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For Maryland Product A.J. Francis, OTA Has More Than One Meaning


The outspoken defensive lineman is hoping to extend his stay with the Redskins in 2017. In the meantime, he's putting the finish touches on his first rap album, due this September.

When Redskins defensive lineman A.J. Francis first began rapping, he was 11 years old. He put rhymes together over backtracks from Jay-Z's "Renegade" and a "Special Delivery" beat produced by Black Rob and P. Diddy.

"You know those little stem mics that used to come with old PC's?" he said. "I would record into a program that I downloaded from the Internet."

When reminiscing about the origins of his musical background, Francis makes sure to explain that his love for music came before he started playing football, to remind you that he was, and is, a multi-dimensional person before he strapped on a helmet, capable of enjoying and engaging with many different aspects of life other than the gridiron.

In a social media climate in which players are often ridiculed by fans for sharing any kind of content unrelated to their specific sport, Francis has endured his share of critics since joining the league in 2013, first as a member of the Dolphins, then Seahawks, then Buccaneers and now, since the middle of last season, the Redskins.

Take a glance at his Twitter feed and you'll see the diversity of topics, ranging from politics to professional wrestling, which give insight into the variety of experiences he's had over the last few years. That's included being a bouncer at the University of Maryland, taking on internships in journalism and politics, and spending time as an Uber driver in 2015, an odd job he chronicled on Youtube.

In spring 2016, he earned a Master's degree in public policy with concentrations in international security and economic policy, took part in a Comcast Sports-Net broadcasting externship this past winter and has built a nice following for his weekly pro wrestling podcast called "Jobbing Out." And then there is his music.

Francis is preparing to drop his first album, entitled OTA, on September 1, which will feature about 15 tracks, two of which will be released as singles on June 16. The album's title is a play on the football acronym, which stands for Organized Team Activities, but, according to Francis, who likes double meanings, the title also stands for "Ode To Athletes."

"As in, if you want to do something, do it," Francis said. "If you play football and you want to make an album, do it. If you play basketball and you want to run for city council, do it. If you play baseball and you want to learn how to play the guitar and maybe do open mic nights on the guitar, do it. Don't be stuck in a box of what the outside world thinks that a football player should do or athletes should do."

Discovering his talent

Francis' first foray into exploring hip-hop as a parallel career option came at Maryland, where he performed open mic nights at the "Juke Joint" inside the school's Nymburu Cultural Center. He and several teammates formed a crew called "The Connection" and became a hit closing out shows, which often featured rapper Logic.

"I really caught the bug for it there," Francis said. "I really started taking it serious once I got to college and I made a mix tape called 'Check Mate'… I didn't record my senior year, I didn't record when I first got in the league, because you know, I was trying to worry about playing football."

In his first NFL offseason, Francis worked out in Miami where he focused on getting bigger and stronger, trying to make an impression with Dolphins coaches. But there he learned that his fate on the final roster was really determined by the production he showed in training camp and the preseason, and that his dedication throughout the spring could only amount to so much.

Since then, the offseason has been devoted to pursuing his other interests. He allows more time to write lyrics and work in the studio, using beats primarily from a producer called Reelz, who he connected with through a mutual friend. His most recent track "European" has a music video that was shot in Venice and Paris, and he's gained positive feedback from family, friends and teammates, who have played the song occasionally during lifts before practice.

Francis has also made sure to network, a fundamental aspect of promoting his music in an industry that finds breakthroughs based on having the right connections. Francis recently had one of his new singles played on local D.C. hip-hop station WPGC last week that earned a positive reaction from fans.

D.C. native and artist Mike D'Angelo happened to hear it and spoke with Francis about letting him use his studio and potentially collaborating on something in the future. The following night, he invited Francis to join him on stage at the radio station's birthday bash concert, where Francis met several more industry types that may become valuable contacts for him down the road.

S/o my mans @IamMikeDangelo for the bless... got me in @wpgc #BirthdayBash tonight. All Love. @… — FRAN¢ (@AJFrancis410) June 7, 2017

He's even planned to work with cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who has documented his own musical aspirations on his Instagram recently and is performing in Richmond on Sunday.

"We're definitely going to do at least one song that I wanted to get him on," Francis said. "Breeland's more like a Young Thug type of artist. I have songs that are like that, but most of my songs are like a Big Sean type artist, where I'm giving you hooks that are catchy and dancey so you can listen to them in the club and on the radio, but what I'm actually giving is dope lyrics and bars. I'm excited to work with him. There have been more people receptive to this than I thought there ever would be."

Football is a priority

Francis is also, of course, trying to make the Redskins' roster, a pursuit he realizes people might not think he is taking seriously based on the enthusiasm of his music aspirations and the heavy stream of political commentary he tweets.

But hang around the facility each day and the perception is debunked. Francis, who arrives at 7 a.m. and often doesn't leave until mid-afternoon, makes it clear that there is a difference between a passion and priority, the latter of which belongs to football, a sport he enjoys playing and a job that provides him an income.

That's why he's set a mid-July deadline to finish his album, so he can edit everything properly with enough time before training camp starts. Once the team heads to Richmond, football comes before anything else.

"Football is my number one priority when I'm at work," Francis said. "And then it's my number one priority in the season and number one priority during training camp…I love playing in the NFL, and that's why I know I have to focus all my energy in training camp…Football was always my future. It's given me more opportunities than anything else that I ever done in my life. If it weren't for football, I wouldn't have gone to college, not because I didn't have the grades, but because I didn't have the money."

The reason he has continued to pursue so many of his interests is also a practical matter.

"In the NFL, the end can come tomorrow for every single person," he said. "The end can come at any day. You always have to be looking for the next step. If the Redskins told me tomorrow that they didn't want me here, I would have to start immediately living the rest of my life."

What would that look like? Without knowing if a career in hip-hop is a sure thing, Francis would likely start work as a sports commentator or broadcaster, a role that he feels comfortable in after trying it during short stints at various places, including CSN, ESPN and 120 Sports.

Ideally, he'd like to make the jump to CNN or MSNBC, where he could discuss politics and use his degree before potentially running for office (He can already talk to you about tax reform, welfare and unemployment). But that's still many years away.

For now, he's focused on extending his stay in Washington, playing football and making music, and hoping that those two can coexist for as long as possible.

"If my album sells one copy and I never make another album again, I'm completely fine with that, because I did it for myself," Francis said. "I did it for the art, I did it for the message and I did it as a time vault because I want the world to look back 20 years from now and see what my opinion was on certain matters and what kind of music I thought sounded good in 2017."

At least at that point, Francis won't be asked to #StickToFootball.

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