Husker Legend Sam Francis a Fitting Symbol for Veterans Salute

Randy York's N-Sider 

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Since today is Veterans Day, Saturday will be Nebraska's annual Veterans/Military Salute, giving the Athletic Department another opportunity to remember and honor our nation's heroes.

The Nebraska-Kansas football series, the longest current continuous series in the NCAA Bowl Subdivision, provides an historic backdrop to showcase real-life heroes as the Cornhuskers and Jayhawks play in an NCCA-record 105th consecutive year.

Interestingly, the Nebraska-Kansas game became the official dedication ceremony for Lincoln's Memorial Stadium in 1923. That first game became a scoreless tie, a fitting finish that christened the cornerstones of a stadium that continues to honor our nation's military 87 years later.

As we salute our veterans, it seems appropriate to focus on a Nebraska legend, who also happens to be a Kansas native and has a personal story so fascinating that it reflects success from gridirons across the country to the battlefields of World War II.

Meet Oberlin, Kan., native Harrison F. "Sam" Francis, a former Nebraska fullback who has a resume so varied that you almost wonder how it all can be true.

He Missed an Olympic Bronze by Half an Inch

A shot putter on the Nebraska track and field team, Francis won the event at the prestigious Texas, Kansas and Drake Relays in 1936 and then went to Berlin that summer where he competed in one of the most famous Olympic Games in history ... the one where Adolf Hitler watched American sprinter Jesse Owens steal the show.

Francis, only 6-foot-1 and 207 pounds, finished fourth in the shot put in Berlin behind two Germans and a Fin. He missed the bronze medal by a mere half-an-inch.

Undeterred, he came back for his third year with the Nebraska football team and capped a second Big Six Conference championship with an All-America season that landed him in the College Football Hall of Fame 41 years later.

Francis is one of 14 Nebraska players to earn that honor, joining fellow Husker legends Ed Weir, George Sauer, Guy Chamberlin, Clarence Swanson, Bobby Reynolds, Forrest Behm, Wayne Meylan, Bob Brown, Rich Glover, Dave Rimington, Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier and Grant Wistrom.

Impressive company, to be sure, but this particular resume, like few others, is filled to the brim.

One of the most talented athletes who ever competed at Nebraska, Francis was the runner-up to Yale's Larry Kelley in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1936.

The National Football League had a different opinion of who the best athlete was in college football, so the Philadelphia Eagles made Francis the first selection in the 1937 NFL draft.

Apparently, the draft 73 years ago wasn't as binding as it is now, so Francis stayed in the Midwest, choosing to begin his NFL career with the Chicago Bears before going on to play with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Brooklyn Dodgers (yes, those cities had football franchises with those names, too). No wonder Francis was the nation's leading vote-getter for the College All-Star Team that summer in Chicago before turning pro.

But here's the real kicker for this celebrated Cornhusker: The Olympic shot-putting/football All-American/first-round NFL draft choice always claimed his two best sports in high school were baseball and basketball.

Initially, Francis Committed to Basketball at KU

And certain facts support that claim, especially in basketball.

In a fabled believe-it-or-not twist of fate, one of Nebraska's most renowned football legends initially decided to climb some famous steps as a basketball player at the University of Kansas.

Phog Allen, the great basketball coach whose name still graces KU's home court in Lawrence, convinced Francis to stay in his home state and become a Jayhawk. Francis even spent two weeks on the KU campus before freshman classes began, but something just didn't feel right. Uncomfortable, he left Lawrence and headed straight to Lincoln to enroll at Nebraska.

We warned you this resume is too good to be true, so we saved the best for last.

Sam Francis not only was a great athlete and, we assume, a great student, but also an American patriot that believed four years was enough to play a game. It was time, he decided, to serve his country, so off he went to the Army where he accepted a regular commission that he held until his retirement as a colonel in 1966.

Francis had an interesting hobby. He loved flying World War II fighter planes in air shows, so you know how much he would enjoy Saturday's flyover before an historic football game between his beloved Cornhuskers and the visiting Jayhawks that tried so hard to keep him in his home state.

We should point out that Francis returned to Kansas for one year after the war. In 1947, he served as head football coach at Kansas State, and the Wildcats were winless in 10 games - a record that could not dishonor a man who spent a lifetime building his reputation.

