Russ Francis, the free-spirited tight end who won a Super Bowl as a member of the 49ers in 1984, was killed along with another aviation enthusiast when the single-engine plane the two men were in crashed shortly after takeoff from an airport in upstate New York.
Francis, 70, and Richard McSpadden, 63, had taken off from the Lake Placid Airport shortly after 4 p.m. Sunday in a Cessna 177 plane when the plane had some kind of problem. The New York State Police said it crashed into an embankment at the corner of the airport.
A longtime flying enthusiast dating back to his pre-NFL days, Francis was the president of Lake Placid Airways, which runs charter and scenic flights. The airline’s website said Francis had been a pilot for almost 50 years and had run a charter service in Hawaii.
Francis played six seasons for New England, made three Pro Bowls and was dubbed “All-World” by ABC announcer Howard Cosell following a big performance on a Monday Night Football game. He retired abruptly after the 1980 season at age 27, but was talked into a comeback by 49ers coach Bill Walsh after the club acquired his rights in exchange for a draft pick.
From 1982 through 1987, Francis caught 186 passes for 2,105 yards and 12 touchdowns. He won a Super Bowl ring with the 49ers, catching 23 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns in 10 games with two starts. Francis caught five passes for 60 yards in a 38-16 win over the Miami Dolphins at Stanford. The following season, Francis caught a career-high 44 passes for the 49ers.
In all, Francis caught 393 passes for 5,262 yards and 40 touchdowns for the Patriots and 49ers.
The 49ers issued a statement on X (formerly Twitter) and through email offering condolences.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) October 2, 2023
The following 49ers took to X to offer give their thoughts:
49ers CEO Jed York: “My deepest condolences to the Francis family. RussFrancis was truly one of a kind. He will be missed. Awful to hear about his loss.”
Safety Ronnie Lott: “He was a warrior with a kind heart. He was the best at his position. I continue to be inspired by how he lived his life. Sending love to his family.”
Center Jesse Sapolu: “Saddened by the news of the passing of former (49er), (Patriots) and (Polynesian Football Hall of Famer) Russ Francis. RIP big bro.”
Francis was a Patriots first-round draft pick in 1975 and played in New England until 1980, making the franchise’s all-decade team for the 1970s and the 35th anniversary team. He was named to the Pro Bowl three straight seasons from 1977-79.
“Russ was a fan favorite throughout his playing career,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement. “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.”
Francis’ father Ed was a former wrestling promotor, and Francis briefly competed fulltime in the American Wrestling Association after retiring from football in 1987 after he had joined the Patriots for one final season.
The crash is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The Associated Press contributed to this report