LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (AP) — Former Oregon Ducks and NFL tight end Russ Francis, a three-time Pro Bowl selection with the New England Patriots who won a Super Bowl with the 1984 San Francisco 49ers, was killed along with another aviation enthusiast when their small plane crashed after takeoff from an upstate New York airport, authorities said Monday.
Francis, 70, and Richard McSpadden, 63, had just departed from the Lake Placid Airport shortly after 4 p.m. Sunday in a single-engine Cessna 177 when the plane encountered trouble. The New York State Police said the aircraft crashed into an embankment at the corner of the airport.
Francis was president of Lake Placid Airways, which runs charter and scenic flights. A longtime flying enthusiast, he had been a pilot for nearly 50 years and had run a charter service in Hawaii, according to the airline’s website. McSpadden was a senior vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and was known as an aviation safety expert. The organization said his career included a stint as commander of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.
Francis was a Patriots first-round draft pick in 1975 and played in New England until 1980, making the franchise’s all-decade team for the 1970s and the 35th anniversary team. He was named to the Pro Bowl three straight seasons from 1977-79.
“Russ was a fan favorite throughout his playing career,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement. “He was a dynamic player on the field who had an even bigger personality off it. He knew no boundaries, pushed the limits and lived his life to the fullest.”
Born in Seattle, Francis played for Oregon in 1972 and 1973, racking up 39 receptions for 588 yards and four touchdowns.
The Associated Press reported that Francis dropped out of Oregon with one year left of eligibility and didn’t play his senior season. But he reportedly was told he couldn’t be drafted in the NFL if he had any eligibility left. So, he enrolled at Oregon State University days before the draft in order to burn that final year.
He was drafted by the New England Patriots in 1975, playing six seasons and being voted to the Pro Bowl three times before retiring in 1981. Francis joined the San Francisco 49ers in 1982 and was part of the 1984 team that beat Miami in the Super Bowl. He returned to New England in 1987 and retired the year after. In all, he had 393 receptions for 5,262 yards and 40 touchdowns.
The crash is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
“The #49ers are saddened to learn of the tragic passing of former tight end and Super Bowl XIX champion Russ Francis,” the 49ers said in a social media post.
“We are deeply saddened by the sudden and tragic loss of former New England Patriots tight end Russ Francis. Our condolences are extended to Francis’ family and friends,” the Patriots posted.
ESPN reports Francis had a passion for flying and recently bought Lake Placid Airways.
“Flying was my brother’s lifelong passion, and perhaps a fitting way for him to go. God speed to you my big brother!!” Ed Francis wrote on Facebook.
Central Oregon Daily News contributed to this report.