Six Surprises About Maryland Terrapins Defensive End A.J. Francis


It’s Mike Francis’ day to play stay-at-home dad. His wife, Carrie Francis, is at work, leaving him to look after their 3-year-old son until he heads off to stock shelves at Wal-Mart.

Shots fire. Before Mike can figure out what’s going on, a man bursts through the front door of the family’s Severn home, sprints through the living room and darts out the back.

Mike rushes to the front window and sees a man with a pistol walking up his driveway.

“Wait, wait, wait!” Mike screams. “He don’t live here! He don’t live here!”

The man with the pistol dashes down the street. Mike turns around to find his son A.J., an unusually large child, sitting on the living room couch.

Mike doesn’t know it yet, but his son will grow to be 6-foot-5 and a colossal 305 pounds. He will land a Division 1 football scholarship as a defensive lineman, and eventually help anchor a Maryland Terrapins defense that ranks in the top 10 nationally.

He will become a collegiate standout, but will be celebrated more for his wit than his sacks or blocked field goals.

He will garner headlines with his vivid account of “Grandpa Shaky,” his 90-something-year-old, Jheri-curled great-grandfather who supposedly buried $100,000 in his mattresses. He will write a Terps-inspired rap song the women’s lacrosse team will play during pregame warm-ups.

He will become the only amateur athlete on Sports Illustrated’s second-annual Twitter 100, a list of the best people to follow on the social network. The honor will recognize his commitment to giving his 3,110 followers a constant stream of comical musings ranging from professional wrestling to political debates.

But those public antics obscure the real story of A.J.

He’s a guy who emerged unscathed from a violent, drug-ridden neighborhood with the support of his parents. He’s a guy who has helped his family through trying times and does things, like musical theater, that most other top athletes avoid. He’s a guy who plans—not hopes, plans—to run the entire state of Maryland someday.

“I’m an open book man,” Francis said. “I want people to think about things I’ve gone through because I feel like I can be an example for people who have gone through similar things to not give up.”

1. He doesn’t care about money.

Carrie had just graduated from Meade Senior High School in Anne Arundel County, and planned to enter the Air Force. Plans quickly changed, however, when the 17-year-old learned she was pregnant with her first child.

Instead, she moved into a modest home in Pioneer City, a drug-ridden neighborhood in Severn, with longtime boyfriend Mike Francis. The couple married when A.J. was 2; Mike stocked shelves at Wal-Mart overnight and did car appraisals for an auto auction during the day. Carrie took a job booking flights for America West Airlines.

But some of their neighbors were dealing drugs, others were trafficking in stolen goods. The breaking point came when a 3-year-old A.J. picked up a crack pipe while on a family walk. Carrie’s father and mother went house hunting for the young couple that day. The Francis family moved into a middle-class duplex community on the other side of Severn later that month.

After that, the family’s circumstances improved. Carrie and Mike went back to school and got higher-paying jobs, and made enough for A.J. to have everything he needed—cable T.V., a small recording studio in his room and football gear.

When Francis enrolled at Gonzaga College High School, a private school in Washington, D.C., he couldn’t help but notice his family fit into a different tax bracket than most of his classmates.

While many of his friends drove BMWs to school, Francis slapped his alarm clock at 5 a.m. each morning and walked to the MARC station. While teammates returned to luxurious homes in Potomac after practice, he headed back to a duplex crammed with anyone in need of a place to crash.

To pay for school, Francis earned a scholarship that covered 90 percent of the cost of attending, and his grandfather covered the rest. Today, Francis says Gonzaga was a welcoming place with a faculty and staff committed to developing well-rounded individuals.

He said the school also helped him recognize the importance of being genuine.

“A.J. will hang out with anyone,” said Jay Clark, A.J.’s best friend since elementary school. “It’s not about whether you’re an athlete or whatever. It’s about if you’re real.”

2. He performed in three high school musicals

When Mike was growing up in Pioneer City, he and his friends threw rocks at neighborhood children who played soccer, a sport that simply didn’t fit into their worldview.

When A.J. was born in 1990, Mike, who was 20 at the time, made a decision: his son would experience everything he couldn’t. His son would dare to be different. His father’s only requirement? Whatever his son decided to do, he’d have to give it 100 percent effort.

That meant when Francis’ mother signed him up for an elementary school fashion show, the 5-year-old had to strut down the walkway in his mini-tuxedo with utmost confidence, or when he wrote a play for his middle school talent show, he had to make sure each word was chosen with precision.

For the most part, A.J. was the best at everything he did.

He maintained a 3.5+ GPA throughout middle school and high school. He earned a reputation during his freshman year as the top rapper at Gonzaga. He played in the 2007 U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a game for top high school prospects.

When a friend asked him to try out for the school musical his sophomore year, Francis landed the role of Big Jule, a gun-wielding gambler in “Guys and Dolls.” He loved everything about it — the response from the crowd, the challenge of playing an older character, the camaraderie with his cast mates.

