To complete the resume, Francis deflected eight passes, blocked a kick and in one especially balletic display, recovered an onside kick in the final minutes of the Houston game, which bought the offense a chance to win it (the Bears eventually lost 27-24).
Life on the strong side will be different. Francis's days of hurdling and outrunning blockers are at an end. He will hit or be hit; using his new poundage, he must shed the blocks of mammoth offensive linemen. It was in this department, under the patient instruction of linebacker coach John Goodner, that Francis made the most progress this spring.
"He taught me how to read linemen." says Francis. "Those big guys get tired fast. They aren't wasting their energy trying to fake you out. They give it away. For a pass, they get back on their heels. If it's a run, they're leaning forward, and their fingernails turn white. Sometimes they just look right at who they're going to block."
"We used to just run away from him," says Arkansas offensive line coach Larry Beckman of Francis. "Now they can put him on the tight end and use him as a cover guy, or send him on the pass rush and create a mismatch with some poor running back."
When asked to compare Francis with Baylor linebacking legend Mike Singletary, who broke 12 helmets during his college career and is now an All-Pro with the Chicago Bears, Teaff says. "Mike was special. But James has more athletic ability than any player I've ever coached, and you've got to put your best athlete at linebacker. He'd better be able to take on tackles and stuff the run. And he also better be able to cover backs out of the backfield. If he can't, they'll throw to that guy all day, and you'll get killed."
That is why Francis is at linebacker; but as one regards the peeling, dingy 39-year-old Baylor Stadium on a soggy 90� day in Waco, the question arises: Why is Francis at Baylor? Certainly he could have found some place more scenic—or at least cooler. A big part of the answer is Teaff, now in his 17th season as head coach at the Baptist school, and one of the game's rare gentlemen. Teaff and his assistants seem to genuinely care for the young men they recruit. "They talk to you, call you up, or you can call them up," says Francis. "They're your friends. I hear it's not like that everywhere else."
So Baylor hasn't made anyone's list of top 10 gorgeous campuses. For Francis, accustomed to the oil refineries, smokestacks and grime of La Marque, which is just north of Galveston on the Gulf Coast, Waco seemed like Waikiki. And his older brother Ron, now a Dallas Cowboy corner-back, was there.
That Francis wanted to escape La Marque is understandable. "It's not that big." he says, "but everything's out there—crack, you name it. You've got to watch who you hang out with." Yet, considering the loving atmosphere in which he was raised, it's equally understandable that Francis wanted to stay fairly close to home. At Baylor, a 3�-hour drive away, he could do both.
James was in the fourth grade when his mother, Mary, died of cancer. "She didn't smoke or drink, but it got her," he says. Rather than leave James and his three siblings with their father, who had divorced their mother, their aunt Maggie Frank took the children in. James can boast of a truly distinguished career if he becomes half the hero his 48-year-old aunt is. When she adopted her late sister's children, Maggie was separated from her husband and raising five kids of her own. Self-pity was forbidden in her home. "Anytime you think you got it bad," she told the children, "look around. There's always someone worse off."
After working from eight to four as a laundry aide at a hospital, Maggie would come home for half an hour to greet her legion of dependents as they trickled in from school, then head off for her second job—driving a delivery truck until 10 at night. The hospital gave her weekends off, but she drove the truck seven days.