HOUSTON, Texas - With Robert Griffin III, Mikail Baker and Glasco Martin all returning from ACL knee injuries, running back Jay Finley coming back from off-season ankle surgery and Baylor's corps of cornerbacks in and out of the training room, it's a medical miracle that the Bears are playing in Wednesday's Texas Bowl.
But Chris Francis takes it to a whole different level.
The senior middle linebacker from Cedar Hill, Texas, was having a solid enough season with 53 tackles through the first nine games. At the time, he ranked second on the team in his first year as a starter, while filling the shoes of All-American Joe Pawelek.
At the end of the first quarter in a game at Oklahoma State, the 6-foot, 235-pound linebacker took a crunching blindside hit on a block that knocked the wind out of him. If he had only know just how seriously that blow was.
Francis never missed a play and finished the game with eight tackles. But by Monday he was having trouble catching his breath, on Tuesday he complained of his side hurting, he had a cat scan taken on Wednesday and was in the intensive care unit the next night with a lacerated liver.
"Running, turning and twisting - all of that bothered my side, so I knew something was wrong in there," Francis said. "I didn't even know I had lacerated my liver. That's up there with some of the big-time fatal injuries. They told me I probably wouldn't even be able to play. So I had in my mind that I'm done, it's time to get ready for the next level or whatever. But God blessed me and gave me this opportunity to come out here again and share this last time with my teammates."
As miraculous as it was that he played the last three quarters of the OSU game with a lacerated liver, it's probably even more surprising to see Francis out on the field again, preparing for Wednesday's Texas Bowl game between the Bears (7-5) and Illinois (6-6) at Reliant Stadium.
Francis was cleared to play on Dec. 18. And while he remains in a protective black jersey for practice, he is "full go" for Wednesday's game.
"Moreso than coming back from the injury, the thing that I was impressed with is just how he handled the injury," head coach Art Briles said. "You've got a lacerated liver, and you played. Then a couple days later, you say, `I think something's wrong.' That, to me, shows how bad he wanted to play, how tough he is as an individual."
"Chris' situation is unreal," said junior linebacker Elliot Coffey, who came back from a mid-season injury himself. "A lacerated liver - and he came back and played a whole game with it. That just means a lot to see how much he worked, to see how he had the patience to sit down and let it heal and then come back from it."
That may have been the hardest part. The former all-state linebacker and Class 5A defensive player of the year at Cedar Hill "couldn't do anything for two weeks" after the injury and dropped 20 pounds down to 215.
"When I was lying in that bed, I thought I was done here," said Francis, the son of former Baylor All-American and longtime NFL linebacker James Francis. "I just had to get my body back right. That was the main thing was getting back into shape, eating right, getting back to my regular routine. (Strength coach Kaz Kazadi) and his staff did a great job of getting be back right. Being in this athletic process for years, you kind of get in the routine of what you need to do to get your body back right."
In three years as a backup, Francis put up decent numbers with 87 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, two pass breakups and one fumble recovery. But with Pawelek and Antonio Jones gone after last season, he finally got his chance this year.
"Chris has been a guy, a lot like (senior running back) Jay Finley, that's just worked, worked, worked and hasn't seen a lot of results," Briles said. "And now he got to his senior season and has had an opportunity to play some. That's the part that I'm really encouraged by. When you get hungry, you fight a little harder and you work a little harder to get something to eat. And now he's finally getting a chance to eat."
Hopefully, Francis and the Bears will get the full buffet dinner at today's Texas Bowl.
Sic 'em, Bears!!!!
Weeks, Oskin Showing Baylor Pride at Texas Bowl
In the midst of a disappointing 5-10 season for the Houston Texans, Jonathan Weeks and Glen Oskin can take pride in Baylor coming to town for Wednesday's Texas Bowl at Reliant Stadium against Illinois
"It's just surreal to have them here and be a part of it and just to see it," said Oskin, a former Baylor offensive lineman (2002-05) who works in the Texans' front office as client services manager. "They're playing in my back yard, where I get to go to work every day. It's pretty easy for me to walk down to the field and enjoy the moment. So I'll probably be down there most of the game, watching these guys and cheering them on to victory, even though I've got to be somewhat neutral because of my position here."
