Russ Francis, who was both a Super Bowl-winning football player and a pro wrestler, has died in a plane crash.
The crash, in Lake Placid, New York, happened about 4 p.m. on Sunday, October 1. He was flying a Cessna 177, and there was apparently an emergency after takeoff, and he crashed into a ravine near the airport.
According to reports, Francis had purchased the Lake Placid Airways scenic tour business at the Lake Placid Airport recently. A pilot himself, it is unclear whether Francis was flying the plane or not, but his death was confirmed by Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Senior Vice President Richard McSpadden.
Francis had gotten into flying early in his life, having grown up fascinated by birds and flight. He was at the University of Oregon, where he’d been a big success as a decathlete (a national interscholastic record in javelin, 254 feet, 11 inches) and a baseball player — before football. One day, he walked the eight miles from campus to the Eugene Airport, introduced himself to some of the older pilots there and asked to learn. He soloed later that week.
A thrill seeker in so many ways, Francis had well over 3,000 skydiving jumps under his wings too.
So, if anything, pro wrestling was tame.
Tom Archdeacon of the The Miami News summed up trying to interview Francis in 1985:
The first thing Russ Francis talked about yesterday was his short career as a professional wrestler. The last was about the time in Tampa when he demonstrated Hawaiian cliff diving by leaping off a sixth-floor balcony into a hotel swimming pool.
In between, he discussed such things as: the airplane speed record he’ll try to break after the season; watching, without interruption, as the Vermont leaves changed colors that year he sat out from pro football; surfing back home in Hawaii; old folks and nursing homes; Ricardo Montalban; snake charming in Morocco; Christmas with his family; and his penchant for sky diving.
Once, during the hour-long conversation — maybe for 30 seconds or so — he talked about the Miami Dolphins, the opponent he and his San Francisco 49ers will face in this Sunday’s Super Bowl.
Russell Ross Francis was born on April 3, 1953, in Seattle, Washington.
His father, Edmund Charles “Ed” Francis, had been an amateur wrestler in Chicago, and grew up watching the pros grapple at the Marigold Gardens. Soon, he was training as a pro under Karl Pojello, alongside the future Johnny Valentine.
As successful as he was as a wrestling — including a run as the World Junior Heavyweight champion — Ed Francis was destined to change things as a promoter.
Ed Francis had wrestled in Hawaii for promoter Al Karasick, and then bought the promotion.
His seven children would be shaped by their time in Hawaii. Bill Francis would even demonstrate amateur moves on the KGMB television show while in high school.
As a promoter in Hawaii, Ed Francis “refined the art of televised wrestling,” said Russ Francis.
Hawaiian wrestling was a “memorable and important part of the sports fabric there,” Russ added.
To rebuild the Hawaiian wrestling scene, Ed Francis had to be creative, and there were some memorable characters like Ripper Collins — “He was one of the natural characters in life,” said Russ. “He would have been an Academy Award winning actor. He had such a great sense of timing and talent” — and Handsome Johnny Barend.
But the locals became the center of attention, none more so than King Curtis Iaukea.
“I know all the people in Hawaii really loved him. I know he did really well in New York and other places, but in Hawaii, the people really loved him. The locals called him ‘Da Bull,'” recalled Ed Francis in 2010.
To Russ, Da Bull’s role, as locals saw it, was to dish out justice. “He loved to fight inside the ring or outside the ring,” said Russ.
Those Francis kids, Bill and then Russ, were locals when they finally began wrestling.
“I think they just kind of naturally fell into it, because everybody, for all those years, I don’t know how many years, our show was number one of any show in Hawaii — not just sports shows, but any shows. Kids talked about it,” said Ed Francis. “They both wrestled amateur in high school, and soon got pretty tough, working out all the time. I used to take them into the Civic Auditorium, into the ring there, and work out with them. Finally they got into the wrestling business.”
Bill was into it first, with Ripper Collins and Friday Allman attacking the 18-year-old at ringside, prompting Bill to team with his father against the dastardly duo, in front of a sold-out crowd on Christmas Day 1969 at the HIC Arena in Honolulu.
Around 1970, Ed Francis bought a cattle ranch in Eugene, Oregon, and Russ finished high school at Pleasant Hill High, outside of the city (he’d been a quarterback at Kailua High). A gifted athlete, he went on a track scholarship to the University of Oregon, but only played 14 varsity games for the Ducks (caught 31 passes for 495 yards in his junior season) between injuries and other commitments, and he sat out his senior year. Francis “lettered in everything but plumbing” cracked the Albany Democrat-Herald‘s Bob Rodman.
To be eligible for the 1975 NFL Draft — where he was taken 16th overall by the New England Patriots — Russ had to sign with Oregon State, studying pre-med, to expire his collegiate eligibility.
Russ didn’t get into wrestling until 1974, but never really made it a full-time gig. There was a reason — he was a football star on the rise. His father thought Russ would have gone further in wrestling. “Of course Russ could have, but he made a lot of money playing football.”
“My mother wanted me to be a baseball player,” Russ told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1976. “She didn’t want me to have anything to do with football or wrestling.”
