo.
The day after the skydiving outing, Claw-son was sitting beside a freshly butchered 192-pound pig that had been selected for Francis' 27th birthday luau, which was to take place at Waialua. It hadn't been a quiet pig in death, and there was a vaguely unsettled feeling in everyone from hearing its squeals after it had been stuck. Francis had chosen that time to go out for beer. "He can't stand to see animals suffer, even a damn fly," Clawson said. "He hates hunting. Boy, he just hates it."
The Hawaiian family that owned the pig farm, the Madeiroses, had seen Francis on Monday Night Football. Mr. Madeiras thought the Patriots would win the championship if they gave Francis the ball more. Mrs. Madeiros had never met him before, but she could see that he was Big Ed Francis' boy. She could tell that, all right. Francis paid them for the pig, and the pickup bounced down the rutted drive with Clawson and Francis and some others in the back with the pig, waving mahalo, Colby Jones following behind in a Blazer, and everyone with that vaguely unsettled feeling.
"He's a local boy that did well," said Jones, "and people like to see hometown boys do well wherever. He's got just as many fans here as he does in Boston."
Later, Francis would say, "The proudest thing in my life is that I come from Hawaii. [Actually, he was born in Washington and moved to Hawaii before he entered first grade.] People here are different. Back East, people are into getting dressed up; it's more superficial. They come right up to you during dinner and ask for an autograph. Here, they say, 'Hey Francis!' and give me the shaka sign. If I go to a friend's house and he's not there, I'll sit down and wait for him. Or if I want to get up and sing at a bar, I just do it. In Boston, I'd have to worry about bombing out."
The shaka sign is a Hawaiian greeting made palm-forward, with just the thumb and little finger extended. For every NFL football game that features the Patriots, hundreds of Hawaiians gather around their TV sets, waiting for Francis to flash them the shaka. One year he managed it during an interview, but the TV network apparently presumed the sign to be obscene and didn't show it.
Back at the beach the pig was hung out of reach of the dogs, and Clawson organized the digging of the pit and the laying of the wood and the lava rocks. At 5:30 the next morning the fire was started and the pig cut down and marinated in soy sauce. By 10:30 the round lava stones were red hot and ready. First, flattened banana stalks were laid over the stones, then banana leaves and ti leaves, and finally the pig itself, wrapped in chicken wire. A half-dozen of the heated stones were already inside the pig, so it sizzled and steamed, and the sweet smell of fresh meat was in the air. "Just like training camp, eh, Russell?" someone suggested.
"What's its name?"
"Its name?" Francis said. "Can't you see the No. 73 on its side?"
More ti leaves were laid on top, then strips of wet burlap. The entire mound was then pinned beneath a canvas tarp and covered with sand. The sand was sprayed with water to hold it in place. The imu was completed. In six hours the pig would be done.
No. 73 is John (Hog) Hannah, the Patriots' All-Pro guard, and in the off-season a farmer in Alabama. In the middle of last season Hannah criticized Francis in print for not putting out, and even now it takes all of Francis' restraint to shrug off the remarks. "To the press and fans," Hannah was quoted as saying, "it's Russ Francis this, Russ Francis that. But here's a guy with more talent in his finger than I have in my whole body, who doesn't use it. If Russ would bust his hump, nobody would know who Dave Casper was. But he doesn't."
Hannah later claimed to have been misquoted, but he essentially repeated himself, saying, "What I said was that Russ had more ability than I do and that if he humped his butt, he'd be the best in the NFL."
"I was a little surprised when he came out with that," Francis says now. "I was playing hurt at the time. I don't talk about things like that. Everybody plays hurt in football. John plays hurt, too, and doesn't say anything about it. He's just a very intense guy. I feel very sorry for the guys who line up across from him in practice, because he's the only guy out there who puts out 100% all the time. John and I are very different people. My idea of living is this." Francis stops here to inspect the goings-on at the luau—sun, volleyball, music, beer—then goes on, "John's is working on a farm in Alabama.
"People view Russ Francis as being unconcerned or not spending the proper time thinking about football. But I take out what I have to learn from every game, then I leave it behind me. I don't say anything after a game, so people think, 'He's not very dedicated.' But a loss affects me more than anyone will ever know. It's a state of mind. I'm not into being unhappy, so I don't concentrate on that very much. Hawaiian people say, 'Ain't no big thing, brah.' To us, there's no thing big enough to be unhappy about. It doesn't do any good to fold your tent, as they say. I've had good times and some bad times, but I don't talk about the bad times. It's part of life. You go on with it. Hawaiians think it's a waste of time to brood about the past. You could be out fishing instead. People always talk about 'Hawaiian time,' how everything's late. Well, it's late because they're not rushing, that's all."
It's easy to see how that philosophy would occasionally produce conflict on a professional football team, especially a team based in Boston, where you will be honked at and scorned for not running the first five seconds of a red light. Nothing under the sun—even the scorching Hawaiian sun—is new, however. When the first Boston missionaries arrived in the Islands in 1820 and sought permission from King Liholiho to establish a settlement in Honolulu, they were told they couldn't expect an answer in less than six months. "It's the Hawaiian way," the king's messenger informed them.
"It's not for everybody," Francis says. "To scuba and surf and skydive every day...it's too much fun for some people to handle."
Francis denies the prevailing reports that his avowed goal is to be accepted as the best tight end in football, to be as good at that position as anyone who has ever played the game. Injuries, and perhaps maturity, have changed him.
"I've learned not to be too carried away with what you have or think you have," he says. "No matter what you do, somebody will come along who'll do it better. My goal is to get out of football healthy and in one piece—and, of course, play in the Super Bowl." He adds this as an afterthought, lip service to the god of his profession. "I'm going into this season with the same expectations that I've had the last three years. We can play with anyone on any given day. If it's in the stars, we'll be in the Super Bowl."
From his real God, he wants rainbows. Driving along the Oahu coast, the top down on his convertible, the sun breaking through the clouds and turning the Pacific green, he sees one. It is a perfect arch across a valley.
"Look at that," he says. "The solid colors. That's a blessing. That means a blessing." He drives along, looking for more. "My whole soul is here. I don't want to challenge anybody, especially God, but I don't see how I could be unhappy in Hawaii."
Then he looks up and says, "That's no challenge, God." He suddenly raises his hand and waves. "You hear me? That's no challenge!"
When the Patriots are on TV, Hawaiians eagerly wait for favorite son Francis to flash the shaka.
Freefalling with instructor Mike Gennis, Francis (right), still a skydiving novice, battles the stiff winds and tries not to "fall like a greased manhole cover."
Francis, here blocking out two linebackers, denies charges that he is not totally dedicated to football.