Russ Francis of the New England Patriots, among the best tight ends in professional football, once said he would kill George Atkinson if the Oakland Raiders' defensive back attacked him again. That was last December after a playoff game in which Atkinson shattered Francis' nose with a forearm blow. "I will kill Atkinson if he ever tries to do that again," Francis said that day.
"I don't remember saying that," Francis said today. "That must have been right after the game. I don't feel any undue animosity toward George Atkinson now. Football's a tough sport and there are guys who have played longer than Atkinson and done worse things than he's done.
"I'm not going to try to kill him. And I'm not trying to put him out of football, which is another quote I've read. That's part of George's game - intimidation. Let him play his game of intimidation if he wants. I went back in that game and caught a touchdown pass against him. That's enough for me."
Beyond the gutter meanness of the assault, Atkinson established a certain pattern in his clumsy attempts at decapitation last season. He struck men in the head with his forearm only when they weren't looking, and his victims invariably were great players. Some pass receivers hope to be Allpro, but the really good ones are All-Atkinson.
Francis, whose Patriot team meets the Redskins here Sunday, is remarkable for his size and speed. He is a giant at 6-foot-6 and 240 who moves like a little man. The thought of Francis flying on a pass pattern must cause defensive backs chilling moments of panic, for they'll either tackle him (which will hurt a lot) or they'll miss him (the pain being six points and embarrassment). For George Atkinson last season, the curative to panic seemed to be premediatated assaults against unsuspecting pass receivers.
The Lynn Swann case is sadly familiar. Swann is the Pittsburgh Steelers' wide receiver. His gift is grace and it is a joy to see him gliding through a day's work. To a defensive back, though, Swann is a cursed enemy an when Swann wasn't looking. Atkinson knocked him unconscious with a forearm blow. Swann's coach, Chuck Nell branded Atkinson a member of the League's "criminal element," and later was on the winning side when Atkinson lost a $2 million lawsuit claiming slander.
Perhaps because the Atkinson-Swann thing was building to Act II - the team could meet in the conference championship game - America was looking the other way when the Raiders met New England in a first-round playoff game. That's when Atkinson did his number on Russ Francis' nose.
In the first quarter, Francis was running a pass pattern. The ball was thrown to another man. "I was slowing down, I was no longer involved in the play," Francis said today. "I didn't see Atkinson and I didn't see any forearm coming All I know is that if felt like I'd been shot in the head."
His nose was broken in four or five places, Francis said. The week after the game he underwent surgery three times. Because the patient must be awake while the broken parts are moved with an iron bar inserted into the nostril, the surgery is "very, very painful," Francis said.
However, the day it happened, Francis missed only one series of plays.
"The nose was on the side of my face and I would just keep reaching over and pulling it back where it belonged," he said.
His touchdown catch against Atkinson came in the third quarter on a 26-yard pass and put New England ahead 14-10. With the help of another controversial play - Oakland linebacker Phil Villapiano held Francis with the penalty being called and so stopped a New England drive - the Raiders scored twice in the last quarter to win, 24-21.
Later they would win the Super Bowl.
If the next few sentences seem suffed with amazing facts, it's all Russ Fracnis' fault. For here in a football uniform we have discovered a Renaissance man of action. Growing up in Hawaii, Francis jumped off 100-foot-high rocks into the Pacific "to test my body, to see if I could it hit the water feet first." He was good enough at pitching a baseball to be drafted by the Kansas City Royals, and he threw a javeline 259 feet to set a high school record that still stands.
A high school quarterback, he was converted to tight end at the University of Oregon and by his junior year was regarded All-America material. Only, he quit football his senior year. He didn't three season. "I couldn't relinquish my principles," he said. "So I learned how to fly."
Easy as that. As a kid, he dreamed of flying, bodily, across the backyard. He compromised in reality, using an airplane. Taking lessons three times a day, he earned his pilot's license in three weeks when a normal person might take six months. He did hang-gliding, too, and wrestled professionally.
But what about pro football? How could a guy turn his back on the NFL?
"Some scouts who had told me I'd be a No. 1 draft pick later told me that because I didn't play my senior year. I wouldn't be drafted at all," he said. "Well I could have been just as happy selling surfboards in Hawaii."
Francis laughed. He confessed that if he hadn't been drafted - the Patriots close him No. 1 in 1975 after he ran a 4.7-second 40-yard dash in his bare feet - he'd have visited training camps on his own. Selling surfboards may get you a nice tan, but there's more money in combat with George Atkinson.
Francis wants peace with Atkinson.
"I've talked to people who know George and they say he's a nice guy who does good work in the community. They say he's not a killer and I hate to see anybody get bad publicity personally for what happens on the field. It's so tough on the field.I don't want George to be called a deviate or part of a criminal element."
Francis is concerned, too, about a war of words that seems to be building.
"The wire services carried a story just recently that quoted me as saying I wanted to put George out of football. I never said that. And then George comes back saying something and who knows what he really said?
"It's all unfortunate. If we ever do play Oakland there'll be such a media buildup we'll have to go out there and kill each other."
Russ Francis did not smile.