Late one evening in the mid-1970s, in a white-plank house on Oahu's northeastern side, a man in his late 30s folded a gold-and-green Packers blanket. Carefully aligning the corners, he laid it flat inside the last of several cardboard boxes he had been filling with jerseys, game balls and newspaper clippings. Two decades earlier, football had lifted Joe Francis out of Kalihi, a poverty-ridden Honolulu neighborhood, and sent him to college and the NFL. What remained of that life was in those boxes. Rather than celebrate it, Francis grabbed a roll of packing tape and bade it farewell.
More than 20 years later, on a misty morning in 2002, the phone rang in that same house, with a similar promise of opportunity for Joe's youngest son, Ikaika. Hawaii coach June Jones told Joe he'd seen the kid play power forward for Kalaheo High. Jones thought Ikaika's athleticism, aggressive play under the basket and quick post moves could translate to the gridiron. I'm calling to offer your son a football scholarship, Jones said.
Francis paused, dumbfounded. Ikaika? He'd played only one season of football, and that was Pop Warner. He was skinny, soft and lacked discipline. Joe often wondered if he should pepper the kid's steaks with gunpowder to put some fire in his belly. Although Francis rarely spoke of his playing days—and almost never discussed them with Ikaika—his past was no secret among the island's football fraternity. Weighing his own credentials against his son's, Joe wondered if the offer was about him. No thanks, he told Jones. Nobody's giving anything to my son that he hasn't earned.
But over the next five years, Ikaika Alama-Francis earned more than a scholarship. Learning football from the ground up while adding 80 pounds to his 6'5'' frame, he turned himself into a likely first-day pick in the 2007 NFL draft. More important, he proved himself to the man in the white-plank house, who finally decided that his son deserved to hear his story.
DRIVING BACK to his home on a breezy day in 1996, Joe Francis was thinking about practice. He was in his 10th year as defensive coordinator of the state's Pac-Five team, comprising students from various private high schools. He'd spent the afternoon looking for signs of aggression and anger—the attitude kids on his defense need to play. When Joe got to his house, he found 12-year-old Ikaika sprawled on the couch playing video games. As usual, Joe was frustrated with the boy, his third son from his second marriage. Father and son are separated by almost 50 years—Joe is old enough to remember Japanese bombers flying over his house on their way to Pearl Harbor—and the age gap between the two was difficult to bridge. Joe pulled his wife aside, telling her to do something about their lazy son, and Ku'ulei Alama-Francis passed on this message to Ikaika: Your father wants you to play a sport.
Ikaika listened. He tried out for a Pop Warner team and played quarterback and linebacker. He knew his assignments, but Joe was unimpressed, focusing on the seventh-grader's lack of viciousness. "This guy is a driver," Ku'ulei says now of her husband. "When Ikaika started sports—the time kids look to dads for support—Joe was tough on him. Ikaika couldn't understand it."
But Joe was no Marv Marinovich. He didn't care what Ikaika played. It's just that whatever the boy did, Joe wanted him to do it right. And the coach in him was not really capable of softening his style. Knowing this, Joe used Ku'ulei as a filter. When she asked him why, Joe told her, Because if I tell him my way, he'll never speak to me again.
At Pop Warner practice one day, somebody asked Ikaika if his father was the Joe Francis, the Honolulu kid who played pro ball. Ikaika had no idea. Later, he asked his dad. Did you play in the NFL? Yeah, I played. Wow! Did you like it? Yeah, it was good. Discouraged by his father's curtness, Ikaika dropped the subject—and sports altogether. Joe kept his career under wraps because he didn't want Ikaika to feel pressure and because he doubted his son's passion. "He went out for football because the uniforms were nice and his friends were going," Joe recalls. "His interest wasn't there. He loved video games. He was kind of a lazy kid."
A year went by, and then even Ku'ulei couldn't bear to watch her son spend another day on the couch. And so, during Ikaika's freshman year, she dragged him to his high school's basketball tryouts. This game clicked with the boy. By his senior year he was a two-time all-state player who led Kalaheo High to a state title. Ikaika got partial scholarship offers to some mid-major mainland schools, but he wanted to stay close to his pals. So he was a walk-on with the Rainbow hoops team. One season and 11 total minutes of playing time later, he remembered the offer from Jones and found his way to spring football tryouts. "I knew he was an athlete," Jones remembers. "But he didn't even know where the pads went. I had to tell him how to get into a three-point stance."
Jones made it simple for the lanky kid. This is basketball, he said, waving his hand around the practice field. The quarterback is the hoop. Put a move on the tackle and go to the basket. Ikaika nodded, his head still adjusting to his helmet's weight. At the whistle, he sold a hard post-up move, then spun off the tackle. That's all Jones needed to see. He offered Ikaika a scholarship. Again.
