COLLEGE PARK – It’s Mike Francis’ day to play stay-at-home dad. His wife, Carrie Francis, is at work, leaving him to look after their 3-year-old son until he heads off to stock shelves at Walmart.
Shots fire. Before Mike can figure out what’s going on, a man bursts through the front door of the family’s Severn home, sprints through the living room and darts out the back.
Mike rushes to the front window and sees a man with a pistol walking up his driveway.
“Wait, wait, wait!” Mike screams. “He don’t live here! He don’t live here!”
The man with the pistol dashes down the street. Mike turns around to find his son A.J., an unusually large child, sitting on the living room couch.
Mike doesn’t know it yet, but his son will grow to be 6-foot-5 and a colossal 305 pounds. He will land a major Division 1 football scholarship as a defensive lineman, and eventually help anchor a Maryland Terrapins defense that ranks top-10 nationally.
He will become a collegiate standout, but will be celebrated more for his wit than his sacks or blocked field goals.
He will garner headlines with his vivid account of “Grandpa Shaky,” his 90-something-year-old, Jheri-curled great-grandfather who supposedly buried $100,000 in his mattresses. He will write a Terps-inspired rap song the women’s lacrosse team will play during pregame warm-ups.
He will become the only amateur athlete on Sports Illustrated’s second-annual Twitter 100, a list of the best people to follow on the social network. The honor will recognize his commitment to giving his 3,110 followers a constant stream of comical musings ranging from professional wrestling to political debates.
But those public antics obscure the real story of A.J.
He’s a guy who emerged unscathed from a violent, drug-ridden neighborhood with the support of his parents. He’s a guy who has helped his family through trying times and does things — like musical theater — that most other top athletes avoid. He’s a guy who plans — not hopes, plans — to run the entire state of Maryland someday.
“I’m an open book man,” A.J. said Tuesday. “I want people to think about things I’ve gone through because I feel like I can be an example for people who have gone through similar things to not give up.”
1. He doesn’t care about money.
Carrie had just graduated from Meade Senior High School in Anne Arundel County, and had designs of entering the Air Force to begin a career in military intelligence. College wasn’t for her, she figured, so she might as well serve her country.
Plans quickly changed, however, when the 17-year-old learned she was pregnant with her first child. Instead of joining the Air Force, she’d spend her days changing diapers and keeping house. Carrie moved into a modest home in Pioneer City, a drug-ridden neighborhood in Severn, with longtime boyfriend Mike.
The couple married when A.J. was 2 and did its best to make ends meet. Mike stocked shelves at Walmart overnight and did car appraisals for an auto auction during the day. Carrie took a job booking flights for America West Airlines.
As time wore on, it became increasingly clear that the Pioneer City section of Severn was no place to raise their child. Some of their neighbors were dealing drugs, others were trafficking in stolen goods.
The breaking point came when a suspect in a drug deal gone awry ran through the family home and, weeks later, a 3-year-old A.J. picked up a crack pipe while taking a stroll through the neighborhood with his grandparents.
Carrie’s father, who worked for the Department of Defense and helped out when money was tight, went house hunting with Carrie’s mom that day. The Francis family moved into Wedgewood Forest, a middle-class duplex community on the other side of Severn, later that month.
After that, the family’s circumstances steadily improved. Carrie and Mike went back to school and got higher paying jobs. Carrie started working for Verizon, while Mike began coaching and counseling at North County High School.
They made enough for A.J. to have everything he needed to lead a well-rounded life — cable T.V., a small recording studio in his room and football gear.
When A.J. enrolled at Gonzaga College High School, a private school in Washington, D.C., he couldn’t help but notice his family fit into a different tax bracket than most of his classmates.
While many of his friends drove BMWs to school, A.J. slapped his alarm clock at 5 a.m. each morning and walked to the MARC station. While teammates returned to luxurious homes in Potomac after practice, A.J. headed back to a duplex crammed with acquaintances, relatives and family friends — anyone in need of a place to crash.
Most of his classmates’ parents covered Gonzaga’s expensive tuition. A.J. earned a scholarship that covered 90 percent of the cost of attending, and his grandfather covered the rest.
Today, he looks back fondly on his time at Gonzaga. It was a welcoming place with a faculty and staff committed to developing well-rounded individuals.
It also helped him recognize the importance of being genuine. It made him respect people who don’t care about how much money his family has, people who love him for being himself.
