Remembering A Boyhood Hero

Joe Francis, a Kamehameha grad, leaves would-be tacklers sprawling Photo courtesy Oregon State University Athletics

I was saddened to hear belatedly of the passing of Joe Francis while I was in Japan last month. He was my first boyhood sports hero – akin, in a sense, to a kid’s first love.

It was the mid-1950s, and I was just coming of age as a sports fan at exactly the same time the Kamehameha Schools grad was turning Oregon State football into a winner for the first time, and in a most exciting fashion. My dad was an OSU grad (thanks to the GI Bill) and season-ticket holder, and took me to games from an early age. My affection for Joe Francis was certainly influenced by my dad’s vocal enthusiasm for his play.

And that is how I always referred to him, “Joe Francis,” two names pronounced as one.

“Hula Joe,” as he was dubbed by the press, played tailback in coach Tommy Prothro’s single-wing offense – a combination runner and passer. In his first varsity start as a sophomore, he threw a 31-yard touchdown pass and ran 26 yards for another score in a win over BYU. He also played defensive back in those two-way days of limited substitutions. With his multiple skills, Joe Francis would have been a star in today’s “spread” offenses.

Every autumn Sunday I’d clip newspaper stories of his exploits and paste them in a scrapbook – once before my dad could even read the paper, which I learned not to do again.

The highlight was the 1957 Rose Bowl. Even though the Beavers lost 14-13 to Iowa, Joe was heroic in gaining more than 200 yards in offense. He was the reason, when I started playing sports, I always wanted to wear No. 42.

Funny, how could I have known back then that life would lead me to Hawaii, I would have two keiki o ka aina and they would graduate from the same school Joe Francis did?

(By the way, one of his Beavers teammates provided my first introduction to Hawaiian names – tackle Ed Kaohelaulii, whose family name twisted the tongue of more than one Mainland broadcaster of the day. Teammates tackle Ed Rogers and quarterback Ted Searle also were from Honolulu.)

After college, Joe – younger readers may know him as the father of Ikaika Alama-Francis – would play for the Green Bay Packers and in Canada, and coach at Oregon State before returning home.

After moving to Honolulu, I spoke with him just once, on the phone, but we never met. It was almost as though I didn’t want the purity of my youthful fandom spoiled. Dave Reardon, the Star-Advertiser columnist, took P.E. from Joe at Pearl City High, and assures me he was a great, wise and humorous man, “the coolest guy at the school.” Dave and I talked about getting together with Joe for lunch, but it never happened. Busy schedules and all that. When Dave mentioned to him that he’d been my first hero, he replied that having a fan as old as me made him feel really old. Good line, Joe Francis.

Having raised me to be an Oregon State fan, it galled my dad when I enrolled at the rival University of Oregon for its renowned journalism school. I’m a huge Ducks fan, but Joe Francis remains my hero.

One thing about childhood heroes – they never really die. In my mind, he’ll always be the dashing, charismatic player you see here, forever a champion.

* Kudos to new UH athletic director Ben Jay for retaining Rainbows in both UH men’s and women’s team names.

Now here’s a suggestion: As NFL teams and some college teams do, for one game a year I’d like to see the football team wear throwback Rainbows uniforms. They wouldn’t have to be exact replicas, but a modern take on the classic kelly green jerseys and white pants with rainbow logo would be pretty cool, and no doubt drive sales of Rainbow logo merchandise.

* One more sports story, this one from my Japan trip, told by Yuji “Dave” Otsuka, former agent for golfers such as Ai Miyazato and Joe Ozaki, and now executive director of AZ.Worldcom Japan public relations firm in Tokyo:

Sadaharu Oh, the international home run king, grew up poor. But he loved baseball, especially the Yomiuri Giants. One day, he joined other boys in clamoring for an autograph. Players signed baseballs other boys had brought. But the young Oh could only afford a rubber ball and players refused to sign it, some even ridiculing him.

But one player signed Oh’s rubber ball, and he became his hero and inspiration.

That player was Wally Yonamine, the Hawaii native who is in the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame. The two would be teammates on the Giants for a couple of seasons at the beginning of Oh-san’s career and the end of Wally’s. Their plaques in the Hall of Fame are, fittingly, adjacent.