If you’re my Facebook friend, or encountered me in person in the past couple of weeks, you may have already seen, read or heard some of my thoughts about Joe Francis, my P.E. teacher at Pearl City High School and — little did I know at the time 35 years ago — a Hawaii sports legend. So I apologize if I’m repeating myself, but there’s some new stuff here, too.
Mr. Francis passed away from prostate cancer on April 15, and I wrote a story obit. This was overshadowed by other stories that day, especially the Boston Marathon bombing. But to many of his former students and football players from Pearl City High and his large ‘ohana this was of course the biggest news of the day, even for those of us who knew it was coming soon because he had been seriously ill for a long time.
His memorial services were Tuesday at St. Ann’s Church in Kaneohe, and hundreds of loved ones and former players and students attended. It was a beautiful setting. Many smiles and tears were shared as stories were exchanged about the strength, humility, wisdom and humor of Joe Francis. Too many Hawaii sports luminaries to mention attended.
Those of us at Pearl City in the ’70s and ’80s actually had three big-time local sports legends teaching and counseling us and most of us didn’t even realize it because they were so humble. Bino Neves, the jolly athletic director who the stadium is now named after, had been a star player at Purdue. Counselor Dick “Kaipo” Kenney was famous as Michigan State’s barefoot kicker and was in the Game of the Century between the Spartans and Notre Dame in 1966, which was the first mainland sports event televised in the islands by satellite. I credit Mr. Kenney with providing me with great career advice because he made the correct decision to cut me from the JV baseball team, and that’s when my delusions of being a pro athlete disappeared and I started to focus on becoming a sports writer.
And Joe Francis, who was a star at Oregon State and went on to the NFL and CFL, has now joined his friends and colleagues Neves and Kenney in the hereafter.
Barry Villamil, a 1977 PCHS graduate who covers the Pearl City community like a blanket on his web site, shared one of the funniest stories. As a P.E. teacher, Coach Francis often participated in games with us. Barry recalls a sham battle game where both teams conspired to nail Francis with throws all at one time. He laughed along with the students but got his revenge: For the next two weeks, that P.E. class did actual book work instead of fun and games.
His P.E. classes were sometimes more like recess than schoolwork (especially during football season when Coach Francis would often be in his office working on his game plan), but that doesn’t mean he ignored us and we didn’t learn things. He inspired many of us. I wasn’t a football player, but he often asked how I was doing in track and even once something about the school paper. Lots of students wanted to be his teacher’s assistant, so I was surprised and honored when he chose me for one of the coveted spots (yeah, I admit, it was an easy ‘A’).
Everybody knew Mr. Francis was a tough, strong guy who was in great shape. I don’t think he was ever challenged by a student. But he also had a quirky sense of humor, and that helped him get his message across as a teacher. Keone Kuniyoshi remember Francis saying this, “The three worst things in life is one, if you lie, two, if you hate Jesus, and three, your feet stink.”
Brian Derby, who might be the best football player to ever come out of PCHS, said Coach Francis quoted Vince Lombardi to inspire his players.
But during those high school years, I never really knew about Coach Francis’ history as a college football star and a player for the Green Bay Packers, under Vince Lombardi. He was just my super cool P.E. teacher who played tag football with us on the red dirt field and dropped witty one-liners and pearls of wisdom.