Current Date: Sun, 09 Mar 2014 04:30:03 -0400
North Carolina freshman running back Khris Francis doesn’t know how long it will be, against what team, and most importantly when, he will score his first collegiate touchdown.
But there’s one thing he is already sure of.
When he does cross the goal line for the first time and drops the ball to the turf, he will make two fists with each of his thumbs extended, put them side to side and raise the symbol of a bull to the sky.
The gesture is a representation of Durham — where Francis calls home and got his start on the field.
“It’s funny because one day during our meetings (UNC running backs) coach (Randy) Jordan asked us what are we going to do after we score that first touchdown ever of the season,” Francis said. “We have a signal called the Bull City, so I was saying ‘I’m going to throw that up. Everybody back in Durham will love that.’”
And if there’s one player guaranteed to be there hoisting the Bull City with Francis, it’s T.J. Thorpe.
The two players first met when Francis was in eighth grade and they had the same trainer.
The trainer would push the soon-to-be Hillside High School running back by working him out with two emerging high school players in Durham at the time — N.C. State running back Tony Creecy, then a junior at Southern, and Thorpe, a sophomore at Jordan.
And since first working out together nearly five years ago, Francis and Thorpe have turned a competitive relationship marked by a high school rivalry into a bond of friendship solidified by the team each one now plays for — the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Leading by example
Thorpe, now a redshirt sophomore wide receiver at UNC, recalls the times after he began playing at Jordan High School when he would frequently hear the name of a younger Durham football player named Khris Francis.
Though Thorpe and Francis were both products of Shepard Middle School’s football team, the two players never played together due to their age difference. They also had never met.
Then, by chance, they crossed paths on the infamous day that Francis’ trainer challenged him to workout with the two older players.
“We would do little workouts together and our trainer would use me as an example for Khris as far as this is what point you want to get to if you want to get recruited,” Thorpe said. “Me and him had a pretty good relationship.”
Francis said he cherished each time he was able to work with the two more seasoned players.
“I was always the type of person that if I saw somebody working harder than me then I wasn’t going to allow that,” Francis said. “So he put me with people that were of course stronger than me, faster than me just to make me work that much harder.”
It wouldn’t be long before Thorpe moved on to college, leaving the young running back behind in Durham.
But there was only a matter of time before Francis followed him down U.S. 15-501.
A trip on Tobacco Road
When Thorpe began receiving scholarship letters during his junior year of high school from a long list of Division I college football programs — one that included all but two of the ACC schools at the time — the wide receiver immediately trimmed it down based upon one requirement.
“I knew I wanted to go somewhere close, first and foremost — whether it was just a state over,” Thorpe said. “I wanted my friends and family to be able to watch me play, so from there I narrowed it down to a few schools that were in that location range.”
Though the wide receiver’s allegiance to his royal blue hometown of Durham originally bumped a lighter blue UNC down his list, all it took was one visit to change Thorpe’s mind.
“I was originally a Duke fan so once I got on campus I was like ‘I don’t know about Carolina blue’,” Thorpe said. “But everybody was real polite and real upbeat, and from that, I kind of compared that with every school I went to.”
Thorpe didn’t waste any time, committing to UNC in March of 2010 during his junior year.
When the time came for Francis to make his decision, UNC was, and had always been, atop his list of schools.
One of Francis’ first visits to UNC was in February of 2012, the day the Tar Heel men’s basketball team played Duke in Chapel Hill. But Austin Rivers’ game-winning shot would ultimately not be enough to shy Francis away from UNC.
“That’s actually the same day I committed,” Francis said.
And when Francis made his decision, Thorpe was there to welcome the new Tar Heel.
“It’s definitely a good thing coming here and knowing I had at least one person that if something happened I could go to. When I got here, that was T.J.”
A Bull City bond
During high school, Francis and Thorpe took the field opposite each other on Friday nights as rivals.
But those moments — when each player wore different jerseys and trash-talked each other on the field — couldn’t be farther in the past.
Because now, both players take the field together on Saturdays each with an “NC” on their helmets — an abbreviation of the two-word name for the first team they’ve played together on after missing the chance in middle school.
This Saturday, UNC will head to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech. But Francis and Thorpe won’t be far from home as Yellow Jacket starting quarterback Vad Lee played at Hillside with Francis.
How did the three players make it to where they are today?
Ask them, and the answer would likely be simple and based off two different words.
“We represent something bigger than just us,” Thorpe said. “It gives us something more in common — a little bond.
“And whenever we’re clowning around about where people are from, me and Khris are always having each other’s back on that because I mean we’re both from Durham.”