They sailed different courses in search of jobs in professional football. After traveling thousands of miles from home to follow their dreams, their paths have crossed in the pros for the second time.
Francisco and Afalava have become side-by-side neighbors in the Tennessee Titans locker room, and hope to continue that relationship this season. Both safeties, Francisco and Afalava made it through one round of cuts Sunday and are hoping to make the next round Friday when all NFL rosters must be trimmed from 75 players to 53 players.
Francisco and Afalava practiced a considerable amount of reps together Tuesday and are expected to be on the field at the same time a good bit Thursday when the Titans host the Saints in the final preseason contest for both teams.
“I like playing with Al,” Francisco said. “We both know both spots. We don’t have to play strong safety or free safety; we can play left or right safety, so it’s kind of fun to play with a safety like that.”
Francisco, 29, and Afalava, 25, were not teammates but they did attend Kahuku High and Intermediate School at the same time. Afalava watched as Francisco and other Red Raiders earned college scholarships and wanted to do the same.
““Football is everything to Kahuku High School. It’s just a blessing to me,” Afalava said. “It’s a way out for all of us to go to college and the NFL and help support our families, so we look at it as motivation.”
Francisco returned to Hawaii one year during a break from BYU, where he played collegiately, to assist his high school team and saw Afalava honing in on a goal that mirrored his own.
“I got to coach him a little bit when he was young,” Francisco said. “I followed him throughout college and everything. He was just a great athlete, and we kind of trained together in his rookie year when he was coming out of college to go into the NFL. We were training with the same trainer.”
Kahuku High and Intermediate School has roughly 1,100 students but is developing a pattern of producing college and eventual pro prospects.
In addition to Francisco and Afalava, G Chris Kemoeatu (Pittsburgh, 2006-11), DT Ma’ake Kemoeatu (Baltimore, 2002-05; Carolina, 2006-08; Washington, 2010), G Chris Naeole (New Orleans, 1997-2001; Jacksonville 2002-07) and S Sauesi Tuimaunei (Atlanta, 2011-12) all played for Kahuku.
“That’s what’s shocking, that just in that small area, we have that many guys in the NFL,” Afalava said.
When the Titans scrimmaged the Falcons earlier this month, Francisco, Afalava and Tuimaunei were able to chat on the field after the practice. Afalava and Tuimaunei previously teamed together at Oregon State.
“We’ve got three safeties in the NFL from the same high school, so that’s kind of cool if you think about it,” Francisco said. “When you think about (guys from the Pacific islands), you think more of big guys like linemen. So to have three skill position guys come out of our high school is kind of cool.”
Titans director of college scouting Blake Beddingfield said it is quite rare to have two players from the same high school on the same roster.
“I don’t recall it with our team where you have two guys from the same high school fighting for the same spot,” Beddingfield said. “I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I’m sure that Francisco is probably a guy that Afalava looked up to because he made it and wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
As Beddingfield pointed out, there are high school programs that have produced multiple NFL players. St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), for instance, had eight NFL players on 2011 NFL Kickoff Weekend rosters, and Miami Northwestern had four players selected in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Small towns in Florida and other states in the Gulf Coast region have a history and take pride in producing NFL players, Beddingfield said. Those states have larger populations, however, and are not nearly as isolated from college and pro scouts at the next levels of the game.
“It’s too much fun, too expensive and too long of a flight,” to recruit Hawaii, Beddingfield said.
Francisco went to BYU and signed with Arizona as an undrafted free agent in 2005 after completing college. He was signed to the Cardinals’ practice squad and then activated for the final 11 games that season and played their three more years, including Arizona’s trip to Super Bowl XLIII after the 2008 season.
Francisco missed the final cut in 2009, but signed with Indianapolis two days later and helped the Colts in their run to Super Bowl XLIV. After a short stint in Carolina, he was back with Indianapolis for 12 games in 2010, then signed by Detroit in August and released in September of 2011. He spent the whole year training and waiting for a phone call. The Titans called with an opportunity for Francisco on July 24.
Chicago drafted Afalava out of Oregon State in the sixth round of the 2009 draft. He started 13 games that season, but was waived in September 2010. Indianapolis signed Afalava that November and he joined Francisco in four games with the Colts. Afalava missed the final cut with the Colts in September 2011 and spent the year out of football. He signed with the Titans in January and went through the whole offseason program with the Titans. The experience became even better when Francisco joined the team.
“It’s always exciting to have somebody from back home to make you feel comfortable and more at home,” Afalava said.
Francisco and Afalava had a solid training camp with the Titans. Afalava showed no hesitation in tackling LeGarrette Blount at Tampa Bay and recorded two tackles and a pass break-up against Arizona. Francisco recorded four tackles at Seattle and made a tackle for loss against Arizona on Tennessee’s first punt. They are looking forward to teaming in the defensive backfield against New Orleans Thursday.
“We kind of play similar,” Francisco said. “We’re both aggressive and over-aggressive at times. That’s just the way we were brought up. That’s how we were taught to play, so it’s kind of just followed us throughout our careers, I guess, but it’s fun to be out there, especially in this next game we’ll probably be playing on the same field at the same time.”