Padecky: Jason Franci's passionate presence will be missed

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Some people walk into the room wearing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. No one knows they are there. They are hiding in plain sight. They could spill their iced tea and you wouldn’t hear the splash. And then there’s Jason Franci. Without even saying a word, Jason would be everywhere, filling up every nook and cranny, his personality a saturating infusion of energy and spirit.

Jason gave off sparks, is what he did. Remarkable he was, for one never had to guess what he was feeling. He didn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. He wore them on the tip of his tongue. And his kids, his players, loved it. They knew, behind the bombast, all that emotion was for them. They responded in a most unique way.

Players would approach Jason before practice, or during practice, or after practice, it didn’t matter. They’d rub his head like he was their Buddha and say, “Hey, Grandpa!” That’s the kind of emotion the man who passed away Monday inspired.

“I thought I’d get out all my crying by now,” said Todd Vehmeyer, who was crying on the phone. Vehmeyer was Jason’s defensive coordinator for 13 years at Montgomery, and after 21 years of knowing him Vehmeyer was not ready to give it up. Vehmeyer cried when he heard the news Monday afternoon. He cried before he went to sleep. He cried when he tried to sleep. He cried when he woke up Tuesday. He was crying during our interview Tuesday morning.

“I know what Jason would say — ‘Goddammit, Vehmeyer, stop it! I’m not worth it!’” Vehmeyer said. Which is precisely why his ex-coach was in tears. “I’m devastated. It’s soul-crushing. I’m crying for two days. I can’t wrap my mind around this.”

A kid would tell Jason his family had no power; so he paid the family’s PG&E bill. Jason gave his kids food, football equipment like helmets. Jason was an open book and an open wallet for those who knew to respect him. For those who didn’t …

“Jason, I heard that while you were in basic training at Fort Ord, you threw a guy out of a third-story window.”

“How did you hear that?” Jason responded.

“This is Sonoma County, where someone sneezes in Windsor and someone in Petaluma hands them a Kleenex.”

“Well,” Jason said, while cracking a small smile, “he deserved it.”

Without asking for details, I bet that soldier who flew like a robin probably deserved it. Jason had a simple code: Be respectful and I’ll walk through hellfire for you. Sure, Jason had a hot button. He could make a sailor blush. He often said of his early days at Montgomery, “I would have fired myself. The administration was very kind to me.”

Monty’s front office was patient. They went below the surface. They saw what was inside the volcano. Trent Herzog, St. Vincent’s coach, went through that process.

“If you didn’t know him,” Herzog said, “you would be intimidated. And then you’d find out he’s a big teddy bear.”

His coaching door was always open. He lived in the present. You’d find out Jason was never one of those old jocks who lived in the past. That year with the AFL’s Denver Broncos? Never brought it up. Those years in the Canadian Football League? Never brought them up. Plaques, pictures, footballs for his time as a pro athlete? Never had any in his house. Never mattered. What mattered, simply, were teenagers. Yes, teenagers with an abundance of testosterone. Boys to men, that was Montgomery football under Jason Franci.

“All along,” Vehmeyer said, “we (Montgomery’s coaches) thought we were coaching football. I now realize it was Jason coaching us.”

Play hard, this ain’t no afternoon tea. Play clean, don’t embarrass yourself or Montgomery. Own your mistakes, you’re the one who made them. Celebrate your accomplishments, but this ain’t no dance party, dude, so control yourself and respect your opponent. Such philosophies appear mindlessly simple, but ask anyone who has coached teenagers in any sport how easy that is. In the very real sense, testosterone is a drug that butchers common sense.

Where did Jason get that integrity? He never said. In some respects, Jason never left his dad’s dairy farm on the coast. He never left that work ethic. He found out early the best view in his life was what he saw in the mirror. He extended that to his players.

“Jason would make every kid feel like he’s The One,” said St. Vincent’s Gary Galloway, a coaching legend in his own right. “Jason would make every kid feel special. I was a fireman when Jason said I should get into coaching. He saw something in me I didn’t see in myself. He was a mentor to me.”

To ask Jason who he’d influenced, you might as well ask him to give you his wallet. To pardon the phrase, the only credit he took was on his credit card.

“Jase placed everyone before himself,” said Michele, his wife. “Everyone.” Jason saw himself as a facilitator, an enabler of the highest sort, to make kids find themselves and their place in the world. Football was merely the stage for this real-life drama. In the ego-driven world of sports, be it high school or the pros, such self-effacement is as rare as this sentence.

“The only time I saw Jason cry was when he found out from the school one of his players was ruled academically ineligible to play,” Vehmeyer said. “He said: ‘Why didn’t he come to me first when he was struggling? I could have helped him. I failed him.’ That’s how much he cared about the kids. I’m a better husband, coach and father because of that man.”

In the days and weeks to follow, as stories of Jason Franci are told and retold, “failure” is a word that will not find a spot in many sentences. Neither will there be many references to his win-loss record or championships. Neither will there be gatherings in his name.

Before he died, Jason told Michele he didn’t want an obituary in The Press Democrat. He didn’t want a memorial service or a celebration-of-life gathering. And so it will be.

“People who know me already know me,” he said.

And those who don’t, well, you really missed something. You really did.

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