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Padecky: Montgomery's Jason Franci far from forgotten


Jason Franci didn't ask for any of it, as he settled into the first row of the Montgomery stands. He wanted to slip in, unnoticed, "incognito" was the way he put it. He would pick a road game to do it, thus increasing his chances of anonymity. So Franci decided to go to Maria Carrillo on Nov. 1 and there he sat with his buddy, Todd Vehmeyer, trying to be inconspicuous.

And there's a hoot right there. Jason Franci. Inconspicuous. Elvis is in the building and how do you hide that? Jason Franci, the winningest football coach in the Empire, was going to his first Montgomery game since he retired last season after 33 years as Monty's head coach.

"I didn't expect anything," said Franci, 70. "They are playing so well. I just wanted to sit and watch."

Things were developing as he anticipated until five minutes before kickoff. A Montgomery coach spied Franci, told one of the players and, there you have it, the gold rush was on.

"One of us moved in his direction," said tight end Colton Silvers, "and then we just followed each other, one after another."

It was time for tribute to be paid.

Franci sat there, a little bit like a deer in the headlights. He never saw this coming. One by one the players came to Franci. One by one they reached out a hand and thanked the man. One by one, all 35 of them, looked at him straight in the eye because that's what Franci taught them.

"I felt like I was Pope Benedict receiving visitors," Franci said.

Did you let them kiss your ring? I asked.

"Of course I did," said Franci, who doesn't lack the lighter side.

Being fawned over, however, Franci doesn't much like that. He would never make a politician. He's very much the accidental celebrity.

"I told Logan (Francavilla) and (Etienne) Ezeff to get back on the field, they had a football game to play," said Franci, trying to deflect the poignancy of the moment.

It didn't work. Franci may look like nails but he is a sponge. By the time Silvers arrived, the senior captain saw the effect on his former coach.

"He probably is not going to like me saying this," Silvers said, "but the man was crying."

Jason Franci was back home. Finally. The people were waiting for him, "wondering" when he would return was the way Francavilla put it. How much time would Franci need to become a spectator? How much time would it take for Franci to feel the proper distance had been reached between what he did and what Dean Haskins, the new coach, was doing?

"A long time ago I attended a clinic by John Wooden," Franci said of the legendary UCLA basketball coach. "Wooden said the one thing he regretted in his life was going to UCLA games after he retired. He wasn't being fair to the new coach.

"I never wanted to do that to Dean. I didn't want to be a distraction."

Franci made sure he would remove himself from any temptation. For eight weeks Franci left at noon on game-day Friday and drove to Boonville. He would stay at his aunt's ranch, a place he had visited every year since he was 3. He would go deer hunting with his brother, Stephen, and stay up in Boonville until Sunday afternoon.

After eight games, seven of which Montgomery won, Franci felt the moment had been reached. The Vikings were solid, stable, playing strong. Haskins was making his imprint.

"I felt I was ready (to go to a game)," he said.

And ...

"And deer season was over," Franci said.

The man is practical.

The man also appreciated perspective. The kids that left the field to shake his hand, those kids never had a winning season under Franci. Those kids didn't come to him to thank him for those 3-7, 3-8, 4-6 seasons. They came to thank him for his impact on the school, on the football team, those 232 victories. ... and all those moments when Franci would listen to them, suffer with them, chastise them, hug them and push them to be better human beings than football players.

That's why they came into the stands.

"As a sophomore I was really self-conscious," Silvers said. "I was a 150-pound tight end. He really took care of me. Sure, coaches care about their players but Coach Franci was special. He really believed in his players."

Silvers only had a moment to shake Franci's hand. He regretted he didn't have more time.

"I would like to sit down with him and ask him how he became the person he is," Silvers said. "I would be interested in what he had to say about football, but I'd be more interested how he lived his life, how came to understand his passion and what to do about it."

When a kid talks about a coach like that, you might even forget how many games the coach won or lost. In fact, you might even forget he was a coach at all, which is the feeling Silvers gave.

And you would certainly forget, or at least minimize, those last three Franci seasons. That would be like finding a dark, shriveled nut in a bag of peanuts and then throwing away the rest of the bag.

"I think it was closure for the kids," Haskins said. "And I think it was closure for Jason as well."

Welcome back, coach, the kids were saying. This is where you belong.

"We have him in the back of our minds," Francavilla said. "We know he is watching us."

There is room for everyone now at Montgomery, the old and the new, the past with the present, what was and what will be.

It all fits and years from now it will be remembered that it all came together for the first time on Nov. 1, 2013, on the first row in the bleachers at Maria Carrillo High School.

"It meant the world to me," Jason Franci said. "I'll never forget it."

Franci attended the three games since and will be there Saturday at Casa Grande.

He'll be easy to find. Just don't ask to kiss his ring.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.