Former Gonzaga Eagle is chasing his NFL dreams

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Former Gonzaga and University of Maryland defensive line star A.J. Francis is vying for a spot on the Washington Redskins this summer after entering the NFL in 2013. (Brian Kapur/The Current/August 2017)
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At Saturday’s Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement, honoree Kurt Warner discussed his unlikely path to immortality — stocking grocery shelves as he failed to make the cut with several teams, then becoming a star quarterback.

While his story is one that most Hollywood directors would throw out as too improbable, the narrative of fringe roster players clawing for a coveted spot on the team is one that happens every day.

For former Gonzaga Eagles star defensive lineman A.J. Francis, it’s a battle that he has fought since he went undrafted in 2013.

“There are 53 spots on the active roster. Twenty-five guys have a guaranteed locked-in job,” Francis said. “The other guys could be gone tomorrow. It’s no different for me than the other 28 guys. You just have to come in and put your best foot forward. You can’t stress on it; if you do, it could eat you alive.”

For the former Eagle, the path to the NFL has been a long journey. Undrafted in 2013, Francis was picked up by the Miami Dolphins as a free agent that year but was cut at the end of training camp. The former Gonzaga star was then picked up by the Patriots and added to the team’s practice squad at the start of the 2013 season.

Later that year, the Dolphins signed him off the Patriots practice squad — NFL teams are free to sign players with that designation as long as they are added to the active roster. After being cut once again by Miami, Francis was picked up by the Seattle Seahawks in 2015 and later added to the team’s practice squad. He eventually made it to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2016, where he spent training camp and was once again a late cut before the start of the year.

That’s when his hometown Redskins came calling and added him to their squad on Oct. 12 last year. Francis has bounced between the team’s practice squad and active rosters, but has relished the chance to be close to his family during the season.

A.J. Francis practices with the Washington Redskins. (Brian Kapur/The Current/August 2017)

“It’s been good; I get to see my family a lot more,” Francis said. “I travel wherever the team is even though I bought a house in Orlando. I see my family more than when I lived in Maryland. It’s been good to be back home. I get to be at more events. Last year I went to Thanksgiving with my family for the first time since I started in the NFL.”

The two lessons Francis has learned during his time in the NFL are that you can’t dwell on mistakes and you have to find ways to show up on film when the coaches review practices and games.

“A lot of rookies have trouble with it — myself included, when I was a rookie. You get too worried about being perfect every day, not realizing tomorrow you are doing the same thing,” he said. “Sometimes you have to take a shot. If you have an idea and you think something might work, don’t be afraid to do it. You could lose your job tomorrow anyway because four people at a different position got injured. There is nothing wrong with going out and balling every day.”

Since Francis first joined the Dolphins, he has seen action in just three regular-season games. With the Redskins, who struggled along the defensive line last year, Francis has a strong chance to join a position that is very much in flux. The Redskins made several moves up front this offseason, including letting their best lineman Chris Baker leave in free agency and cutting Ricky Jean Francois. The team drafted Jonathan Allen in the first round and picked up Terrell McClain in free agency.

On Aug. 6, the Redskins released their first unofficial depth chart of the preseason and Francis was listed as the backup tackle.

“I’ve had a really good camp. I’ve been making a lot of plays,” Francis said. “The D-line in general has had a really good camp and a lot of guys have shown up on film. We are really adapting and molding into what coach Jim Tomsula wants us to be. He’s a hell of a coach. He has gotten the best out of everyone in the room. He has been one of my favorite coaches that I have played for. I appreciate all of the opportunities he’s given me and all of the other guys in the room.”

Francis is one of four former Gonzaga stars in the NFL. At one point, the Gonzaga quartet — Francis, quarterback Kevin Hogan (Cleveland Browns), defensive back Johnson Bademosi (Detroit Lions) and linebacker Cam Johnson (Cleveland Browns) — were all teammates on I Street NW.

Four former Gonzaga stars who are now in the NFL — from left: Kevin Hogan, Johnson Bademosi, A.J. Francis and Cam Johnson, shown with Gonzaga president Rev. Stephen
W. Planning — returned to I Street in fall 2016 as honorary captains for a playoff game. (Brian Kapur/The Current/November 2016)

While Gonzaga is well-represented, the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference overall has produced a slew of NFL players, including three of his current Redskins teammates: defensive backs Lou Young and Kendall Fuller, who played at Good Counsel, and former DeMatha star offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio.

“We talk about it sometimes and the WCAC. They bring up that I never beat Good Counsel or DeMatha,” said Francis. “I always bring up the fact that I always kicked their O-line’s ass. I might not have won the game, but I won the position battle. We talk a lot of trash.”

Francis, who carved out a name for himself in the D.C. area after playing at Gonzaga and the University of Maryland, has also established a brand for himself by being informed and involved in things he is passionate about — politics, professional wrestling and music. His debut hip-hop album, “O.T.A.,” is already available for preorder on iTunes under the name Fran¢.

“I’m just me,” he said when asked about his off-the-field successes. “People ask me why you make music — my album comes out Sept. 8. I’ve been making music since I was 11. I’ve been playing football since I was 13.”

Francis is also unabashed when it comes to taking political stances on his Twitter page, @AJFrancis410, which boasts more than 11,000 followers. Francis has shown support for embattled quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who protested by kneeling during the national anthem last season and has yet to sign with a team. The Redskins lineman has also shown favor to Trump critics, and he described former President Barack Obama as an idol in a happy birthday tweet on Aug. 4.

“My undergrad is in undergrad politics and my master’s is in international security and economic policies,” Francis said. “I’m not just someone on the internet talking because I have a voice. I’m an informed person that goes out and researches everything they say and doesn’t put their foot in their mouth.”

While he does speak out, he knows he must pick his words well, which is why he prides himself on being in the know.

“I understand that one false statement can cost you your career,” Francis said. “It’s not just football players. It’s basketball players, it’s politicians — well, not really anymore; it used to be politicians. There are a lot of people that go on the internet and say foolish things and it gets them in trouble.”

Francis also gets his pro wrestling fix by co-hosting “Jobbing Out,” a podcast available on iTunes. On that show, he talks about news from the wrestling world and predicts the outcome of matches, such as the upcoming WWE Summerslam pay-per-view on Aug. 20. He already has scenarios in mind for the main event, which features former Ultimate Fighting Championship stalwart and current World Wrestling Entertainment champion Brock Lesnar, who is rumored to be leaving the wrestling ring for the mixed martial arts octagon.

As Francis tells it: “One of two things happens — if Brock Lesnar is going to do the joint UFC and WWE thing again, he wins. If he is going to UFC, I think Braun Stowman wins.”

Francis will continue his own fight to make the Redskins roster this week, when he puts on the No. 69 jersey and the team travels to battle the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.