Summing up Russ Francis’ 13-year football career isn’t easy; the San Francisco 49ers, in a 2009 piece catching up with Francis, called him “one of the most complex characters to ever wear the scarlet and gold uniforms.”
The 6-foot-6, 240-pound player was, at one point, called “All-World Tight End” by famed football commentator Howard Cosell. Francis made three Pro Bowls (1977-1979) with the Pats.
For all his successes, Francis quit after the 1980 season. He was frustrated with the business side of football, the coldness of management.
Instead, Francis went to ABC Sports as a TV personality, covering far more than football — appropriate for someone who would participate in the ABC Superstars competitions in 1980 and 1981, which he had been a part of in its initial run. At the time of the hiring, Francis told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin that the ABC contract was “the most paid anybody just coming into the broadcasting business. It’s not more than what I would make playing football,” Francis said, “so that should put to rest all that talk about financial ploy and how I need the money.” That lasted a season.
The Pats had cut ties with him, trading him to the San Francisco 49ers, and Niners coach Bill Walsh convinced Francis to suit up again.
Those 49ers, with Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, were stacked and Francis had a couple of big seasons, including five catches for 60 yards in the Super Bowl XIX win over the Miami Dolphins. He played another season in San Francisco, was cut, and did one more stint with the Pats before ending his football career.
The main run most people know Russ Francis from — besides his appearance in the battle royal in Chicago at WrestleMania II — was 1976, when he wrestled a ton in the off-season.
In Ring Wrestling, in October 1977, Roger Deem described Francis:
His good looks and natural charisma made him an instant success with the ladies. And to top that off, his wrestling ability was truly remarkable. … He has established himself as a top contender for any titleholder, and once he makes the total commitment to the sport of wrestling, he will establish himself as one of the all-time greats.
The St. Paul Press‘ Ralph Reeve, in May 1976, wrote something similar: “And there was this chap, built like your average Greek god wishes he was put together, handsome as hell, with a belly flatter than a board.”
In the same piece, Francis talked about why he went to the AWA, to learn further from Verne Gagne. “Vern’s known my father for many years. My father, Ed Francis, is a wrestling promoter and wrestler in Hawaii. he’s 48 and still wrestles. He’s like Vern Gagne, in great shape. Also, by living here, I get the benefit of Vern coaching me.”
The offseason from football was his own, as Francis told the Racine, Wisconsin, Journal Times in April 1976: “They (the Patriots) have a contract for six months of the year for four years with me. They have no control over my offseason career. After the football season I go to Hawaii for two months. I surf, sun and relax to let my body heal.”
In April 1978, he was a tag team champion with his brother, Bill, in Hawaii.
His highest profile match was by far was WrestleMania II. In the “Catching Up with Russ Francis” at 49ers.com, Francis recalled the gig:
Francis and other NFL players took part in a 20-man battle royal in the main event. Although he was the last remaining football player in the ring, Francis still remembers his in-ring encounter with Andre The Giant. Francis took part in the extravaganza because of his father’s involvement as a wrestling promoter in Hawaii and his ties with the WWF. In fact, Andre was one of the wrestlers who used to babysit Francis and his siblings.
“He was looking at me like he was hungry and I was a hors d’oeuvre,” Francis recalled. “He hit me so hard, I hit the mat on the back of my neck and I bounced back to my feet and said, ‘You know Andre, I thought we were friends?’ With a big smile on his face he said to me, ‘Outside the ring, we are friends. Inside the ring, I’m Andre the Giant.’ Then I hit him as hard as I could.”
Andre won the battle royal, one of three headlining matches at three venues at WrestleMania II.
Francis wrestled a few times in 1987 for the AWA following the spotlighted Mania battle royal.
There are a wide variety of other jobs and adventures for Russ Francis. In 2009, he was accused of theft while team president of the Omaha Beef indoor football team, its owner, Jeff Sprowls, claiming that Francis used the team debit card for personal reasons. There was also Aloha Events, an catering-like company that put on Hawaiian-like events around Las Vegas.
He was a radio host in a few locales, from New Hampshire to Wyoming. Francis ran as a Republican in Hawaii’s 2nd congressional district in 2000 — losing to Patsy Mink even though she had died, too late to remove her name from the primary ballot.
Never one to settle down, he had no qualms with comparisons to his father. In 2006 Russ told this writer that his dad “had always been a bit of a free spirit.” At the time, Ed Francis didn’t have a true home, and bounced between his kids — he and wife Arline had six sons — Ed “Sonny”, Steven, Bob, Bill, Russ, and James — and a daughter, Arlene “Pixie.” “He’s kind of on tour, like a rock star.”
It seems appropriate to close with one of the most famous plane stories in wrestling lore, since Russ Francis was there.
Mad Dog Vachon was drunk on the small AWA plane the stars took from city to city. Francis was a co-pilot on the fateful flight, adding to his hours. Vachon opened the side door of the plane at 10,000 feet. It was Francis who wrestled Mad Dog to the ground, and then clipped the door back in place. “It was bumpy. Those guys didn’t like to fly,” was all Francis said about that.
Funeral information is not known at this time. Russ Francis had one son.