Temptation still tugs at A.J. Francis on his daily morning commute to the Bommarito Performance Systems facility in South Florida, more than a thousand miles from home. It peers over the road’s edges, beckoning the gregarious defensive lineman no matter how reformed he’s become in his post-Maryland days.
A.J. Francis passes seven fast-food restaurants while driving to his early-morning workouts in North Miami Beach, training for his shot at the NFL. Some time ago, Francis, who typically indulged in comfort foods during postgame meals but still ate fairly healthy during the week, created the Twitter hashtag #FatGuyFriendly, gauging a situation’s accessibility to someone of his appetite.
The Bommarito meal plan is decidedly not #FatGuyFriendly. Everything’s organic. Organic beef. Organic pasta. Organic eggs blended into organic maple syrup and organic bananas. It’s a good thing the protein shakes taste phenomenal, otherwise we’d have a problem.
But Francis is flexible. It’s all part of pursuing his dreams. Wouldn’t you give up a personal vice if the NFL beckoned?
“You have to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
So he rises at 6 a.m. every day, alternating weightlifting sessions with runs and positional drills until dusk alongside former Maryland teammates Matt Furstenburg, Kenneth Tate, Joe Vellano and R.J. Dill, who transferred to Rutgers for his senior season. Furstenburg was the only Terp to receive an NFL combine invitation; the rest will hold their pro day at Maryland on March 13.
Until then, it’s full speed ahead with training at the same facility that previously hosted Maryland alums Torrey Smith, Bruce Campbell, Shawn Merriman and Vernon Davis, among others. A typical day begins with a wake-up call at his hotel, where Francis lives with Furstenburg, his roommate of the past three years. He’ll reach the facility by 6:30 a.m., receive some medical attention, be it a massage or chiropractic work, and then training begins at 8 a.m.
“Getting up at 6 o clock in the morning is very Maryland-esque,” Francis said. “A lot of the other guys are struggling. I’m used to hearing the alarm clock go off at 6:06, rolling out of bed and ready to go with my day. You get used to that. Now, on the weekends, the only way I sleep in past 8 is if I purposely stay up until 3 o clock in the morning.”
Around 11 comes lunch, then a two-hour lift starts at 1 p.m., followed by positional drills to prepare them for pro day and the combine.
“They take care of us,” Francis said. “We do a lot of recovery work, recovery foods and all this different stuff to get our legs back and work our muscles. Every day, at the end of the day you’re beat. But before you do your first workout in the morning, you’re back to where you need to be. Every day is a grind. Some days, you get off, and you’re in Florida. There’s a lot you can do.”
Chief among those are beach trips to stem the mental exhaustion, but Friday night the group will go see Penn and Teller at the Hard Rock Casino. Francis said he wouldn’t volunteer to get sawed in half.
“It’s draining,” he said. “You’re doing the same stuff. You’re just working hard to one date, just trying to get better. The worst part is, you see guys you’ve out-performed your whole career, or guys you’ve dominated on the field, going to the combine. … Certain scouts are talking to them and not talking to you, so you feel kind of annoyed about that.
“It’s frustrating sometimes because you know what you’re capable of. You feel like you have to go out and out-perform yourself. It’s not that bad of a deal for me personally. I just like to come to work every day and bust my [butt] in every single rep, and at the end of the day I’ll see what happens. … If I don’t make it into the NFL, it’s not because I didn’t bust my [butt] every single day to get better. It’ll be just because I wasn’t good enough. That’s plain and simple.”
Long a favorite among fans, reporters and teammates thanks to his candor and penchant for fantastic stories (see here, here and here), Francis finished his senior season at Maryland ranked third on the team with nine tackles for a loss, first with three blocked kicks and first with three fumble recoveries, earning honorable mention all-ACC honors and an invitation to St. Petersburg’s East-West Shrine Bowl in the process. At the Shrine Bowl, Francis said he talked with “11 or 12 [NFL] teams,” which were “pleasantly surprised that I stay out of trouble.”
“The second day there, you go to a hospital and meet all these kids,” Francis said. “It was very heartwarming and humbling to see all these kids who have disorders that they can’t walk, or they’re in wheelchairs, or they need someone to help communicate for them. They’re just as happy as can be that you’re there. They’re there to have fun. You get caught up in the spirit, and you have a lot of fun with them.”
Arguably Francis’s biggest offseason lifestyle change has no relation to organic foods or healthy living, though the day after pro day he plans to order a few golden barbeque wings at Cornerstone. On Wednesday, for the first time in three years, Francis changed his Twitter handle, which gained national recognition this past season after making Sports Illustrated’s Twitter 100.
No longer is he @The_Franchyze, a nickname held ever since scoring 40 points in a youth-league basketball game at age 12. Now, he’s simply @AJFrancis410, a nod to his hometown area code, inspired by a rising hip-hop artist from Montgomery County named Logic.
“I just thought it was time,” Francis said. “I just wanted to make it AJFrancis, but you’d be surprised how many A.J. Francis’s there are in the world. And you’d also be surprised how many A.J. Francis’s don’t even use their accounts. The scumbags are sitting there, I’m trying to use the account, and they’ve tweeted twice in two and a half years.
“So I decided to rep the homeland. Maryland until I die. … That way, if I get drafted or signed, and I get a bum number like 64 as an undrafted guy, I won’t have to change it to AJFrancis64. It’ll just stay 410.”