The best linebacker you've never heard of is now even better than you didn't realize. Baylor senior James Francis bats down passes as if he were King Kong swatting biplanes. He rushes the passer like a phantom or a freight train—it depends on whom he's up against. He shadows receivers like a cornerback. And he wears a lot of new shirts, because his old ones are too tight.
That's because Francis added 20 pounds of muscle in the off-season with a five-times-a-week, two-hour weightlifting regimen. He now stands 6'4", weighs 245, and runs the 40 in 4.5 seconds, which, in the opinion of some, should require him to register his body with the Texas division of motor vehicles. This season Francis will move from weakside to strongside linebacker, where he will enjoy more freedom to pillage and roam.
Though Francis is probably the best at his position and a certain first-round NFL draft pick next spring, every so often this friendly yet reserved young man can't resist a melancholy look back, waxing nostalgic for what might have been. For two years, he laced on hightops for the Bears' basketball team, becoming the first Baylor athlete to letter in both sports since Del Shofner, the former NFL great—whom Francis does not know from Del Shannon—did it 35 years ago.
Francis is given to fits of doubt, wondering whether he might have made it in the NBA. "I think if I'd concentrated strictly on basketball, I could have really done something," he says. If so, he would have done it in Europe or in the World Basketball League, a.k.a. the under-6'5" league, considering today's sluggish NBA market for 6'5" power forwards.
Francis's newfound strength is evident in his game. Basketball, that is. On a July evening in the stuffy confines of a YMCA gym in Waco, Texas, he and his Y-league summer basketball teammates, the Boys Club, were having trouble pulling away from a much less talented squad of Baylor law students. It was clear that they were nascent lawyers by the frequency with which they stopped play to bicker over calls, the score, the timekeeping and other perceived injustices.
Francis's weight training was most evident in his shooting. His jumpers clanged off the rim at acute angles; he missed several free throws. On a spin move to the hoop, he turned into a triple team, scattering law students like duckpins. There was no foul call. The lawyers-to-be began to harangue the referee, and by the end of the game, most of the calls were going against the lawyers. Big surprise there. They lost by nine.
Afterward, despite his cinder-block-like field goal attempts, Francis seemed wounded by suggestions that he is anything but a deadly marksman. "I usually have a real nice jump shot," he said. That may be true—he averaged 24 points a game in his senior season at La Marque ( Texas) High. But as Baylor's sixth man for two seasons, he never scored more than eight points.
"In basketball, one man can dominate a game," he says. "In football, if you don't have 11 guys clicking, you're not going to win."
If Francis thinks one man can't dominate a football game, he should keep a closer eye on himself in the Bears' video sessions. Last season, as a "Will." or weakside linebacker, playing at a whippetlike 225 pounds, he made 82 tackles, most of them after sprinting 30 yards from the far hash mark. Quite sensibly, teams tend to run away from Francis.
Francis also had eight sacks in '88. "There is no offensive tackle fast enough to get back on him," says Baylor head coach Grant Teaff. "A lot of guys can accelerate upfield fast, but James seems to be able to move laterally at full speed. Other guys get tangled up with the blocker. James doesn't mess with the blocker." If he suspects the blocker is expecting a dodge, though, Francis runs the blocker over.