A column by Senior Sports Columnist Chuck Pollock
Every now and then the brevity of life slaps us in the face.
It happened to me Monday afternoon when I heard of the passing of former NFL Pro Bowl tight end Russ Francis in a plane crash at Lake Placid.
I couldn’t believe the former Patriots star was 70 years old … until I did the math.
Then I recalled my interaction with him in 1978, his third year as a pro.
Back then, players weren’t as shielded from the media as they are today, sitting behind a microphone in front of a sponsor/team logo festooned back-drop.
Access was open, we could watch practice, go out on the field when it was over and interview both players and coaches.
My first Bills training camp was at Niagara University in 1973. I was one of seven media types who were regulars, three other writers (Larry Felser, Buffalo News; Jim Baker, Buffalo Courier-Express and a reporter from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle) plus three TV people: Van Miller (Channel 4), Rick Azar (Channel 7) and Ed Kilgore (Channel 2).
That was it and there was no sense of competition but rather camaraderie.
Getting a one-on-one interview was a cinch.
Good luck with that now. On the days with an open locker room — post-game and usually Wednesday and Thursday — there’s always a scrum of media around the lockers of key players.
That’s what got me thinking about Francis.
IN THOSE DAYS, a public relations representative from that week’s visiting team came to Orchard Park and had lunch with us on Wednesday. And the best ones were honest and gave us great insight into the coming game. They also set up interviews besides the standard conference calls with the head coach and quarterback.
When the Patriots came to Orchard Park in ‘78, I requested an interview with Francis, figuring I had no chance as he was one of the Pats’ stars.
After all, this wasn’t like when I got a call from former Cameron County High School star Jeff Lloyd when he was with the Chiefs, or a phoner with Bolivar’s Bob Torrey before he played special teams in the Eagles loss to the Raiders in Super Bowl XV.
But sure enough, after practice, Francis called me at home and greeted me with an enthusiastic “What’s up Chuck?” We talked for 15 minutes and not much about football. Born in the state of Washington, Francis spend much of his youth in Hawaii before starring at the University of Oregon, then being drafted by New England.
One reason I wanted to talk to him was his well-documented penchant for high-risk sports … surfing, sky-diving and flying planes and helicopters.
He explained that he got a rush from those pursuits. I also asked about Howard Cosell’s incessantly referring to him as “The All-World Tight End,” and Francis admitted he absolutely hated it, being singled out ahead of teammates and other players.
A man with matinee-idol looks who spoke with candor, I saved my best question for last.
“Do you like football?”
His response was instant.
“Not really,” he said. “It’s my job and I love my job. But do I watch games? No. I’ve got other things that are more important to me.”
I’ve never forgotten that answer and it was my first memory upon hearing he perished just after takeoff when his plane’s engine lost power. He had recently purchased Lake Placid Airlines, a service that provided charter and scenic flights.
While his passing made me sad, the reality was that in his 70 years, by his estimation, he had lived a rewardingly full life.
I would have expected as much after talking with him for a quarter hour some 45 years ago.
(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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