Wise defensive end Giovani Francois makes big impression in short time

By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2010; 12:03 AM

Giovani Francois has been on the phone quite a bit recently. Assistant coaches from Cincinnati, Louisville and Tennessee, among other schools, have called this week. Michigan State also has reached out to him, as have Maryland and Marshall.

For a football player who missed nearly all of his senior season, getting back under the watchful eye of college recruiters has been welcome.

"I've been talking to different schools every day," said Francois, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound defensive end, who will play for the Washington team in Saturday's Crab Bowl all-star game at Bowie State. "The coach from Cincinnati said he saw film from my junior year and wants me to play outside linebacker. He said the way I play and the way I'm built reminded him of Shawne Merriman."

Merriman, the former Douglass High and University of Maryland standout, goes by the nickname "Lights Out." And for much of this season, the lights were out on Francois's football career.

Until two months ago, Francois had been attending an alternative school in Bradenton, Fla. He had been a standout on the football team at Southeast High in Bradenton for his first three years of high school, but was removed from the school in January after he was charged with rape in juvenile court.

The charges subsequently were dropped, refiled as lesser charges in adult court, sent to juvenile court and eventually dismissed over the state's objection when a judge found that Francois had been denied his right to a speedy trial.

Though he was cleared in court, Francois was not allowed to return to Southeast, which still upsets the player. Unable to play football and attending a school where students do their work on computers and have little interaction with other people, Francois in mid-October decided to leave Bradenton and move to Upper Marlboro, where he lives with his godmother, Valeria Tomlin, and her four children.

Because Francois did not turn 18 until Nov. 20, Tomlin, a lawyer, became the legal guardian for Francois so that he could attend school locally. (Her ex-husband, Eddie, is the older brother of Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin.)

The Tomlins' oldest child, Maya, is a junior at Wise, so it made sense for Francois to enroll there. But there was no guarantee he would be able to play football at the school, which has a successful team that played for the Maryland 4A title this month. When the Tomlins and Francois approached Pumas Coach DaLawn Parrish, he was skeptical but willing to listen.

"You look at them and it's like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, everybody tells me they're good,' " Parrish said. "I looked online and I saw everything, saw the situation he was talking about.

"I called down to his coach, got background about his character and nobody had anything negative to say."

Francois joined the team for its final regular season game and started at defensive end as Wise advanced to the Maryland 4A championship game. In five games, he had 32 tackles and five sacks and forced three fumbles.

Opposing coaches took note and Parrish was quick to send out highlight tapes, hoping to stir interest among college recruiters who might have forgotten about Francois or not known that he had moved to Maryland. Although Francois had attended a series of combines and college camps this past summer, he had been unable to satisfy the one thing most recruiters wanted.

"Everybody wanted film of my senior year, but there was nothing I could do," Francois said. "I came up here, and it was great. This is what I was waiting for. But I was shocked with the cold."

Francois, who had never seen snow before a trip to Pittsburgh last weekend, laughed at the idea of school closing early Thursday because of snow. In Florida, he noted, there were hurricane days.

"It's been crazy, going from being in a cell [for a weekend while waiting for a court hearing] to playing in front of thousands of fans and bonding with teammates," he said. "Having a chance to go to prom, having teachers with homework. I never thought I would be happy to have homework again."

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