"Sam Francis was an Olympian and everyone's All-American," Nebraska's Sports Information Director Emeritus Don Bryant said last week. "He was a great American idol, a role model really. You couldn't find a nicer, more highly regarded man."

Sam Francis died 7½ years ago at age 88 in Springfield, Mo. Given his background and his love of and commitment to Nebraska, you would assume that each corner of the stadium would carry special meaning to him.

Their lives they held their country's trust; They kept its faith; They died its heroes.

Courage; Generosity; Fairness; Honor; In these are the true awards of manly sport.

In commendation of the men of Nebraska who served and fell in the nation's wars.

Not the victory but the action; Not the goal but the game; In the deed the glory.

Yes, the nation's longest continuous football series ends Saturday in Lincoln, and the Nebraska Athletic Department salutes all the players, coaches and fans that have been part of it, especially the men and women who made the sacrifices that allow us to enjoy what has been a wonderful, experience-filled journey.

Respond to Randy

Voices from Husker Nation

I am Sam's grandson. Thanks for the article about a truly great man. From Oberlin, Kansas to Lincoln, to the South Pacific, he covered the world, it seems. Thanks. M.T. Francis, Tulsa, Oklahoma

A very nice Veterans Day piece. I greatly respect and appreciate the efforts the University and the Athletic Department take to remind us, week in and week out, what the "Memorial" in Memorial Stadium means. Dave Feit, Lincoln, Nebraska

For all of us who have grandparents, parents, sons or daughters, aunts or uncles, grandchildren or even close family friends who have served or now serve in the military, thanks for finding a way to blend Nebraska's football history with the responsibility to honor those who help us enjoy the freedoms we have. Everyone who served or continues to serve this wonderful country deserves to be remembered. Our soldiers are our heroes, and they are the reasons we hold "in the deed the glory" so dearly in our hearts every single football game. Linda Brown, Des Moines, Iowa

Every time I go into Memorial Stadium, I feel something very special, and it's not just knowing that I'm entering the same stadium where Nebraska beat Notre Dame's Four Horsemen (in the 1920s) or where we beat Oklahoma to end the longest conference unbeaten streak in NCAA history (74 consecutive games in 1959). Memorial Stadium is special because of the words inscribed in all four corners of the stadium. A lot of schools call their football home Memorial Stadium, but the stadium we built reminds us constantly of those we honor with the games we play. Today's column told me something about Sam Francis I never knew, and he played 74 years ago. Talk about the goal, the game, and the glory. His story says it all. Steve Christensen, Omaha, Nebraska

Enjoyed your write-up on Sam Francis. I ran across quite a bit of material on him while writing the K-State football vault book. Did not know, however, that he initially committed to Phog Allen and Kansas. Interestingly, another athlete from Oberlin from that era, Elmer Hackney, was a multi-sport star at Kansas State. He threw the shot and also wrestled, in addition to being known as the "One-Man Gang'' in football. Kevin Haskin, Topeka Capital-Journal columnist, Topeka, Kansas

Great article today about Sam Francis and the long and significant history of the football series with Kansas and their part in helping us open Memorial Stadium. Keep up the good work. John Rownd, Lincoln, Nebraska

Your Veterans Day column was a fine piece. We follow the Huskers at the Fox & Hound in Colorado Springs with three big rooms of Husker maniacs, and your column on Sam Francis appealed to me because of the focus on Husker tradition. Nebraska IS college football. No one has a greater tradition! I was born and raised in Oklahoma and was a Sooner fan until moving to Columbus, Nebraska, in 1960. We followed such Columbus players as Marv Mueller, Bill Bomberger and hometown buddies Joe Blahak and Bill Kosch. I converted from a Sooner to a Husker and never looked back. My greatest joy was when my son, T.J. (who played eight-man football at Omaha Brownell-Talbot where his father was head coach and athletic director), was awarded a Nebraska football scholarship in 1992. He was the first recruit to commit in that recruiting class. It was a coincidence that Blahak, Kosch and I had sons who played together at the same time. Keep up the good work! Ron Scribner, Colorado Springs, Colorado