|Can’t catch me
While a Bald Eagle Area defender futilely tries to stop Johnny Franco, during the 2006 Tyrone/BEA game, the Eagle tailback swivels away for a long gain. (The Daily Herald/Mary Michaels)
Here’s an amazing fact about Tyrone senior Johnny Franco: in 26 starts over three seasons, the 5-foot-11 running back-defensive back scored at least one touchdown in 23 of them. And in those 23 games, the Golden Eagles were 22-1.
Sound like the kind of player you’d want to get the ball to?
Numbers like those are hard to deny, so even after Franco missed almost all of his senior season with a broken left fibula suffered in the preseason, there were still offers on the table from a handful of eastern colleges.
The one that Franco opted on was the one Division I program that stuck with him throughout the emotional roller coaster ride that was his senior season. Franco signed a National Letter of Intent two weeks ago, accepting a full football scholarship to play for Army as a member of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“It wasn’t a tough decision,” said Franco, who plans to enter the Academy as a pre-med major. “They were the only Division I school to offer me a full scholarship after my injury. When they stuck with me, I knew they were the best choice. They offer the best academics mixed with football.”
Academics were a high priority not only for Johnny, but for his parents – Sue and John.
“He loves the football and we love the academics,” said John Franco, the 15-year Tyrone coach who in three decades of coaching has become quite familiar with the recruiting process. “One of his goals was to try to win a Division I scholarship. He had such a good sophomore and junior season that he was really in the driver’s seat. With his injury, a lot of the schools pulled back, but the one that didn’t was Army.”
Coach Franco said Army first noticed his son after his junior season when he attended the Butler-Metro combine near Pittsburgh, and soon after, the Francos sent the Academy Johnny’s highlight tape.
It didn’t take long for Army to decide it liked what it saw.
“They came to us and said we’d like to offer,” coach Franco said. “They had already done the background checks and academic checks and they said they had a football spot open for him.”
Even with that offer on the table, and with other schools saying a comeback attempt during his senior season could be a mistake, Johnny battled back to start two playoff games after twice attempting returns during the regular season.
“There were some people at the college level who suggested that he shouldn’t try to come back,” coach Franco said. “They thought the potential of further injury would only hurt his chances of playing in college, but he wanted to come back to help the team win. His main focus was to help the team.”
That’s not too surprising considering the path the younger Franco’s career had taken since junior high. In ninth grade, he was a thousand-yard rusher for Bishop Guilfoyle’s undefeated junior high team, but before his sophomore season his family made the decision to move to Tyrone. Until then, they had lived in Altoona, with coach Franco commuting to Tyrone for practice after teaching Drivers Education at Altoona High.
Before the move, there were rumors coach Franco might leave Tyrone to take over at Bishop Guilfoyle, where longtime coach Tom Irwin had just retired.
“It was tough because I was leaving friends behind, but I already had friends who played for Tyrone,” said Johnny. “I always knew I wanted to play for my dad, wherever it was, and I’m glad it was at Tyrone.”
Johnny’s impact on the gridiron was felt immediately. As a sophomore on a senior-dominated team in 2005, Franco rushed for over 400 yards and scored 12 touchdowns as the Golden Eagles opened the season 10-0 before being upset in the District 6-AA semifinals by Bishop McCort. He also had five takeaways and seven tackles for loss.
At the start of his junior season, teammate Tyler Gillmen went down early with a case of mononucleosis, putting the burden of the offense squarely on Franco’s shoulders. In response, he rushed for 410 yards and scored seven touchdowns over the first three games of the season.
He finished the season with the fifth-best single-season rushing performance in Tyrone history, racking up 1,651 yards on 223 carries to go along with 27 touchdowns. He also had five takeaways, including three interceptions.
Despite the gaudy offensive numbers he produced as a junior, Army recruited Franco as a defensive back, where he most likely will be groomed as a safety.
“It will be hard to give up offense,” said Johnny. “Offense gets all the glory and the front page headlines, and the defense does all the dirty work. I’ll always have a place in my heart for offense, but I love defense and hitting.”
Franco also loves the idea of playing in a game labeled by many college football pundits as the best rivalry in college football – the annual Army-Navy game.
“I watch the game every year,” he said. “And I normally root for Army. Any time you get a chance to play in a game of that caliber, it’s an unbelievable feeling. Hopefully I’ll be able to make an impact in it someday.”