“A.J. will hang out with anyone,” said Jay Clark, A.J.’s best friend since elementary school. “It’s not about whether you’re an athlete or whatever. It’s about if you’re real.”
2. He performed in three high school musicals
When Mike was growing up in Pioneer City, he and his friends threw rocks at neighborhood children who played soccer.
Kicking a ball into a net simply didn’t fit into their worldview. Soccer was foreign, something their hardscrabble upbringings didn’t allow them to experience.
So they rejected it. They berated and injured kids who dared to be different. That was all they knew.
“It was more jealousy than anything,” Mike said.
When A.J. was born in 1990, Mike, who was 20 at the time, made a decision: his son would experience everything he couldn’t. His son would dare to be different.
The father’s only requirement? Whatever A.J. decided to do, he’d have to give it 100 percent effort.
That meant when A.J.’s mother signed him up for an elementary school fashion show, the 5-year-old had to to strut down the walkway in his mini-tuxedo with utmost confidence. That meant when he wrote a play for his middle school talent show, he had to make sure each word was chosen with precision. That meant when A.J. started playing football for Severn Athletic Club as an 11-year-old, he couldn’t simply settle for being a decent player. He’d have to dominate.
“No one’s better than you,” Mike regularly told his son. “Life is not easy. Life is not promised to you. Life is not given to you. I don’t care what it is, you must always strive to be the best.”
For the most part, A.J. was the best at everything he did.
He maintained higher than a 3.5 GPA throughout middle school and high school. He earned a reputation during his freshman year as the top rapper at Gonzaga. He played in the 2007 U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a game for top high school prospects.
And when a friend asked him to try out for the school musical his sophomore year, A.J. saw another opportunity to showcase his talents. After all, he’d already impressed teachers and classmates singing bass in the school chorus. Transferring those skills to the stage seemed a natural transition.
Francis landed the role of Big Jule, a gun-wielding gambler in “Guys and Dolls.” He loved everything about it — the response from the crowd, the challenge of playing an older character, the camaraderie with his cast mates.
He appeared in “Annie” the following spring, and earned a spot in “West Side Story” his senior year. Due to his massive frame, he was typecast as the elder authority figure.
Francis didn’t mind, though. He enjoyed the thrill of performing, of having a stage to showcase a larger-than-life persona.
“Just thinking back now,” A.J. said, “I’ve done so many weird things in my life. I don’t know why. All I know is it’s been fun.”
3. He’s struggled with mental illness in his family.
The Terps enjoyed a landmark season in 2010. After a 2-10 debacle the previous year, coach Ralph Friedgen’s squad tallied nine wins and made a bowl appearance.
It was also a notable campaign for A.J. The redshirt sophomore started nine of the Terps’ 13 games, and recorded a career-high 44 tackles.
But while his teammates spent Saturday nights celebrating the team’s newfound success at bars like Bentley’s or Cornerstone, A.J. stayed in his dorm room and had three to four hour phone conversations with his mother.
On Aug. 23, 2010, just two weeks before the Terps’ season opening win over Navy, Mike and Carrie separated. After careful discussions with A.J., Mike said he agreed to leave the family home for two days. He never returned.
The news couldn’t have come at worse time for Carrie. A year earlier, she was laid off from her job as an IT specialist and was suffering from debilitating arthritis and chronic migraines, she said. It was around that same time she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she said.
When Mike moved out, Carrie said she became increasingly unstable. She was still in the process of finding a proper medication regimen and was experiencing a range of emotions. One day, she’d be so depressed she could hardly get out of bed. The next, she’d have uncontrollable bouts of rage.
She felt alone. She felt scared. Outside of her parents, the only thing that helped her make it through was the love and support of her only son.
A.J. called his mom nearly every day after practice that season to make sure she was holding up. Sometimes he’d call and she’d have nothing to say. He’d stay on the phone with her for hours without uttering a word. Knowing he was there was enough to lift her spirits.
Today, Carrie’s doing much better. She lives in a basement apartment at her parents’ home with her 12-year-old daughter Meme, and she said her fits of rage are becoming increasingly rare. She found a medication that works for her, has come to terms with her divorce and makes it to all her son’s home games.
Still, every once in awhile when she’s alone, she reflects on those darker days. She thinks about everything A.J. did for her in her time of need — every gesture of support, every “I love you” — and she cries.
“A.J. was my rock,” Carrie said as tears filled her eyes. “He’s never been a mama’s boy, but he takes care of his mother.”