Weeks, in his rookie season with the Texans as the club's deep snapper, isn't even thinking about being neutral. He'll be "decked out" in green and gold, sitting in one of the luxury suites at the stadium.
"I'm just so proud for all these guys," said Weeks, who was the Bears' deep snapper from 2003 to '07. "Knowing most of the senior class . . . and getting to see their faces, I'm just really happy that they got to experience the bowl game and the great atmosphere that it is. And even more thrilled that it happens to be in my back yard at our stadium. And even better that they're going to kick Illinois' butt."
Weeks has a friendly wager with Texans kicker Neil Rackers, an 11-year NFL veteran from Illinois.
"Once Baylor beats Illinois, he'll be wearing a lot of green and gold all week," Weeks said of Rackers.
And what if the Bears lose? "I'm supposed to wear his freshman Illinois jersey if something happens, but I don't see that happening. It's a lot of fun, and I hope these guys are loving it and soaking it all up. It looks like they're going to have a lot of success for years to come."
While it's been a frustrating season for the Texans - six of their losses have been by a touchdown or less - it's been a dream come true for Weeks. Three years after leaving Baylor, he finally got his shot when the Texans released their snapper earlier this year.
"It's everybody's dream, once they go from (the college) level, to make it to the next," Weeks said. "My path was a little bit different to make it to the next level, but I did and I landed with an amazing organization with fantastic owners, a great coaching staff and best of all, two amazing kickers that have really helped me develop and become a professional and know what I'm doing."
After three years of waiting, Weeks said, "there's always those doubts that creep in." But he kept hoping he would get his shot.
"I stumbled upon an opportunity," he said, "and luckily, I took full advantage of it, and now I'm here. I didn't ever want to give up, because it's something I love, but I just tried to be as realistic as possible."
Sic 'em, Bears!!!!
Don Trull Says RG III 'Head and Shoulders Above Me'
Don Trull's school record for career total offense yards (4,501) stood for two decades.
But the former Baylor All-American quarterback and two-time Academic All-American (1962-63) said he doesn't even compare as an athlete to current sophomore quarterback Robert Griffin III.
"Oh, he's a tremendous athlete. He's head and shoulders above me as far as athletes go," said Trull, who played in two bowl games and went to another one in his four years at Baylor (1960-63). "He's got tremendous poise in the back. Sometimes, I think it hurts him a little bit where he becomes maybe complacent. And I think he's learned a lot from the first of the year - the TCU game and games like that. When things don't go right, you've got to just kind of pull up your bootstraps and get going a little harder."
Griffin III nearly matched Trull's old career passing record (3,784) in one year, passing for a school single-season record of 3,195 yards and leading the Bears (7-5) to their first bowl game in 16 years. Baylor faces Illinois (6-6) in Wednesday's Texas Bowl at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas.
He's also 229 yards shy of J.J. Joe's career passing record and has already broken the total offense record with 7,278 yards.
But he still has some work to do to match Trull on the bowl front. After making the trip to the 1960 Gator Bowl as one of four freshman scout teamers, Trull passed for 116 yards and a touchdown in a 24-9 win over Utah State at the 1961 Gotham Bowl at The Polo Grounds in New York City and was named the most outstanding back at the 1963 Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston, when he completed 26 of 37 passes for 255 yards and two TDs in a 14-7 win over LSU.
"It's been a long dry spell," Trull said of a 16-year bowl drought since the Bears' appearance in the 1994 Alamo Bowl. "It's just a great reward for the players, for the fans, for the coaching staff and all. And when you don't have it for a long time, you start losing and waning a little bit from your support."
Trull watched the Bears' practice on Christmas Day and has been able to go to "about six games this year."
"Of course, the name of (Baylor head coach Art Briles) game is offense," said Trull, who played seven years with the Houston Oilers of the AFL before stints with the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos and the Houston Texans and Shreveport Steamers of the World Football League. "Being a passing quarterback, I would have loved playing in his offense. He's done a tremendous job turning it around. If we can get a good start, we can usually stay with anybody we play."
