Russ Francis, ex-Patriots and 49ers tight end, dies at 70 in plane crash

Russ Francis, a standout tight end for the New England Patriots who went on to help the San Francisco 49ers win a Super Bowl, died Sunday in a plane crash. Francis, one of two men said to have perished when their single-engine craft went down soon after takeoff, was 70 years old.

The incident occurred in Lake Placid, N.Y., according to the New York State Police (via the Associated Press). A Cessna 177 carrying Francis and Richard McSpadden, 63, crashed into an embankment near the corner of the airport, per police.

It was not initially clear which man was flying the plane at the time, per reports. Francis was an avid pilot and McSpadden was a former commander of the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds team.

“On behalf of the entire New England Patriots organization, we extend our sincerest sympathies to the family of Russ Francis, who tragically passed away yesterday,” Patriots chairman and chief executive Robert Kraft said Monday in a statement. “Russ was a fan favorite throughout his playing career. He was a dynamic player on the field who had an even bigger personality off it. He knew no boundaries, pushed the limits and lived his life to the fullest. Our thoughts are with Russ’s family, friends, teammates and the many Patriots fans who mourn his loss.”

After excelling in multiple athletic disciplines at high schools in Hawaii and Oregon, Francis played football for the University of Oregon in 1972 and 1973. He briefly tried his hand at professional wrestling, following in the footsteps of his father, “Gentleman Ed” Francis, before completing his college career at Oregon State.

The Patriots selected Francis with the 16th pick of the 1975 draft, and he rewarded them with six seasons in which he was named to three Pro Bowls while catching 196 passes for 2,996 yards and 28 touchdowns. After setting career highs in 1980 in yards (664) and touchdowns (eight), Francis abruptly retired from the NFL. Amid a reported contract dispute, he pursued other interests, including flying his own plane, skydiving, surfing and scuba diving, as well as doing some broadcasting work for ABC, before returning to the NFL as a member of the 49ers. Following its first Super Bowl win, San Francisco traded several high picks in the 1982 draft to New England for the rights to “a great tight end,” as then-49ers coach Bill Walsh put it.

Over five-plus seasons with the 49ers, Francis hauled in 186 passes for 2,105 yards and 12 touchdowns. Following the 1984 season, he had five receptions for 60 yards in Super Bowl XIX as San Francisco defeated the Miami Dolphins, 38-16. During the 1987 season, Francis was traded back to New England, where he finished his career the following year.

The 49ers said Monday they were “saddened to learn of the tragic passing” of Francis, and they offered their “deepest condolences” to his family.

In retirement, Francis ran an air-charter service in Hawaii and then became president of Lake Placid Airways, which operates charter and scenic flights in and around Upstate New York. McSpadden was serving as the senior vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Air Safety Institute.

“Richard dedicated 20 years of his life to serving his country with the Air Force, including commanding the Thunderbirds from 2002-2004,” the air demonstration squadron said of McSpadden in a statement. “He continued to serve and inspire even after his military career, leading the charge to advance aviation safety industrywide. His impact is felt across the world and his legacy will be lasting! Our hearts are with Richard, his family, and his friends during this time.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating Sunday’s crash.

Kate Naiman, the mother of Francis’s son, said on Facebook on Sunday evening that “flying was like breathing” for the ex-tight end.

“It came naturally and he lived for it,” she wrote. “He used to fly his P-51 Mustang to practice and land in the stadium parking lot and really p— off Bill Walsh. There will be some comfort down the road in knowing that he died doing the thing he loved most, but not today. Not today.”

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