Francis rule limits Lelie's options
THERE is a reason why Ashley Lelie couldn't just sit out this whole season, run out his contract, then come back with another NFL team.
That reason is Russ Francis.
No, no matter how long Lelie holds out, his contract is still rock solid. The Russ Francis rule. They rewrote it because of him, yeah?
"I wasn't in on those committee meetings," Francis said.
Yeah, but ...
"It changed right after that," he said.
It was after the 1980 NFL season. Francis retired. He'd gone from former Kailua quarterback to "all-world" tight end (so declared by Howard Cosell, so it must have been true), but he'd had it with pro football. Two things: The New England Patriots had refused to give him a bonus he'd been promised for making the Pro Bowl because he never actually played in the game after being injured in a Waimanalo motorcycle accident, he said. And when his roommate, Darryl Stingley, was paralyzed by a Jack Tatum hit, the Patriots tried to cancel Stingley's medical insurance, Francis said. It was tough to play after that.
His heart wasn't in it. He quit, walked away, ready to move on with the rest of his life. The NFL had never been a lifelong dream of his anyway, he said, more like it just happened.
He had no regrets.
Francis flew home to Hawaii, and when he got here, Cosell was on the phone. Soon, Francis had a job with ABC Sports.
So he was doing a great job of moving on, until the Pro Bowl, when he interviewed Bill Walsh. Walsh told him this was the only time in his life he'd be able to play football, he'd never get these years back. He shouldn't turn his back on this chance. For months, Walsh kept on him.
Walsh was right, and Francis came out of retirement, after sitting out the 1981 season, joined the 49ers, won a Super Bowl ring.
Great story, unless you're an NFL owner (or Patriots fan) and you didn't want anybody even thinking about getting any ideas about free agency.
Francis swears his retirement was sincere. He'd never set out to switch teams or open Pandora's box. Nevertheless, without meaning to, he'd circumvented the system. And the NFL doesn't like anyone circumventing the system.
It didn't take long for that loophole to slam shut.
Because of Russ Francis?
"So they say," he said.
So here sits Lelie, the former UH receiving star, holding out, threatening to possibly sit out a season. But that loophole is long closed.
If Lelie doesn't play he's still under contract no matter when he comes back.
Francis -- who is living in New Hampshire, doing sports radio and reconnecting with his Patriots roots -- is an unabashed Lelie fan.
"Rockne Freitas and Jim Nicholson used to root for me," he said.
He knows Lelie has no leverage, no choice, really, but to get into Denver Broncos camp.
"It's unfair, by the way," Francis said.
But Francis handled his own contract negotiations for 12 or 14 years, he said, and he knows the score. The Broncos won't let Lelie go without compensation because they've already invested a lot in him, and know he's worth something. Throwing down the gauntlet was the wrong tack to take. Some guys can get away with this type of move, but Ashley, unfortunately, isn't there yet.
He has the same words for Lelie that he heard from Bill Walsh: "Ashley Lelie can only do this for a very short time in his life," Francis said.
"It's a risk," Francis said, "and it's his risk." He's in the kid's corner, but doesn't see this as a way out.
He said there's going to come a day -- well, not even a day, but there will come an exact moment -- in the Broncos' brain trust's office when coach and owner will look each other in the eye. And then it will be too late to turn back.
No, Lelie has no choice here. He may want to do a Russ Francis, but Francis wasn't doing a Russ Francis -- there was no strategy. He just walked away. He pulled off the switch without meaning to, under different circumstances, with different rules, in a different time.
Now he's waiting to hear that one of his favorite players has rejoined the team, is catching passes again, exchanging high fives with the guys. It has to happen soon. He expected it to have happened by now.
"Maybe they're close," Russ Francis said. "I hope they're close."