75 for 75: Francis Goes Airborne

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"75 for 75" is an article series from the 49ers Museum highlighting legendary moments in 49ers history as part of the team's 75th Anniversary celebrations in 2021.

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July 1983

Russ Francis was an athletic tight end with the 49ers from 1982 to 1987. Despite his exceptional pass-catching talent, he often found himself in head coach Bill Walsh's doghouse for participating in dangerous hobbies like surfing, motorcycling and piloting small planes.

When the 49ers opened the 1983 training camp in Rocklin, Calif., Francis found himself still in the Bay Area.

"I needed to get to camp. The rookies were already there," Francis said. "I went to Livermore and hired someone to fly me to Rocklin in a Cessna. When we flew over the (practice) field, I strapped on my parachute and jumped out at about 4,000 feet. I landed away from the main field and quickly rolled up the chute so no one saw me. Bill (Walsh) never found out."

Francis' skydiving skill allowed him to report on time and unscathed to camp and during the 1983 campaign, he posted 33 receptions and four touchdowns. Yet, in 1986 another one of Francis' off field pastimes caused coach Walsh's blood pressure to rise. 

Francis was among a handful of pro football stars involved in the infamous Twenty Man Battle Royal at Wrestlemania 2. He shocked the wrestling world by surviving the mayhem until just four men were left standing in the ring.

Among the other NFL players competing at the Rosemont Horizon Arena in Rosemont, Illinois that night were Cowboys defensive end Harvey Martin, Bears defensive tackle William "Refrigerator" Perry, Falcons guard Bill Fralic and Bears tackle Jimbo Covert. They took on the cream of the pro wrestling crop, matching body slams with legendary grapplers like Andre the Giant, Big John Studd and The Iron Sheik.

The match began with 20 athletes, weighing a combined 5,600 pounds, packed together in a 20' x 20' square. Before the ring announcer finished introducing the combatants, they began throwing haymakers at one another. Men weighing upward of 300 pounds were tossed from the ring like rag dolls. Ten minutes later, Francis was one of the final four still standing. 

Unfortunately for Francis, the Battle Royal's eventual winner, 7-foot-4, 520-pound Andre the Giant, had his eyes on the 49ers tight end.

In his heyday, Francis was one of the NFL's largest pass catchers, standing 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, but he was no match for the Giant. Francis used his speed and agility to outmaneuver Andre, but once the Giant got his enormous hands on Francis it was all over.

Nevertheless, Francis was in the 49ers starting lineup in 1986. During his six seasons with San Francisco from 1982-1987, Francis recorded 186 receptions, averaged 11.3 yards per catch and scored 12 touchdowns.

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