Along with former Baylor wide receiver Gerald McNeil and NFL Hall of Famers Joe Greene and Raymond Berry will be honored this week as Texas Gridiron Legends.
Sic 'em, Bears!!!!
As best I can tell, trainer Mike Sims is the lone holdover from Baylor's last postseason appearance, when the Bears played Washington State in the 1994 Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.
Of course, four head football coaches have come and gone in that time. Not to mention, countless assistants, equipment managers, strength coaches and other support staff.
But one of the coaches off that '94 Baylor staff will be on the sidelines for next Wednesday's Texas Bowl at Reliant Stadium, when the Bears (7-5) face Illinois (6-6). Ron West, the Bears' offensive line coach from 1993 to '96 and run game coordinator in his last season, is in his first year as the Fighting Illini's outside linebackers coach after stops at Tulane, Clemson and Tulsa.
"Really, he's great during the game," Illinois coach Ron Zook of West, who's making his 12th bowl appearance in 31 years as a college assistant. "He's a great teacher, a great disciplinarian, and he has his own way of making sure that his players are doing the things they're supposed to be doing. I know he's excited about this opportunity to get back in this area."
Chuck Reedy, the head coach of Baylor's last bowl team, is in his ninth year at Goose Creek High School and led the Gators to their second consecutive appearance in the South Carolina state semifinals and a 13-1 record this year.
Also on that '94 Baylor staff were wide receivers coach Larry Fedora, who led Southern Mississippi to an 8-5 record this year and back-to-back bowl berths in two years as the head coach; and offensive coordinator Jack Crowe, whose Jacksonville State team lost in the second round of the FCS playoffs after upsetting Ole Miss earlier this year.
Here's a look at the rest of that '94 coaching staff and where they are now:
Mike Bugar, defensive line (now the defensive line coach at Texas State)
Bob Cope, defensive coordinator/secondary (deceased)
Robert James, defensive ends (retired, living in Waco)
Chris Lancaster, assistant offensive line (head coach, Bruceville-Eddy High School)
Andy McCollum, linebackers (defensive line/recruiting coordinator, Georgia Tech)
Pat Washington, running backs( running backs, Southern Mississippi)
Jerry Pickle, director of football operations (Assistant AD/football operations, Rice)
Trooper Taylor, graduate assistant (wide receivers/assistant head coach, Auburn)
Taylor, who also played at Baylor and replaced Cope as the Bears' secondary coach, is part of the staff for an Auburn team that will play Oregon in the National Championship game on Jan. 10, 2011.
Sic 'em, Bears! and MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!
How you handle wins might be as good an indicator as anything of just where your program is.
Like I can remember the day when Baylor football fans would rush the field and tear down the goal posts at the drop of a hat. Win a Big 12 Conference game, and you can bet your bottom dollar that those goal posts were coming down and eventually headed to their final resting place somewhere on campus.
That's what struck me about the Baylor Lady Bears' 65-54 win over the No. 6 Tennessee Lady Vols in Tuesday night's nationally televised, top-10 showdown at the Ferrell Center.
At the end of the game, it certainly didn't surprise me when the fans didn't rush the floor. Honestly, it's just not that kind of crowd.
But even the players' reaction was very matter-of-factly. No mid-court dogpile or dancing on the floor. A few high-fives and shared smiles, that was about it.
While it's true that Baylor is actually the higher ranked team at No. 2 by the Associated Press and No. 3 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll, folks, this was still Tennessee. Legendary Hall of Famer Pat Summitt is the all-time winningest coach in college basketball with 1,046 victories, and the Lady Vols have long been the standard by which all other programs are judged.
"She's our John Wooden," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said of Summitt, who coached her on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. "What John Wooden is for men's basketball, Pat is to women's basketball. I've always had the utmost respect for her. She's just done so much for the game."
But Mulkey's now won two in a row in head-to-head meetings with Summitt. Baylor knocked off the top-seeded Lady Vols, 77-62, in last year's NCAA Tournament region semifinal in Memphis, Tenn.
