Maryland defensive tackle A.J. Francis is one of the ACC’s most charismatic, engaging and memorable football players.
The reasons largely have little to do with his work for three hours each Saturday.
“My mom doesn’t know anything about football, but my mom understood while I was growing up that people were going to see me as a football player and she told me ‘Don’t be just a football player. Make people like you because of the person you are and not just the fact you play football,’ ” the junior said.
Danny O’Brien is probably the most well-known player nationally on Maryland’s roster. Kenny Tate entered the season as the Terrapins’ most clear-cut NFL prospect. Joe Vellano is the most productive defensive tackle.
And yet the loquacious Francis is perhaps Maryland’s most exuberant and enduring figures, an outsized personality even for his 6-foot-4, 295-pound frame.
The tales are endless, if only for his multifaceted interests. He performed in plays from the age of 8. He was an expert babysitter during the summer before his senior year at Gonzaga College High School in the District.
He created a “Fear The Turtle” remix the women’s lacrosse team used as its warmup music last spring, and claimed to measure the windows for draping purposes during Maryland’s visit to the White House last December in anticipation of a White House run in 2052.
On track to graduate in December, he amused himself during the team’s media day by referring to himself as “The_Franchyze,” which doubles as a Twitter handle that’s netted him more than 1,600 followers.
Not bad for a guy playing one of football’s more anonymous positions.
“You could write a book on my life, and it would be a best-seller,” Francis said. “I tell you what, there’s some stories.”
Everyone, it seems, has at least one.
Danny O’Brien sure does.
During last season’s bye week, Francis drove O’Brien home to Kernersville, N.C., and stopped at Cook Out, a Carolina-based restaurant that lives up to its name. O’Brien insisted Francis could not consume two full trays in one sitting. Two sandwiches, four sides, a milkshake and a 44-oz. drink later, Francis proved him wrong.
Of course, a fantastic fatty feast will take its toll on even the most lively of characters.
“It was like the one hour that I’ve ever known A.J. that he didn’t talk,” O’Brien said. “He was in a food coma on my couch, and it was the quietest we’ve ever seen him. Just seeing A.J. not talk for a consecutive hour was unbelievable.”
Possibly as impressive as his family’s background.
Mike Francis was still enrolled at Anne Arundel Community College when A.J. was born in 1990. On the right side of their home was a crackhouse. On the left was the abode of a couple of alcoholics who fought every night. One of Mike Francis’ best friends was murdered in a nearby street a month after A.J.’s birth.
It was no place to raise a child. The family soon moved, making the economic situation work as needed. All along, the father fostered the son’s many interests.
Music? A.J. had a small studio in his bedroom. Sports? Mike would take his son halfway across the county to participate in the closest youth football league he wasn’t too big to play in. Drama? A.J. wrote and directed a play while he was in middle school.
“I couldn’t do that,” Mike Francis said. “I’m just being honest. I would never have been able to live that down in the neighborhood. I didn’t want him to experience that. I wanted him to do everything I didn’t do or didn’t have the heart to do or was afraid to do or bullied not to do.”
Which is how A.J. Francis’ blend of youthful assertiveness and quick wit (as well as some physical gifts) landed him a major college football scholarship. He’s a two-time all-conference academic pick, and took to Twitter less than a week before Maryland’s season opener to point out he hadn’t received his certificate for that honor from last season.
In less than a day, ACC associate commissioner Michael Kelly replied and promised to bring him a replacement certificate when he attended the first game - a development Francis found hilarious.
“If there’s a problem with someone being who they are, there’s a bigger problem at hand,” Francis said. “There’s no problem. Coaches don’t have a problem with me being who I am. They just want me to be smart about it sometimes. I just am who I am. That’s never going to change. I’m always going to be me. I’m never going to be anyone else. I’m never going to be phony. I’m never going to be fake.”
And defensive end David Mackall figures he won’t be quiet, either. Hence his nickname for Francis: “Motormouth.”
“He’s the biggest the one I’ve ever met by far, and I’ve been on this earth for 20 years,” Mackall said.
‘One of a kind’
Keith Francis has a story about his nephew.
It was around Christmas one year in the early 1990s, and A.J. Francis’ long-running love of professional wrestling already was kindled. Handed a microphone, A.J. pointed upward, momentarily morphed into a mini-Vince McMahon and bellowed “Hulk Hogan, I want you to come down here and fight my uncle.”
Keith Francis estimates he was all of 145 pounds at the time. The entire family, in turn, broke into laughter at A.J.’s earnest showmanship.
“This little kid that has the whole room basically watching him and we’re all focused on him,” said Keith Francis, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army. “He has a way of getting people’s attention, and he’s been doing it his whole life.”
And he did so in a family filled with strong people. A.J. Francis estimated he isn’t “even in the top five personalities in my family,” which includes a direct, plain-spoken father who already has come up with a way to lay the groundwork for A.J.’s future entry into pro wrestling: Making his character the illegitimate son of The Rock. The two, after all, bear a slight resemblance.
Achieving all of his varied aims - a brief NFL career, a stint in wrestling, graduating from law school, running businesses, becoming Maryland’s governor - will require a competitiveness Francis already possesses.
“My dad gave me five dollars once because I lost a game of Mortal Kombat and I threw my controller into the wall and cursed, and I was 5 years old,” Francis said. “I said ‘This… sucks.’ I was 5 years old. My dad said ‘I’ve never been more proud. We don’t accept losing. Losing is not an option. Losing is the worst thing in the world.’ “
Being boring or one-dimensional might be a close second, though it’s an accusation Francis probably will never face. Whether declaring himself “El Zombito Bandito” during an on-campus game of Humans vs. Zombies in the spring or flexing like Ric Flair during the Terps’ uniform unveiling in August, there’s always a facet of his life certain to entertain as he shares it with a Twitter following he eagerly interacts with.
“The only thing I ever won was freshman all-ACC and honorable mention freshman All-American, but that was two years ago when I had like eight followers on Twitter,” Francis said. “Nobody really cares about that stuff. It shows people must have an interest in me as a person because I’m not Danny O’Brien and I’m not Joe Vellano and I’m not Kenny Tate, but people still care what I have to say.”
And he’ll keep saying what’s on his mind, creating new stories and a promising path for himself along the way.
“A.J. is A.J., and A.J. is never going to go off,” Vellano said. “Twenty-four hours a day, A.J. is A.J. It could be middle of camp or it could be the middle of winter. He knows his facts and he knows his stuff, and you’re never going to throw it by him. He’s a character. He’s definitely one of a kind.”