He appeared in “Annie” the following spring, and earned a spot in “West Side Story” his senior year. Due to his massive frame, he was typecast as the elder authority figure.

“Just thinking back now,” Francis said, “I’ve done so many weird things in my life. I don’t know why. All I know is it’s been fun.”

3. He’s struggled with mental illness in his family.

The Terps’ 2-10 season in 2010 was a notable campaign for Francis. The redshirt sophomore started nine of the Terps’ 13 games, and recorded a career-high 44 tackles.

But while his teammates spent Saturday nights celebrating the team’s newfound success, Francis stayed in his dorm room and had three to four hour phone conversations with his mother.

On Aug. 23, 2010, just two weeks before the Terps’ season opening win over Navy, Mike and Carrie separated. After careful discussions with A.J., Mike said he agreed to leave the family home for two days. He never returned.

The news couldn’t have come at worse time for Carrie. A year earlier, she had been laid off from her job as an IT specialist and was suffering from debilitating arthritis and chronic migraines, she said. It was around that same time she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she said.

When Mike moved out, Carrie said she became increasingly unstable. She was still in the process of finding a proper medication regimen and was experiencing a range of emotions. Outside of her parents, the only thing that helped her make it through was the love and support of her only son.

Francis called his mom nearly every day after practice that season to make sure she was holding up. Sometimes he’d call and she’d have nothing to say. He’d stay on the phone with her for hours without uttering a word. Knowing he was there was enough to lift her spirits.

Today, Carrie is doing better. She lives in a basement apartment at her parents’ home with her 12-year-old daughter Meme, and she said her fits of rage are becoming increasingly rare. She found a medication that works for her, has come to terms with her divorce and makes it to all her son’s home games.

Still, she sometimes reflects on those darker days and appreciates everything A.J. did for her in her time of need.

“A.J. was my rock,” Carrie said as tears filled her eyes. “He’s never been a mama’s boy, but he takes care of his mother.”

4. He started a pro-fat guy “movement.”

The first words Francis ever heard were “Oh my God.” The doctor delivering him simply couldn’t believe his size. Measuring 2-feet and nearly 10 pounds, A.J. was a baby giant.

And he just kept getting bigger. By the time he was nine months old, he wore size 3 shoes and T-shirts meant for toddlers. When he reached 18 months, he was already showing signs of the elite defensive lineman he’d one day become.

As a one and a half year old, Francis made his first of nine trips to Alice Springs, Australia — a midsized town in the country’s Northern Territory where his mother’s parents were stationed for 18 years.

There, he met Fletcher, a baby orphan kangaroo his grandparents had recently adopted, and began roughhousing with him. One misplaced step later, and Fletcher had a broken leg. Normally injured kangaroos are euthanized, but Francis’ family decided to see how he’d fare wearing a cast. Over his next several weeks, A.J. helped nurse Fletcher back to health.

Given his almost legendary appetite, it was perhaps a good thing kangaroo isn’t an Australian specialty. Ask a Terps football player about A.J., and he’ll almost surely launch into a story about the behemoth’s eating habits.

Before transferring in March, quarterback Danny O’Brien used to regale reporters with the tale of his visit with Francis to a North Carolina-based restaurant where Francis, then a red-shirt freshman, reportedly ate two full trays—two burgers, four sides, a milkshake and a 40-oz. soda—in one sitting.

About two years ago, Francis began a new cause, one that would allow him to eat as much as he wants without scorn. He calls it “Fat Guy Friendly” and, like many things Francis supports, it’s all about embracing one’s self.

“You’ve got to understand who you are,” he said. “Being fat is like a lifestyle. It’s one of those things you can’t really run away from. You can change, but who really wants to? If you could be voluptuous, why wouldn’t you?”

Though there’s been little outward signs of the movement’s actual existence, A.J. remains adamant it’s picking up steam.

“It has really caught fire the last couple months man,” he said. “I’ve been using that term for awhile. It’s one of those things — you keep chipping away at the tree, sooner or later it’s going to fall.”

5. He plans to become the governor of Maryland.

Francis was walking home from the school bus when an Anne Arundel County police officer stopped him on the sidewalk, flashed a gun and asked him to sit on the curb.

The cop told Francis he resembled someone suspected of robbing a nearby liquor store. Both were African American and both were wearing New York Yankees sweatshirts. Francis tried to explain he was 12 years old, six years younger than the suspect. He also argued he was wearing a different colored sweatshirt than the alleged robber.

The police officer didn’t buy it, and pulled out his handcuffs to arrest the middle schooler, Francis said.

Suddenly, the cashier who’d been robbed approached the cop. She said Francis wasn’t the man who’d held her at gunpoint, and the officer let Francis go.

