Kody Casey never met Steve Francis. Yet, Casey certainly hears plenty about his late uncle, and he never knows when it’s going to happen next.
“All the time, every time I go somewhere people will say ‘Are you related to Steve Francis’,” said Casey, a senior who, like his uncle once did, plays football and baseball at Bluefield High School. “I tell them, ‘Yes, ma’am or yes, sir’, and we start talking about him.
“Some people that I don’t even know come up to ask me about him. It feels like a great honor, there must be a lot of people that respect him.
“I learn something new about him every day.”
Casey was born in 1992. Francis, the brother of Kody’s mother, Dona Casey, succumbed to cancer in 1979 at age 22.
“He never got to meet my brother, but from dad talking about him and other people in general,” Dona said, “(Steve) had a big impact on my sons’ lives too.”
Despite the 13-year separation between the two, and the more than three decades that have passed since Francis’ untimely death, it’s almost like Francis continues to live on through Casey, who has learned to live with questions about the similarities between the two.
“We talk about him every day,” Casey said. “Every day we talk about him, there is not a day goes by that we don’t hear about Steve.”
Kody figures he was about 7 when he first started learning about Francis.
“I asked tons of questions about him,” he said. “What did he do in high school, how was he, how he acted.”
He kept asking questions, and they’ve never stopped. That’s good, because the questions from others have never stopped either.
“He was a really amazing person, my grandfather said he never talked back, he was very respectable, he was a hard worker, and he said he was also good at football and baseball,” Kody said. “I actually had a guy who came to the Beaver-Graham game and talked to me about Steve and saying how we look alike.”
Kody has proof. Take a look at the duo, and even though Kody is slightly bigger, there is a definite facial resemblance.
“We have tons of pictures of him and every time I look at him I am like ‘Wow, that really does look like me’,” Kody said. “I am a little bit bigger than he was. I think he was like 5-foot-9, 170 (pounds), I am 6-1 and 200, but he was still a big guy,
“I guess it came from working with his dad all the time. He worked on the farm, one of those farm boys.”
Casey said it’s more than just features, it’s their personality as well.
“My mom says facial appearances, we both have freckles on our face, and our hair is like the same way,” Casey said. “Mom said we act the same too, if we get mad or something, we keep it to ourselves and we like to joke around a lot. I am a jokester, I always like to have fun.”
Dona can see her brother’s serious, caring side as well when she observes the actions of her son.
“He is a team guy, he believes in being fair and giving everybody an honest shot,” Dona said. “If his buddies are down, he tries to pick them up, he’s just like my brother on the field...
“He tries to live up to those standards. It’s not a standard we set for him, it’s a standard he set for himself. That comes from knowing who Steve was and what we tell him, and it’s not just us, but my brothers’ friends too have told him.”
His friends didn’t forget him. There’s little doubt they never will.
“It was sad, I was sad when he died because I knew what a great guy he was and it was shocking that a guy that young would leave us so it hurt me,” said Bluefield football coach Fred Simon, who played sports with Francis for the Beavers. “What a good guy, again what a good person.”
Francis played football and baseball at Bluefield from 1972-74, graduating in ‘75, only months before the Beavers won their fifth of what has now become 10 state football championships.
He never won a state title at Bluefield, but he certainly was a Beaver at heart.
“I think he would be very proud of (our success) because he had as much alumni heart as anybody did,” Simon said. “He always wanted us to do well, and the feeling was likewise for him, but I am sure he would be very proud of what is going on right now.”
While Francis — who started at center and pitched for the baseball team — had an opportunity to play college baseball, he chose to stay home, working with his father and coaching kids on the gridiron.
“He chose not to go (to college), and those were the last four years of his life,” Dona Casey said. “He spent the last four years of his life, not knowing he had cancer. He told me, ‘Donna, I just feel like I need to be here, I want to be here with dad’.”
It was his efforts with coaching children that laid a legacy that will never be forgotten.
“He started coaching little league football out of high school,” Dona Casey said. “He took on the Brushfork Bengals, and those boys had never won a game until he took over. He took them to the city league championship.”
That wasn’t the only title some of those kids won. When a group of them became seniors, “The Elite 10” as they were known, dedicated their season to Francis. All they did was lead the Beavers to a state title in 1984.
“They dedicated their senior year to my brother,” Dona said. “That was six or seven years after he passed. I think that was awesome of boys at that age to do that, it showed what an impact he had on them.”
Kody added, “He must have had a big huge impact on their lives for them to do that for him.”
