FOXBOROUGH — Year after year, as a football-loving kid from the Miami suburb of Opa-locka, Fla., Justin Francis signed up to play in the local youth league. And year after year, his request was declined, always for the same robust reason.
“I’ve always loved football, I just wasn’t able to play. I was way over the weight limit,” Francis said. “I wanted to play, but I was too big.”
The scale, as we know, never lies. It kept Francis from playing organized football until his final two years of high school, but looking back, also served as an annual reminder. Francis understands what it’s like to want something, only to have the door closed in his face. Now that he’s a defensive lineman for the Patriots — an undrafted rookie who knows all about rejection — he’s making the most of his opportunity to play.
He’s seen the field more as the season has gone along. Francis was inactive for the first four games this season. He was in uniform and on the sideline for the first time in Week 5 against Denver, but was the only Patriot (other than backup quarterback Ryan Mallett) who didn’t play a down.
Francis has been on the field ever since. Not every defensive play, obviously. His debut at Seattle saw him participate in just five special teams plays (one tackle). Then against the Jets, seven defensive snaps (and his only defensive tackle so far). The following week in London, a season-high 19 snaps, followed by 12 plays in last Sunday’s win over the Bills, which included a quarterback pressure.
He’s listed on the depth chart as a second-string tackle behind Kyle Love, but in the eyes of someone who was playing at Rutgers this time last year, then didn’t hear his name called in the NFL draft, being a member of the Patriots, no matter the string, has a sweet sound to it.
“There’s been a lot of good work up until this point, so I’m going to continue to work harder and harder every day, and hopefully the results will be positive,” Francis said. “I’m just trying to make a name for myself. I’m a rookie, I haven’t done anything yet. I’m just keeping my mouth shut and taking my time with everything I’m doing.”
He’s still big — 6 feet 4 inches, 270 pounds — but Francis has lost the baby fat and added speed and strength to the mix, qualities that have allowed the 23-year-old to see the field. All he needed was an opportunity.
It came, in some sense, from the locker next to Francis.
“Trevor Scott has been out for a couple of weeks here,” coach Bill Belichick said. “And with Jermaine [Cunningham] playing inside, that opened up a little bit of an opportunity there.”
Francis acknowledges setting personal goals, but said he chooses to share them with a very small circle of people. Safe to say, though, that getting playing time as a rookie was high on his wish list?
“Oh, definitely,” he said. “Definitely . . . definitely. That was one of the goals, but it’s just continuous work, trying to stay ahead of everything.”
Or catching up, perhaps. Francis has had just six seasons of organized football — seven, if you count his redshirt year at Rutgers. He showed enough in high school to catch the attention of then-Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano, who offered him a scholarship. He showed enough in college to attract the Patriots.
Now, instead of admiring players such as Vince Wilfork, Francis is on the same team, in the same meeting room, breaking down the same film. Learning, always.
“I don’t want to go into specifics, but Vince has taken a lot of time to coach me up, basically try to fix the little things that I had going on,” Francis said. “You learn from that, and have to be able to take it from the classroom to the field.”
Francis isn’t the only defensive lineman for the Patriots to see his playing time increase recently. Brandon Deaderick, in his third season from Alabama, was inactive for two games early in the year, but played 35 percent of the defensive snaps against the Jets, and 31 percent against the Rams.
“I’m just focusing on trying to continue to get better, and focus on the game at hand, which is Indianapolis right now,” Deaderick said. “Regardless if I play one snap or 80 snaps, I’ve just got to be prepared. If you’re here, they’ve kept you here for a reason, so you’ve got to be prepared to play.”
That’s the approach Francis and Deaderick have adopted. Maybe they’ll be used sparingly on Sunday afternoon when the 6-3 Patriots face the 6-3 Colts at Gillette Stadium. Maybe they’ll consistently be part of the rotation, spelling Wilfork, Love, and any other defensive lineman that needs a rest.
Time was, Francis couldn’t play, even when he wanted. Now that he can, he’s making up for lost time.
“I’m with the Patriots now, and I appreciate everything this organization has done for me,” Francis said. “I always knew I was going to play football, I just didn’t know when I was going to start.
“It’s a blessing to be here, just working on what you have to get done. Going to practice, that’s exciting to me. Watching film, that’s exciting to me. Week after week, I’m always going to be excited, because I love playing football. It’s what I do.”