Less than a year later, Francis once again stared down the barrel of a gun. After pulling into a McDonald’s parking lot with his father to grab lunch, six officers accosted them. As African Americans driving a white truck, the father and son fit the description of two bank robbery suspects.

The cops eventually became convinced they’d stopped the wrong men. But Francis was shaken.

The 13-year-old begged his father for an explanation, wanting to know why a kid who tried to stay out of trouble would be accused of such heinous crimes.

“He told me that’s how it’s going to be my whole life as long as I look like as much of a menacing presence as I do,” Francis said. “He told me, ‘Don’t ever forget moments like this because you never know when they can happen again.’”

Those experiences helped lay the groundwork for Francis’ political ambitions and belief that Maryland is burdened with systematic flaws which work against underprivileged minorities.

And that’s why he said he wants to be the governor of Maryland. After trying his luck in the NFL and possibly going to professional wrestling, he plans to run for governor as a Democrat.

The dream originally sprouted from a sixth-grade election. After losing the race, a distraught A.J. decided he would simply govern the state, instead.

Six years later, his ambition to follow in the footsteps of Gonzaga alum Gov. Martin O’Malley was so strong it played a critical role in his college decision. Francis narrowed his search to Georgia Tech and Maryland, which both offered solid academics and proximity to a major city.

But the Terps offered something the Yellow Jackets couldn’t: a government and politics degree from Maryland would surely hold more weight in a state election. If Francis was serious about living in the Governor’s Mansion, he figured his options were limited.

Francis earned his degree last December, and interned this summer in the office of Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer. Francis is a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage, encouraging others to support the state referendum on the issue. He also favors expanding gambling, and has no qualms defending who and what he votes for each election.

“I’m [political], but I’m not getting into any kind of political conversation with him,” linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield said with a chuckle. “He’ll just kill me. I wouldn’t want to get involved.”

For Francis the political process is about far more than party politics: it’s about making every voice heard, and helping people on society’s margins find their way.

That’s why he hopes to establish a nonprofit aimed at helping the children of Pioneer City. He watched drugs ruin childhood friends’ lives. He knows parents who’ve resorted to stealing food to feed their children. He watched his father struggle to provide a better life for his family, only to move back to Pioneer City when he was laid off in March 2010 from his counseling job at Glen Burnie’s North County High School.

Francis understands life will never be easy. He just wants to make it a bit less difficult.

“Everybody has an avenue that they can make themselves a better human being through,” he said. “It’s just a matter of finding out what it is for you personally. That’s why my goal is to help people make it out of situations that might plague them currently.”

6. He doesn’t enjoy talking with the media.

A.J. struts into the Maryland football team field house with a Cheshire grin, and takes his seat at an empty table in the room’s far corner.

The reporters act quickly and within moments, a horde of recorders and microphones surround Francis, who slowly leans back in his chair and exhales. He seems in his element.

But looks can be deceiving. Despite holding court with reporters and appearing to know precisely how to answer a question, Francis does not look forward to addressing the media each week.

When he was younger, he relished the opportunity to entertain writers and broadcasters. But over the course of his five-year college career, his enthusiasm waned. He grew bored with the repetition, with the constant barrage of similar questions. For someone who aims to get the most out of every moment, sitting in a chair and breaking down opposing offenses gets taxing.

Francis treads a fine line during interviews, hoping to say something unique. He hates sounding like every other player—doing so would go against the very essence of everything he represents.

At the same time, he tries to avoid being overly brash and giving the opposition bulletin-board material. He’s aware a misplaced joke could hurt the week’s ultimate objective: winning on Saturday.

The balancing act grows burdensome, especially for someone with a reputation for dazzling the media. If there’s one thing he abhors, it’s letting people down.

“I understand it’s part of the deal,” he said. “It’s like front squats. I hate front squats. I know I’ve got to do them to get better and talking to the media is part of playing college football. It’s just what it is.”

So Francis accepts his role and tries to embrace it. He arrives at Gossett Team House’s Young Dining Hall each week — albeit a bit late sometimes — and puts on a show.

When a reporter asked him earlier this year how he’d feel facing former defensive coordinator Don Brown in an upcoming contest with Connecticut, he launched into a full-blown impersonation of the mustached coach. Mimicking Brown’s gravely bass, he detailed highlights of Brown’s pregame speech at the 2010 Military Bowl — complete with references to homicide and burial plots.

And when a writer asked him a few weeks ago about rabid West Virginia fans, he explained that it makes sense Mountaineers supporters are overzealous. After all, he reasoned, there isn’t much to do in West Virginia. He should know. He has cousins there who hang out at Wal-Mart on the weekends.

“It’s the nature of the beast,” Francis said. “There’s nothing I can do to stop it. I’m always going to talk to the media. For some reason, you guys really, really like what I have to say at least.”

Six Surprises About Maryland Terrapins Defensive End A.J. Francis

Comments