Simon, who was a year older than Francis, could be counted as one of his friends. He recalled Francis, even remembering the good-natured nickname they had for him— which was borrowed from the fictional mascot from Mad Magazine.
“We called him Alfred E. Newman. We had a little nickname for him, it was just the way he looked a little bit,” Simon said. “We liked to kid him and he had a great sense of humor, it didn’t bother him any.”
He earned his respect on the football field. Francis won the Bob Gatherum Award in 1975, which was given for his dedication to the team.
“Steve practiced hard, he had a great sense of humor and we really liked him a lot,” Simon said. “He was just a good person, a good heart, big old forearms, just a farm strong like, his dad was a good guy too.
“His dad would come up and watch us practice a little bit and spend some time with us. It was neat, I really enjoyed him, he didn’t start with me, but the year after I left he started.
“He started center, I’m not sure if he played defense, but I know he played center and just played hard and was just a happy person.”
Simon, who has used Casey as a defensive end, offensive lineman and tight end, can see a Francis in him, from his mannerisms to the way he runs.
“He looks like him in the face a little bit, he sure does, and he has got the forearms like Steve did so they are similar in those ways,” Simon said. “When he first came up here and he was running, he brought his elbows side to side like Steve did.
“He ran just exactly like him, we have tried to break him of it and he has gotten better and better each year, but he definitely ran exactly the same way Steve ran.”
Francis was probably even better on the baseball field, but no matter where he was, Simon remembered his personality.
“I just know he had a good time razzing him a little bit and just teasing with him and he would tease back with us,” Simon said. “He had just a super personality, a lot of fun to know him, I enjoyed him, I would see him every day, he was always grinning.
“We could tease him and he would tease back, there was an awfully lot of camaraderie and a teammate that you really cared and loved for. I loved him, he was a good guy.”
Simon may have even learned a lesson from his death. Others could do the same.
“You never know, you enjoy life every day,” Simon said. “That is why you work hard, you enjoy it every day because you never know.”
The lost of Francis to Melanoma on Aug. 20, 1979, was a blow to the community, including John Chmara, who was Francis coach with the Beavers.
“I wasn’t here, I had moved on to Concord, but I know coach Chmara took it to heart and he really appreciated him for what he had done,” said Simon, who followed Chmara as coach in 1986. “He was taking care of the little league program and taking care of kids. His dad cared about kids too, his dad coached some baseball if I am not mistaken.”
Dona recalls fundraisers being held for Francis to help with medical expenses and other costs, and how so many of his friends came to visit him in the hospital. He attended Brushfork Elementary, and wasn’t forgotten there either.
“They gave away an award in his name to the most dedicated student there,” Casey said. “He went 12 years of school without missing a day.
“It was given for his academic performance and the way he helped people, and my son now has a lot of those same qualities.”
Francis didn’t let illness slow him down in his later years, continuing to coach kids and attending Beaver football games.
“He didn’t do nothing he didn’t enjoy doing,” Dona said. “He loved kids, and anything he could do to have a positive effect on them he would do.
“He went to every ball game. If he were alive, he would be there cheering them on, and I am sure he still is. He would be very proud of my son.”
Casey, who has a 3.0 grade point average, plans a future in electrical engineering and would like to play baseball at Bluefield State. He’s striving to become part of the first class at Bluefield to win three state titles in four seasons and to go back-to-back as well.
“I think we have a good chance, we have to keep our heads on straight and keep working hard,” Casey said. “It would be nice to be the first team to go back-to-back and I think we have a very good chance of doing it.”
Despite a 7-1 record with a road trip to James Monroe slated for Friday, Casey isn’t happy with where the Beavers are right now. That will have to wait.
“I am not pleased yet,” Casey said. “After we go to the state championship and we win, then that is when I am pleased.”
He figures he would receive the same strong signals from Francis.
“I think he would say we have done good, but I think he would probably say you should have done this or you should have done that,” said Casey, whose practice jersey in football is 46; Steve’s game number was 47. “He wouldn’t let me get the full credit for it, I think he would probably think of me as his son.
“I have dedicated all four years here to Steve and my family, and not just for him, I do it for myself too.”
No matter what happens in the future of Kody Casey, he will probably always be asked the same questions. Bring it on, he’ll be ready until that first meeting does happen with Francis, some time off in the future.
“I definitely feel like I am carrying on his legacy. I wish I did meet him just to see what I can learn from him,” Kody said. “Mom has said that she sees Steve every day through me.
“I wish every day I could have seen him, but maybe one day I will.”
—Contact Brian Woodson