Today is December 12, 2012 and you can turn on ESPN to find banter about who the greatest No. 12 to ever play in the NFL is. Is it Tom Brady? Roger Staubach? Perhaps Terry Bradshaw? But while 12-12-12 is a quirky and fun way to build discussions over the meaning of a two-digit number, it’s hard to say that a number can tell a player’s story.
Sure, there’s the 12th Man for Texas A&M which bears significant meaning, and far more meaning the mimicry up in Seattle, but in terms of the Trojans, the number 12 means Charlie White. So I thought today would be a day to pay homage to White, mention the records he broke and still holds and paint a pretty picture for great of a player he was for the Trojans.
But that that was before I stumbled across this picture on Facebook.
Ryan Francis wore No. 12. Of course.
While USC pounds the greatness of Charlie White and its Heisman winners to death, there was a No. 12 that played with all of the pageantry of a Heisman winner, but on the hardwood. And he arguably left as much of an impact on the Trojans as White, although he’s not nearly as celebrated, though he should be.
Few players have played with as much heart and grit at USC than Ryan Francis, and that says a lot. He was, relatively speaking, a little guy. At 5-foot-11, his height was mere ‘normal’ and he was a guy that we could all relate to on the court. And of course, he played that way, with fire and passion that isn’t taught.
Francis was a freshman point guard in the 2005-2006 season for Tim Floyd’s Trojans, and even though it was his first season playing at the collegiate level, he was one of only two players to start all 30 games for USC, the other being star swingman Nick Young.
He was aggressive, and a sound fundamental player, leading the team in assists and was second to Gabe Pruitt in steals. He was the guy that would fight to create a turnover, then either start or finish a fast break while rallying the team and smiling non-stop.
And he showed it so beautifully on December 21, 2005, when the Trojans knocked off then-defending National Champion North Carolina at the Sports Arena. Francis had what may have been his best game, as he scored 12 points, had seven assists and three steals. That was his game, being a pest and finding ways to get the ball, funnel it to others or finish it himself if he had the time, then looking at the bench and jumping up and down.
The win was USC’s eighth in a row, and while Pete Carroll’s football team was getting ready for the Texas Longhorns in the Rose Bowl, the media surprised Carroll by asking of his opinion of Tim Floyd’s winning streak, not the 34 games that Carroll, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush had strung together.
Times at USC, with Francis and company in particular, were good. And even though the Trojans struggled in Pac-10 play, finishing 17-13 on the season, and losing to Cal in the first round of the Pac-10 Tournament, there were good vibes at Troy. With a long-awaited new arena set to open later in 2006 and a team that was set to return four starters including the top four scorers, things looked promising for SC.
That was before the morning of May 13th.
After the spring semester at USC had ended, Francis headed home to Baton Rouge rather quickly in order to get home in time to spend Mothers Day with his mom, Paulette, whom he spoke with on the phone upwards of six times per day while in Los Angeles. Their bond, what Tim Floyd classified as ‘close [of] a mother-son relationship as[Floyd] ever had on any team,” was so close that she was planning on moving out to California to be closer to him.
Their trip together to their local church to celebrate Mothers Day, however, would never come.
At approximately 3:30 in the morning on Saturday the 13th, the point guard was out with friends enjoying what was the conclusion of a Friday night out. A car pulled up next to the car carrying Francis and two friends, and D’Anthony Norman Ford emerged with a handgun, opening fire and striking the basketball star four times as he sat in the backseat.
Ryan Francis, the basketball player who made a living with steals on the hardwood, had his life stolen in a mindless act of violence.
A Trojan was lost, a friend was gone, and a teammate was out service. More importantly though, Paulette Francis’s son, a 19-year-old working hard to make his mother proud and better both of their lives thousands of miles away from home in college, had his dreams taken away.
The following season, there was a slew of honors dedicated to Francis and his mother. Actor Tom Arnold and the University of Phoenix put together a scholarship in his name, and the Trojans adorned the brand new court at the shiny new Galen Center with his No. 12 flanking the half court stripe.
The Trojans played him in their hearts throughout the season, beating seven ranked teams and earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament. In their opening round games in Spokane, Washington, Francis’s mom Paulette was there to root on the team and speak in the locker room. USC went on to beat Arkansas and Kevin Durant’s Texas Longhorns to get to their first Sweet Sixteen in six years.
Ultimately, the Trojans succumbed to the same North Carolina Tar Heels that Francis helped beat 15 months prior, despite leading by 16 points in the second half and smelling the Elite Eight.
Ryan Francis was in the hearts of the Trojans in 2006 and during the 2007 tournament run, but his story shouldn’t one that should be forgotten just because he suited up for sport that plays second fiddle to USC’s history.
He may not have had the illustrious career as Charlie White, and his No. 12 doesn’t have the same on-paper prowess as the dozen national titles that the baseball program at Troy has won, but for a university with the motto of ‘Let whoever earns the palm bear it’, no one deserves the honor more than Ryan Francis. Don’t forget him and don’t forget his smile.
We play, for Ryan Francis.