At home that night Ikaika gave his father the news. The 67-year-old Francis, still solid at 6'1'', looked his son up and down in shock. He thought of what he went through playing football. He wondered if his son was ready for those sacrifices, if he was doing it just to please the old man, if he could be the "controlled a—hole" he says football players need to be. But what he said to Ikaika was: You're too skinny to play defensive end. Then he told him he still hadn't earned the right to accept a scholarship. He'd have to walk on.
This time, though, Joe wasn't distant. He watched Ikaika practice from the bleachers, prepared daily megaprotein meals for him, taught the kid how to lift weights like a football player, watched game tape with him. He trained his son, putting him through drills long after Ikaika's practices. But while he accepted his son's interest in the game, Joe hadn't stopped being Joe. One night he stood in the dim porch light well past 10, heckling Ikaika's repeated failures to execute a crossover step. The boy didn't mind. The longer these nights dragged on, the more stories he heard.
Some nights Ikaika heard about how his dad was a two-sport high school star in football and hoops. Other nights he heard about the scholarship to Oregon State and the 203 total yards Joe ran and threw for in the 1957 Rose Bowl. He learned about his dad's being picked by the Packers in the fifth round of the 1958 NFL draft, signing for $12,000.
He heard how Joe roomed with Jerry Kramer and shared a backfield with Jim Taylor. He listened to stories about a rook named Ray Nitschke getting a foot to the head after mouthing off on a kick return. He heard how Joe taped down the bulge of his herniated quadriceps before each game. The Packers won only one game that season, prompting the owners to hire a coach named Vince Lombardi. Joe and Lombardi hit it off, both men being of few words and no tolerance for laziness.
Ikaika heard how Joe broke his left leg late in his second season; how his right knee popped in camp the next year; how, after 18 months of rehab, he was cut by the Packers and joined Montreal in the CFL, where his knee went again. "I was out of football," Joe recalls. "Things change just like that."
Finally, Ikaika heard about life after football for Joe: coaching at Corvallis, moving back to Hawaii to coach high schools, letting the past fade away. He heard all the things Joe had been hiding, until the boy's love for the sport matched his father's.
DRIVING HIS shoulder into Matt Leinart's ribs, Ikaika felt like a real player. His first sack, against USC in Hawaii's 2005 season opener, came after yet another scholarship offer from Jones, which Joe allowed Ikaika to accept. "I earned it," Ikaika says. "Dad was right. This feels better."
One month later, in the second quarter of a home game against Boise State, the 260-pound junior clubbed a Broncos guard, slid across the pocket and drove quarterback Jared Zabransky into the ground. At the whistle, Ikaika leaped to his feet and got funky while teammates whacked him on the helmet. After the game Ikaika heard his cell phone beeping in the locker room. It was a voice mail from Joe. What the hell was that? It's going to be hard for me to come to your games if you're going to act like that.
"Ikaika looked like somebody shot his dog when he heard it," recalls Rainbows defensive line coach Jeff Reinebold. "You could see how much his dad's approval means to him."
After every home game Ikaika would spend Saturday night at punter Kurt Milne's apartment, watching the game on TiVo to prep for a Sunday film session with Joe. He knew what to expect: You think that's a good play? You should try to keep that up for four quarters. Don't give in to fatigue. That was Lombardi's saying: Fatigue makes us cowards. "Sometimes you want that pat on the back," Ikaika says. "But I grew up with my dad, and I won't get it. He expects so much."
BEFORE JANUARY'S Hula Bowl, Ikaika is on the rise; he's made Mel Kiper's Big Board as one of the top-25 NFL draft prospects. During the game, with Joe watching, Ikaika bull-rushes a fullback, crosses over to his left and clotheslines Clemson QB Will Proctor. Textbook play—until Ikaika goes down. Son of a bitch, Joe thinks. Please don't be a knee.
His prayer is answered; it's just a torn pectoral muscle. After routine surgery and rehab, Ikaika will be ready for his March 29 pro day. Twice a year Rainbow players do the combine workout, and if Ikaika repeats his numbers from summer, when he weighed 292, benched 225 pounds 36 times and ran a 4.7 40, he'll seal his status as a probable secondround pick. Of course, Joe is always making sure his kid doesn't buy the hype. "I've been negative," he says now. "I pounded it as much as I could: Don't put yourself in a situation where you test your luck, because luck might not work out."
Recovering at home in late January, Ikaika sits on the couch and flips through stacks of yellowed newspapers and game programs, the latest in an ongoing stream of unread stories from Joe's playing career. Nearly every page produces a "whoa" and an adoring, wide-eyed glance across the room at his father, who is sorting fresh vegetables behind the kitchen counter. Ikaika tells a story about a package Joe received in the mail this past season. It had a Wisconsin return address, and Joe assumed it was another old fan wanting his autograph, like the 30 requests on his desk. He cut through the packing tape, reached inside and grabbed a gold-and-green Packers helmet. As he shook out the packing foam, a Sharpie dropped to the floor, alongside a letter.
They wanted Joe's signature on the helmet.
And his son's too.