BYU football player turns from NFL to pro rugby


Perform well and run hard.

Aaron Francisco plays in a BYU football game in 2002 as a safety. After he played football for BYU he went on to the NFL. (Photo by Mark A. Philbrick)

This was the mindset of Aaron Francisco as he walked out on to the field with 150 other players in Minneapolis for the National Rugby Football League Combine. The 6-foot-2-inch former BYU safety and former NFL player hoped to make it onto one of the six- to 12-man teams in the newest major league in the U.S. slated to start in spring 2015. Fortunately, not only did Francisco do well, he excelled.

“It was probably one of the most impressive things that I saw over the course of the entire weekend out of any player, and I think that’s really what stuck to me was just how good of an athlete he is … and [how] prepared he was for the combine,” said Shawn Zobel, director of player recruitment. “He was the one guy that aced it without even a problem, and he probably could’ve kept going for a long time.”

Francisco knew he was going against guys younger than he, but that didn’t stop him from showing the league that he could outperform them.

“The talent level was really good, but I also performed really [well]. I thought I was one of the better guys there, and that’s what I train for,” Francisco said.

He even drew the attention of Michael Clements, the founder of the National Rugby Football League, who was impressed by Francisco’s ability and drive.

“He just kept going endlessly. I don’t think his battery runs out. It’s almost like he would be nuclear,” Clements said.

With more than a decade of professional and collegiate football experience, 31-year-old Francisco isn’t a stranger to working hard on the field. Not only was he a former safety at BYU between 2001 and 2004, but as a seven-year NFL veteran, he played in two Super Bowl games: one with the Cardinals in 2009 and another with the Colts in 2010. Those who know him see him as a hard worker who constantly pushes himself to be the best athlete on the field.

His wife, Nalani Francisco, is no stranger to how much effort he puts into being an athlete.

“He’s always working extra hard. It seemed like he was always going the extra mile to do his best and be above average. … He’s a great athlete, and I know he’s going to do great with rugby too,” she said.

Aaron Francisco’s first exposure to rugby was when he was younger and still living in Laie, Hawaii. Although not his first pick in terms of sports, it was a fun game he played occasionally.

“A lot of people from my town play it at BYU—Hawaii. I never really played seriously, but I played a little bit when I was younger,” he said.

He credits his opportunity to take part in the National Rugby Football League to former Cardinals teammate Deuce Lutui, who contacted him and asked about how he felt about playing rugby.

“He texted me one day, and he asked if I was interested in playing rugby professionally, and I was like, ‘Yeah, why not,'” Francisco said.

Lutui gave Aaron Francisco’s contact info to RugbyLaw, the organization starting the league. The league then invited the athlete to the combine.

“If it weren’t for that guy … my sporting career might be over,” Aaron Francisco said.

He then had a purpose to the training he had been dutifully performing since his time in the NFL.

“When I heard about the combine, it just got me more excited because when you’re in the weight room and when you’re training, you’re used … to working for something, and you’re not just there to work out,” Aaron Francisco said.

The prospect of playing professional rugby continues to fuel his training efforts in this time of transition. The drills he used for football that tested his footwork and speed are the same now for rugby.

“Training-wise, it’s pretty much the same,” Aaron Francisco said. “I just do the same football training routine that I do in the weight room, and then I do field work just like I [did] when I was playing football.”

Aaron Francisco currently resides in Gilbert, Arizona, where he spends his time training for rugby, being a father and pursuing another potential career as a firefighter. His wife and kids are excited about him playing rugby professionally and enjoy having him home, especially with the prospect of him going back into a league.

“I think whatever makes him happy is going to make me happy,” said Nalani Francisco, who is a dance instructor for Na Leo Kupono Productions, a Polynesian entertainment group. “I actually like the transitional period where he’s continuing his workout but he’s home.”

Zobel said he can see the time that Aaron Francisco will be playing professional sports again.

“He puts that same work ethic that he had in the NFL towards pursuing this new venture and becoming a pro rugby player, and I think that has really spoken volumes to me,” Zobel said. “I think he’s a perfect fit for what we’re trying to do, and we’re very excited that he’s going to be a part of the National Rugby Football League.”

As the National Rugby Football League begins to take off in the coming year, Aaron Francisco will continue his focus on training and preparing for his transition. The bottom line is that he is ready for the opportunity that the National Rugby Football League has waiting for him.

“It feels good. It’s a new opportunity and something totally different. … I’m just excited to play sports again,” he said.


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