4. He started a pro-fat guy “movement.”
The first words Francis ever heard were “Oh my God.” The doctor delivering him simply couldn’t believe his size. Measuring 2-feet and nearly 10 pounds, A.J. was a baby giant.
And he just kept getting bigger. By the time he was nine months old, he wore size 3 shoes and T-shirts meant for toddlers. When he reached 18 months, he was already showing signs of the elite defensive lineman he’d one day become.
As a one and a half year old, A.J. made his first of nine trips to Alice Springs, Australia — a midsized town in the country’s Northern Territory where his mother’s parents were stationed for 18 years.
There, he met Fletcher, a baby orphan kangaroo his grandparents had recently adopted, and began roughhousing with him. One misplaced step later and Fletcher had a broken leg. Normally injured kangaroos are euthanized, but A.J.’s family decided to see how he’d fare wearing a cast. Over his next several weeks, A.J. helped nurse Fletcher back to health.
Given his almost legendary appetite, it was perhaps a good thing kangaroo isn’t an Australian specialty. Ask a Terps football player about A.J., and he’ll almost surely launch into a story about the behemoth’s eating habits.
Before transferring in March, quarterback Danny O’Brien used to regale reporters with the tale of his visit with A.J. to the North Carolina-based restaurant, Cook Out. Then a redshirt sophomore, A.J. reportedly ate two full trays — two burgers, four sides, a milkshake and a 40-oz. soda — in one sitting.
About two years ago, A.J. started championing a new cause, one that would allow him to eat as much as he wants without scorn. He calls it “Fat Guy Friendly” and — like many things A.J. gets behind — it’s all about embracing one’s self.
“You’ve got to understand who you are,” A.J. said. “Being fat is like a lifestyle. It’s one of those things you can’t really run away from. You can change, but who really wants to? If you could be voluptuous, why wouldn’t you?”
Outside of a series of hashtags littering A.J.’s Twitter account, there seems to be little to support his claim that “Fat Guy Friendly” is a movement. No rallies have been organized in its name. No clubs have formed in its honor.
Still, A.J. remains adamant it’s picking up steam.
“It has really caught fire the last couple months man,” he said. “I’ve been using that term for awhile. It’s one of those things — you keep chipping away at the tree, sooner or later it’s going to fall.”
5. He plans to become the governor of Maryland.
Francis was walking home from the school bus when an Anne Arundel County police officer stopped him on the sidewalk, flashed a gun and asked him to sit on the curb.
The cop told A.J. he resembled someone suspected of robbing a nearby liquor store. Both were African American and both were wearing New York Yankees sweatshirts. A.J. tried to explain he was 12 years old, a good six years younger than the suspect. He also argued he was wearing a different color sweatshirt than the alleged robber. His was blue, while the suspect’s was gray.
The police officer didn’t buy it, and pulled out his handcuffs to arrest the middle schooler, A.J. said.
Suddenly, the cashier who’d been robbed approached the cop. She said A.J. wasn’t the man who’d held her at gunpoint, and the officer let A.J. continue walking home.
Less than a year later, A.J. once again stared down the barrel of a gun. After pulling into a McDonald’s parking lot with his father to grab lunch, six officers told Mike and A.J. to put their hands on their heads. As African Americans driving a white truck, A.J. and Mike fit the description of two bank robbery suspects.
The cops eventually became convinced they’d stopped the wrong men and moved on with their day. A.J., though, was shaken.
The 13-year-old begged his father for an explanation. He wanted to know why a kid who tried to stay out of trouble would be accused of such heinous crimes.
“He told me that’s how it’s going to be my whole life as long as I look like as much of a menacing presence as I do,” A.J. said. “He told me, ‘Don’t ever forget moments like this because you never know when they can happen again.’”
Those experiences — as well as numerous others like them — helped lay the groundwork for Francis’ political ambitions. They strengthened his conviction that Maryland is burdened with systematic flaws, flaws that often work against underprivileged minorities.
And that’s why A.J. has a very specific political aim: He wants to be the governor of Maryland. After trying his luck in the NFL and maybe enjoying a few years wrestling in the WWE, he plans to run for governor as a Democrat.
The dream originally sprouted from a sixth-grade election. After losing a bid to serve as class president at Old Mill Middle School, a distraught A.J. decided he didn’t need to lead a group of 12-year-olds. He would simply govern the state.
