In the early 1980’s, I broadcast games for the San Antonio Charros of the American Football Association, which was generously referred to as a “semipro football league.” If there was money available, the players got about $50 a game. If there wasn’t, they settled for the free beer on the long bus rides home from places like Shreveport, Louisiana. Most of the players had college experience, some at the highest level. Some played just for the love of the game, but most hadn’t given up their dream of playing in the NFL, even though each was generally a step slow or too small.
For most, it was a pipe dream that was never going to happen, but they weren’t ready to give up. There were even some players who had been in the NFL, like Charros quarterback Randy Johnson. He’d had a good long run as the Atlanta Falcons starter and late in his career, came to the Redskins and beat out Joe Theismann for the backup job behind Billy Kilmer. He was hoping for another shot. Jerry Golsteyn actually got one. After kicking around as a backup quarterback for four teams over a six year period, playing in a total of 21 games, Golsteyn turned a year with the AFA’s Orlando Americans into a job with the Orlando Renegades of the USFL in 1985. The Renegades had been the Washington Federals in 1983 and 84, before giving up on the idea of making spring football work at RFK Stadium.
Though Golsteyn didn’t make it back to the NFL when the USFL folded in 1985, there were plenty who used the upstart league to kickstart an NFL career. USFL refugees Gary Clark and Rickey Sanders helped the Redskins win two Super Bowls. And of course Doug Williams landed in Washington after the folding of the USFL and went on to his legendary performance in Super Bowl XXII.
There are even examples of guys who never played college football and went on to successful NFL careers. Eric Swann was academically ineligible at North Carolina State, when he signed there in 1988. Since the NFL can’t take a player until three years after his high school class graduates, Swann had to bide his football time playing for the semipro Bay State Titans in Massachusetts. Swann looked good enough there for the Arizona Cardinals to make him the sixth pick of the 1991 draft. He played 10 years in Arizona, making the Pro Bowl twice. The Saints found Michael Lewis driving a beer truck and signed him as a 30 year old rookie. A year later he made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner, leading the league in punt and kickoff return yardage. He also returned a punt and two kickoffs for scores. And old time Redskins fans will remember Herb Mul-Key, who went to an open tryout at Georgetown University with no college experience and was signed in 1972. Mul-Key returned kicks for the Skins for three years, making the Pro Bowl in ’73.
If you’re talking un drafted free agents, nobody beats Kurt Warner, who may wind up in the Hall of Fame. After playing in the Arena League and NFL Europe, he finally got a look from the Packers. Though they cut him, Warner wound up leading the Rams to two Super Bowls and was named MVP of the league. He went to the Super Bowl a third time with Arizona, the only time the Cardinals got to the big game. Willie Parker barely played at North Carolina State, signed as an un drafted free agent with Pittsburgh, ran for over a thousand yards twice and helped the Steelers win two Super Bowls. And Joe Jacoby, un drafted out of Louisville in 1981, was a mainstay on the offensive line during the Redskins glory days of the ’80’s. He’ll hopefully take his rightful place in Canton next year.
All of the above brings us to Redskins defensive tackle AJ Francis, who was added to the active roster this week after spending most of the season the practice squad. Francis is a local kid – played at Gonzaga and the University of Maryland. The Dolphins signed him as an un drafted free agent in 2013. While he stayed in Miami for parts of three years, Francis played in only one game. He then bounced to New England, Tampa Bay and Seattle at the end of last year where he played two games. The Redskins became the fifth team in four years to sign him last spring.
As 6’5″, 335 pounds, Francis certainly has the size to play in the NFL and he hasn’t run out of teams willing to give him a look. But since he finished at Maryland, where he was a three time Academic All American (so you know it’s not lack of smarts that’s getting him cut), Francis has been buried deep on the depth chart or landing on the waiver wire. It’s an uncertain life. With only 46 of the 53 players on the roster allowed to be activated for a game, he doesn’t know until he walks into the locker room on game day if he’s playing or not. A helmet hanging in his locker is the sign he’s going to be in uniform that day. No helmet, he’s watching the game in sweat clothes.
What keeps AJ Francis going? His wife for one thing. When he thought about hanging it up after being released by Seattle, she encouraged him to stay with it and five weeks later, the Redskins called. More importantly, he’s had enough people tell him that he’s good enough to play in the NFL. As he told us on the Sports Reporters this week at Redskins Park about his various stops in the league, “It always the same thing. I get there, I play well, but the team either paid somebody else or drafted somebody. Because of that, I never get the opportunity to play.”
And while he admits it’s tough to deal with the “politics and BS” of those kind of situations, Francis keeps going. “l love the game,” he said, “I love playing football.”
Francis plays for the league minimum, which is pro-rated based on the number of weeks he stays on the active roster. It’s still, by most of our standards, a pretty good salary and enough to sustain him while he continues to chase his dream, although he has taken an offseason job driving for Uber. And now in his fourth season, he’s actually outlasted the career of the average NFL player. But he only needs to look across the line on the practice field to see there is so much more possible if you’re willing to stay with it. Ty Nsekhe is now 31 years old and starting for the Skins after a run that almost makes Francis’ look like a walk in the park. Nsekhe has played in every league imaginable, including the Arena Developmental League, before finally finding his place in Washington.
You don’t know what’s out there unless you keep trying.
Joe Gibbs never got a sniff of the NFL as a player, but climbed the coaching ladder as an assistant in college and the pros. He was 40 years old, had never made more than $40 thousand in a year, and had never been a head coach anywhere, not even in high school, when the Redskins hired him in 1981. Fifteen years and three Super Bowl championships later, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Delivering his induction speech in 1996, Gibbs never mentioned stars like Joe Theismann, Art Monk and John Riggins, who was already in the Hall of Fame. He did however, mention a couple of special teamers as a way of illustrating how team means so much more than individuals in having success. And with his usual self deprecation, Gibbs said, “God picks some very average people and given them some talent and surrounds them with great people and then gives them something to achieve. I am one of those average people.”
Hang in there AJ Francis. Dreams can come true.