"This program is at a level now where we're disappointed when we don't win," Mulkey said. "And you're right, there wasn't a lot of celebration, because we've won the big games now. We have been to two Final Fours, we've won a national championship. And these players understand this is what you came here to do. They fear no one, and they respect everyone."
That includes the Tennessee Lady Vols. Baylor certainly gave them their due. There was a standing ovation when Summitt walked on the court for the first time at the Ferrell Center.
But the Lady Bears "fear no one." They expected to win Tuesday night, just like they did against Michigan State, Notre Dame, Minnesota, Texas Southern, Liberty and Southeastern Louisiana.
And that's exactly what it looked like Tuesday night. Just another day at the office and another routine victory. No big deal. And that's a good thing.
Sic 'em, Lady Bears!
Brooklyn Pope still remembers Baylor coach Kim Mulkey's reaction after watching the center lead her Fort Worth Dunbar team to the Class 4A state championship as a freshman back in 2005.
And it had nothing to do with the 18 points she scored in the Wildcats' 56-50 win over Angleton in in the state championship game.
"She was more intrigued by the fact that I had a lot of defensive stops," Pope said. "She liked that more than my scoring, because that's not important at these levels. Everybody's going to outmatch each other. It's the defensive end where we need to get stops and do the little things."
That's Mulkey's unofficial mantra: Defense first, last and always.
"We need to become a basketball team that the first thing they put on the scouting report is not what we do on the offensive end," said Mulkey, whose 2nd-ranked Lady Bears (9-1) rolled over the Minnesota Golden Gophers, 103-56, Sunday afternoon at the Ferrell Center. "It's, `Wow! They are so dominant on the defensive end!' We have the speed and quickness to do it. We've just got to make sure tthat all five players are always in correct ready position and we're all guarding that basketball."
Baylor's defense played a key role in Wednesday's 76-65 win over 16th-ranked Notre Dame, when the Lady Bears came up with 14 steals, blocked five shots and forced 22 turnovers.
Pope's career night (20 points, 14 rebounds) started with a pair of steals in the first 2 ½ minutes, including one out of the high post that led to a breakaway layup.
"I just have to continue to play hard and give it everything I've got and play defense, because that's what really started me off was the one steal at the high post," said the 6-foot-1 sophomore forward, who added three assists and three steals. "If I wouldn't have got that, then it could have been an ugly night."
With lightning-quick guards like sophomores Kimetria "Nae-Nae" Hayden and Jordan Madden and freshman Odyssey Sims, Mulkey believes the Lady Bears have the ability to get in the passing lanes and create more than the 9.7 steals they've averaged through the first nine games. By comparison, Notre Dame leads the nation with a 17.9 average.
"They really could leave this program and do some special things - stealing the basketball, anticipating things," Mulkey said. "And that's contagious, man. When you've got a teammate up there dogging the ball, you don't want to let your man get the ball. It kind of spreads to everybody. And when you do that, it allows you to run. You want to run and push the ball up the floor."
"We hear it every day in practice. We get in trouble for (not getting in the passing lanes) in practice," said Hayden, who tied a career high with six steals, including a pair at the end of the half that led to back-to-back fast-break layups. "We get tired of them saying it, so it's starting to become natural where we just get in the passing lanes without anyone telling us."
Starting with 6-8 sophomore post Brittney Griner, who leads the nation with 5.4 blocks per game, Baylor's calling card is definitely its defense. As a team, the Lady Bears are ranked first nationally in blocked shots per game (7.7) and sixth in field goal percentage defense (31.2).
"Every day, we're going to make sure we get better on the defensive end," Mulkey said. "The only way you can do that is get out there and you get after it every day. Sometimes we'll look out there, and the perimeter players will be doing great, and the posts will let them flash and get it. And sometimes we'll go, `Wow, three of them on this side of the floor are doing so good,' and the two on help side are not there. When we get all five them on the same page, this could be a fun team to watch."
Baylor will face its second nationally ranked opponent in a challenging three-game stretch and fourth of the season when the Lady Bears host No. 8 Tennessee at 6 p.m. Dec. 14 in a Sweet 16 rematch that will be broadcast nationally by ESPN2.
Sic 'em, Lady Bears!