Six years later, his ambition to follow in the footsteps of Gonzaga alum Gov. Martin O’Malley was so strong it played a critical role in his college decision. After weighing offers from a handful of ACC programs, A.J. narrowed his search to Georgia Tech and Maryland. Both schools fulfilled his chief requirements of solid academics and proximity to a major city.
But the Terps offered something the Yellow Jackets couldn’t. A government and politics degree from Maryland would surely hold more weight come election time than a diploma from a Southern school. If A.J. was serious about living in the Governor’s Mansion, he figured, his options were limited.
“He could always be the governor of Maryland with a degree from the University of Maryland,” Mike said. “Georgia Tech, not so much.”
A.J. made the most of his decision. He earned that government and politics degree last December, and interned this summer in the office of Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second ranking Democrat in the House. A.J. is a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage, taking any available opportunity to encourage others to support the state referendum on the issue. He’s also adamant about expanding gambling in the state of Maryland, and has no qualms defending who and what he votes for each election.
“I’m [political], but I’m not getting into any kind of political conversation with him,” linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield said with a chuckle. “He’ll just kill me. I wouldn’t want to get involved.”
A.J. doesn’t allow party lines to dominate his view of politics. For him, the political process is about far more than elections and debates. It’s about making every voice heard, about helping people on society’s margins find their way.
That’s why he hopes to establish a nonprofit aimed at helping the children of Pioneer City. He watched drugs ruin childhood friends’ lives. He knows parents who’ve resorted to stealing food to feed their children. He watched his father struggle to provide a better life for his family, only to move back to Pioneer City when he was laid off in March 2010 from his counseling job at Glen Burnie’s North County High School.
A.J. understands life will never be easy. He just wants to make it a bit less difficult.
“Everybody has an avenue that they can make themselves a better human being through,” A.J. said. “It’s just a matter of finding out what it is for you personally. That’s why my goal is to help people make it out of situations that might plague them currently.”
6. He doesn’t enjoy talking with the media.
A.J. struts into the Maryland football team field house with a Cheshire grin, and takes his seat at an empty table in the the room’s far corner.
The reporters act quickly. Some put down ham sandwiches, others leave players mid-interview. Within moments, a horde of recorders and microphones surround A.J. as he slowly leans back in his chair and exhales. He seems in his element.
But looks can be deceiving. A.J. — the one who regularly holds court with reporters, the one who always seems to know precisely how to answer a question — does not look forward to addressing the media each week.
When he was younger, sure, he relished the opportunity to entertain writers and broadcasters. It was new. It was exciting.
But over the course of his five-year college career, his enthusiasm waned. He grew bored with the repetition, with the constant barrage of similar questions. For someone who aims to get the most out of every moment, sitting in a chair and breaking down opposing offenses gets taxing.
A.J. constantly treads a fine line during interviews. He wants to say something unique, something interesting. He hates sounding like every other player who’s ever sat in front of a microphone. Doing so would go against the very essence of everything he represents.
At the same time, he tries to avoid being overly brash. The last thing he wants to do is provide the opposition bulletin-board material. He’s always aware a misplaced joke could hurt the week’s ultimate objective: winning on Saturday.
The balancing act grows burdensome, especially for a person who has a reputation for dazzling the media. He has an expectation to fulfill and if there’s one thing he abhors, it’s letting people down.
“I understand it’s part of the deal,” he said. “It’s like front squats. I hate front squats. I know I’ve got to do them to get better and talking to the media is part of playing college football. It’s just what it is.”
So A.J. accepts his role and tries to embrace it. He arrives at Gossett Team House’s Young Dining Hall each week — albeit a bit late sometimes — and puts on a show.
When a reporter asked him earlier this year how he’d feel facing former defensive coordinator Don Brown in an upcoming contest with Connecticut, he launched into a full-blown impersonation of the mustached coach. Mimicking Brown’s gravely bass, he detailed highlights of Brown’s pregame speech at the 2010 Military Bowl — complete with references to homicide and burial plots.
And when a writer asked him a few weeks ago about rabid West Virginia fans, he plainly explained that it makes sense Mountaineers supporters are overzealous. After all, he reasoned, there isn’t much to do in West Virginia. He should know. He has cousins there who hang out at Walmart on the weekends.
“It’s the nature of the beast,” A.J. said of his relationship with reporters. “There’s nothing I can do to stop it. I’m always going to talk to the media. For some reason, you guys really, really like what I have to say at least.”
This story is based on multiple, in-depth interviews with A.J. Francis, his parents and his teammates and friends at Gonzaga and the University of Maryland.