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A.J. Francis has choices, but keeps coming back to football

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Defensive tackle keeps trying to prove doubters wrong

NFL: Preseason-Cleveland Browns at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
A.J. Francis with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A.J. Francis is a lot of things.

  • He is a rapper who goes by the name Fran⍧. He has released eight mix tapes, an album and several YouTube videos of his music.
  • He is a life-long pro wrestling fan who co-hosts the “Jobbing Out” wrestling podcast. He has considered the idea of a pro wrestling career after football, and says his character would be a “heel,” which translates to bad guy for non-wrestling fans.
  • He is a former Uber driver.
  • He is a Star Wars nut, with the tattoos to prove it.
  • He has a Master’s Degree from the University of Maryland in Public Policy with a concentration in International Security & Economic Policy.

The New York Giants don’t care about that stuff

What the Giants care about is that Francis is a 6-foot-5, 337-pound behemoth who loves to play football and could an important part of their defensive line rotation, giving them a player who could allow them to take some of the workload, and the pounding, off Damon Harrison without severely compromising their interior defense.

Throughout training camp, Francis has been a noticeable presence. At his size, it’s hard to miss him, of course. But, it is his play and his enthusiasm that draw the eye during Giants practices.

If he isn’t busting through the line of scrimmage to make plays on his own, Francis has been celebrating when teammates do. Or, encouraging them when they don’t. He even broke out a few dance moves for teammates during a “break” period at a recent practice.

“More than an athlete”

Francis, 28, makes no apologies for his multi-faceted life.

“I’m more than an athlete. If football ended for me today I’d still be a successful man. I’d still be a dude that grew up in a family and an area where not many people make it out. I was the only person in my family that went to a four-year college out of high school,” Francis said.

“I have friends that had way worse lives than me. I had my father in my life and I have a lot of friends that didn’t. I grew up with two parents and they tried to give me everything that they could, but I had to go out and earn everything that I got.”

“Not a great area to live in”

Francis grew up in Pioneer City, Md., a drug and crime infested area he called “not a great area to live in.” He still has family there.

“The reason why I think a lot of people gravitate to my music is even if you can’t relate to my music, you can tell that my music is genuinely me. It’s my story. I’m not telling you the story of somebody else. I’m not telling you the story of the drug dealer down the street. I’ll tell you his story -- but I’ll let you know it’s his story,” Francis said.

“I say in my music all the time I never sold drugs, but I know a lot of people that have sold drugs. I know a lot of people in my own family that are criminals, that have done time. But that don’t make them bad people. They’re just in a bad situation and they gotta get out how they get.”

Francis got out with football

But, the journey has not been easy.

He went to Gonzaga High School, then the University of Maryland before entering the NFL as — of course — an undrafted free agent.

“People didn’t think I could play there [Gonzaga]. I get there, people don’t think I can play in college. I get to college and I start for four years and people don’t think I can play in the NFL,” Francis said.

“My whole life I’ve been having to prove people wrong.”

Even his coach at Maryland didn’t believe Francis had an NFL future.

“After my junior year my head coach in college, Randy Edsall [Maryland’s head coach], looked me in the face and told me didn’t think I could play in the NFL.”

The journey can be heard and felt in his music.

“The reason why I think a lot of people gravitate to my music is even if you can’t relate to my music, you can tell that my music is genuinely me. It’s my story. I’m not telling you the story of somebody else. I’m not telling you the story of the drug dealer down the street. I’ll tell you his story -- but I’ll let you know it’s his story,” Francis said.

“I say in my music all the time I never sold drugs, but I know a lot of people that have sold drugs. I know a lot of people in my own family that are criminals, that have done time. But that don’t make them bad people. They’re just in a bad situation and they gotta get out how they get.”

“I’m still here”

Francis’s NFL career has been one rejection after another since he entered the league in 2013. New England Patriots. Miami Dolphins. Seattle Seahawks. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Washington Redskins. Despite the other options he has in life, he keeps coming back.

“Every team I’ve ever been on has cut me at least once. Patriots cut me once, the Dolphins cut me twice, the Seahawks cut me once, Tampa cut me once, DC cut me three times … four times, and I’m still here,” Francis said. “That’s ‘cause I’m a good kid. No coach that’s ever coached me will ever say a disparaging word about me as a person or me as a player because I come to work every day and I do my job. I don’t be in trouble, I don’t get in trouble off the field -- you don’t hear about me getting in trouble off the field. I’ve been in the league a long time, guys get in trouble all the time, I’ve never been in trouble off the field. I do all the stuff off the field you want.”

The NFL is filled with undrafted players at the bottom of rosters who have to wait their turns behind highly-drafted or highly-paid players. Some never get a real opportunity. Few are willing to directly talk about it. Francis isn’t one of them.

“I wasn’t drafted. I was never anybody’s boy. I never had a big-time contract. When it came down to it if you’ve gotta choose between this guy who’s really good at football, or this guy that we owe $5 million dollars … that’s how the league works,” Francis said.

“The best thing about me being cut so many times is I understand that I could be gone tomorrow. I come every day to work like it’s my last day here and if you’re going to cut me you’re going to say “damn, we cut him, he’s a helluva football player, but we had to do something else.’ You’re never going to be able to say we cut him because he wasn’t good enough.”

Will he be good enough for the Giants?

GM Dave Gettleman has made no secret of his desire to build a deep rotation of players along the defensive line. He doesn’t want what happened the past few seasons, the best players playing far too many snaps, to happen this time.

When the Giants drafted B.J. Hill, the logical assumption was that he would become Harrison’s backup at the nose. Instead, he’s become a starting defensive end next to Harrison. Francis and Robert Thomas seem like the primary candidates to be the backup for ‘Snacks.’

“Since the day I got here I feel like I’ve been given a longer leash than a lot of places I’ve been. I’ve been shown more respect here than a lot of places I’ve been. Here, I’m one of the older guys in the d-line room. The young guys here listen to what I’ve got to say because they want to be in the league six years like me,” Francis said.

“Obviously they want to have a different path than I did. To be cut as many times as I have and still be here six years later that shows that I know what the hell I’m doing.”

If he keeps doing what he’s been doing thus far in training camp, it’s hard to imagine Francis not being part of the team’s season-opening 53-man roster.