TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Deondre Francois hoped for the best, and that the pain in his left knee was only from a sprain or a bruise.
But, in the back of his mind, he knew it was worse than that. After sustaining a low hit from Alabama safety Ronnie Harrison late in the Seminoles’ season opener against the Crimson Tide, Francois felt a pop in his knee.
No stranger to being hit, Francois had famously earned a reputation as one of the toughest quarterbacks in the country after absorbing several body blows during his young career.
But he had never felt a pop before.
Not long after that, the knee began to swell. A day later, upon Francois’ return to Tallahassee, test results confirmed Francois’ worst fears: His patellar tendon was torn, and he needed surgery to repair it.
Which meant that Francois’ season, in which several college football pundits had pegged him as one of the country’s breakout stars, was essentially over before it started.
“It’s very devastating,” Francois said Tuesday in his first public comments since before the Alabama game. “It was very detrimental to me and my family, knowing we worked so hard to get here. We had a lot of high hopes for this season, and to just go out in the first game really hurt.”
Knee injuries are common in football, but they usually involve ligaments.
Francois had never even heard of a ruptured patellar tendon.
Even worse, it was the first major injury that Francois had ever experienced. And his first surgery, too.
“I was trying to convince myself that it was just a sprain, or something like that I could play through,” he said. “But when the doctor realized what it was, he told me upfront.”
Although he is still sporting a brace on his left leg, Francois said that his recovery is going smoothly and that he is right on schedule.
Even if he’s still not exactly sure what “on schedule” means.
“I don’t really know what type of healer I am when it comes to things like this,” Francois said. “So, we’re just going week by week, taking it slow. I want to be back as soon as I can, but you can’t rush an injury like this.
“No matter what type of player you are, you’ve got to take it slow.”
In the meantime, Francois has been determined to make himself useful on the practice fields, especially when it comes to assisting freshman quarterback James Blackman.
Francois attends practice as treatment allows, and he’ll often share his observations and insights to Blackman and the rest of the Seminoles’ offense.
“Just seeing that he’s still taking out his time to go over some of the stuff and saying what he saw, giving us feedback, it shows that he still cares,” junior receiver Auden Tate said. “He’s still with us.”
As for Blackman, count Francois as impressed by the way the freshman has handled himself this season. Francois had the benefit of a redshirt season before becoming the Seminoles’ starter in 2016. To take the reins after only a few weeks on campus, as Blackman did, would be an even bigger challenge.
And if there’s anyone who knows a thing or two about bouncing back from early adversity, it’s Francois. The Seminoles got off to a 3-2 start in Francois’ first month at the helm before rallying to a 10-3 finish.
“To see him battle and have the grit that he has just amazes me,” Francois said. “Coming from high school, playing at a prestigious school like Florida State and going into battle without knowing a lot of the playbook because you just got here, It’s really a tough task. No one really knows how hard it is unless you’re behind center, doing it.”
Francois has kept himself busy away from the football field, too. With a little extra time on his hands, Francois worked with Derrick Coles, FSU’s director of student-athlete development and community service, to develop a speaking schedule at Tallahassee-area schools.
On Mondays and Wednesdays, Francois visits elementary school-aged children to deliver a message of encouragement, discipline and perseverance.
It may not be the same as throwing a game-winning touchdown pass, but, for Francois, the opportunity to be a positive influence has provided a silver lining in an otherwise difficult situation.
“Just to see kids smile makes me smile,” he said. “Just to go to talk to children and tell them to listen to their teachers, listen to their parents and do the right thing and they can be in my shoes one day. … Just trying to inspire the youth.”