Hawaii sports world remembers Russ Francis as irreplaceable — on and off the field

World champion and all-pro football star Russ Francis died in a plane crash in New York over the weekend.
Published: Oct. 2, 2023 at 5:05 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 2, 2023 at 5:09 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Hawaii sports world is mourning a sudden loss.

World champ and All-Pro football star Russ Francis died in a plane crash in New York over the weekend. Over a 14-year career in the NFL, the former Kailua High standout racked up accolade and accolade. He’s considered one of the best to come from the islands.

From the moment he stepped on a football field, Francis was a true original. A towering pass-catching machine, he got his start in high school ball on Oahu before moving to Oregon.

In 1975, the New England Patriots drafted him with the 16th overall pick and over six seasons, he was named a two-time All-Pro and selected to the Pro Bowl three times.

Francis was eventually traded to the San Francisco 49ers where he retired for a season, returned, and won a Super Bowl in 1984.

Former 49ers executive Carmen Policy called him the perfect fit for an offense that built a dynasty. “He had an athletic build, but he also displayed power,” Policy explained. “He was to me the quintessential tight end profile and figure. He showed the ability to have quick movement, strength, a skill position with power connected to it.”

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi is a friend of the Francis family and called him a pioneer.

“He took that physicality and took it to the highest level and while he was there was the best in the game,” Blangiardi said. “I thought that really set a model for a lot of young people to aspire to the standpoint of anything and everything was possible.”

And Francis lived like everything was possible.

“The kind of individual that shows up at a party maybe having parachuted out of a plane and then still strips down into his tuxedo,” Policy said.

“Kind of James Bondish and he really was a personality.”

Football was just one part of the Russ Francis story as he was an avid aviator and sports enthusiast. After his playing days, he jumped into media and became sports director at KGMB.

“I remember interviewing him in the old KGMB studios and he’s looking around and he’s going, ‘I think we used to wrestle in here’ and he was right,” said former KGMB sports director Larry Beil.

“That was the wrestling studio where all the TV production was done, it was just kind of a journey back to his wrestling days.”

Francis was later inducted into both the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame and Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, highlighting the legacy of a man whose free spirit made a lasting impression.

“A really positive energy type of guy who just lived life to its fullest,” Beil said. “No question about that. He probably had more experiences than a dozen of us combined.”

Francis was 70 years old.