Jeff Francoeur has been living the dream. Although he turned down a full ride to play football at Clemson, his life read even more like a storybook when his hometown Atlanta Braves drafted him in 2002.
A cannon-armed outfielder, Jeff steadily and successfully climbed the minor league ladder during his first few seasons; and in '05, he was called to the big show. Once in the lineup, the young right fielder needed little time to win over the fans at Turner Field with his speed, powerful swing and strong arm. During his rookie campaign, he was third in the league in outfield assists, while hammering 14 homers and 35 extra base hitsdespite playing only half the season. This amazing tear put Jeff in the spotlight and created expectations for big numbers. Although he now has a few good seasons under his belt and is known as one of the top young players in baseball, Jeff, who lives just a few miles from where he grew up, remains grounded in his faith and his desire to improve by working hard on his body and game.
Recently, we met up with Jeff during one of his frequent returns to Parkview, where he chatted with current Panther student athletes and old coaches, grabbed a workout and reminisced about his high school days.
Will somebody please pinch this guy?
STACK: What's it like playing in the big leagues for your hometown?
JF: It's awesome. Think about it. I drive down to the stadium, which is only 25 minutes from where I grew up. All my friends and family can come to every game, and the whole town watches us, because everyone here loves the Braves.
We're sitting at your high school, with your elementary school right behind us. How do you feel being back here?
JF: Oh man, all the memories come back. I remember everything from elementary schoolfrom field day to the 60-yard dash. The coolest thing is looking back over those 13 years and seeing how I matured into a man and an athlete over that time. Looking at myself from kindergarten all the way up until my senior year in high school makes me realize how much I learned each day and how much I grew up. It's great being able to come around here and look at where I came from.
Do you have any particularly fond athletic memories from your high school career?
JF: The biggest one occurred on the football field over there. It was an interception return I had my senior year against our big rival, Brookwood, which is about six miles down the road on Five Forks. We were up 14-7 with about a minute left in the third quarter. They had just driven 80 yards on us and were on our 16-yard line. Their quarterback tried to throw an out pass. I picked it off and took it back 86 yards for a touchdown. I was running right down our sideline, so all I saw was a sea of orange as our fans stood up and went crazy. It was the coolest seven or eight seconds of running I've ever done.
Who were, or still are, your biggest influences around here?
JF: My coachesCoach Buchanan for baseball and Coaches Flowe and Whitley for football. Then there are other guys, like Larry and Roy Massey. They treat me like the same old Jeff when I come back here; that's what's great about returning to see them. I know that I can always come here to get away, grab a workout, have some privacy and relax. That's the fun partjust hanging out with some hometown people who are excited to see me.
Turning down an offer to play football or baseball in college to go straight to the proswas that a hard decision to make?
JF: Yes, especially when I was eighteen and all my friends were going to college. You look forward to that experience of having Saturday games and enjoying some basketball games in the off-season. At the same time, though, I realized that I had to sacrifice good times in college and be on road trips, sometimes for 12 hours, to get where I wanted to go. Trust me, it is all worth it when you make it to the big stage.
How well did you adjust to major league ball?
JF: I think it went well because of the solid background I had in strength and lifting, which I got here. We had a really established weight system at Parkview, so I didn't have much trouble switching from aluminum to wooden bats, which poses a problem for most guys.
How did the hype and high expectations after your amazing rookie season affect your development as a player?
JF: It was tough to deal with right away, but Bobby [Cox] did a great job of bringing me along. I'll never forget the first three weeks; he only played me against left-handed pitchers. We had a four-game series in San Francisco. I sat out the first three games, then pinch hit in the fourth. It was tough because I had never done that; I was used to playing all the time. Then he gave me a chance to play against Washington, and they were pitching a righty. I had two home runs, so he started putting me in the lineup every day. He helped me build confidence, then let me go from there.
How did it feel to belt a three-run homer as your first big league hit?
JF: That was awesome. What people don't realize is that until that point I was 0-3 with 2 Ks. I had a 3-2 count against Glendon Rush in the eighth inning, and it was just awesome. The ball might have been a few feet off the ground; it was just a line drive to center. I was saying "Get up!" and just kept running.
You put on 15 pounds of muscle before the '06 season. What inspired you to do that?
JF: One thing I've always tried to keep is my work ethic. I never want to be outworked. I didn't want to settle for one good game or even a good season. I've always said, "Don't try to be good; be great," and then, "Don't just be great; be the best." When you keep striving to be the best, you'll come into your own. I think people get lackadaisical, focusing on what they did last season, then resting on their good power numbers. The truth is, though, you can always do better. The day I lose that work ethic will be the day I'll know it's time to get out of the game.
Have you always understood the importance of preparation?
JF: Yes. Preparation, discipline and perseverance getting after it every dayare the most important things in athletics.
What are some of your goals this year regarding your training and your body?
JF: One thing I wasn't happy with last year was that although I'm a pretty fast guy, I stole only one base. I am really working on that. I want to get back to being more of an athlete, so I've gone back to my football work, and started training with Chip Smith. I'm hoping that will pay off for me. Chip has an amazing track record with the NFL Combine guys who come through his facility. I'm working to get that mentality back.
Ever had to prove your ability to doubters?
JF: Absolutely. Some people overrate you; some underrate you. But it's important to keep your mind on those who underrate you, so you can go out there and prove what you can do. With my game, critics always talk about me being aggressive or free swinging at the plate, but that's who I am and how I play. So I just go out and play the best I can.
Can you explain why Joshua 1:19 is written on your batting gloves?
JF: My mom read that verse to me over and over when I was in the hospital after surgery. To me, it means that I can go into any situationin sports or lifeand the Lord has commanded me to be strong and not afraid. As a Christian, I have nothing to be afraid of on the field. At the end of the day, all that really matters to me is that Christ died for my sins. When you know that, it makes going out there and playing a lot easier. You have nothing to worry about, because He will take care of you.
What kind of player do you want to be next season? A few years from now?
JF: I have always wanted to be the best, and that is what I strive for. But more than that, I want people to say, "That guy played hard. He put it on the line and played with great character and integrity." To me, the best way to be remembered is as an awesome teammate by the guys who played with you.
Do you have any specific goals for the season?
JF: I set some personal goals before last season, but making the playoffs this year is even more important. I want to get back that taste of the playoffs I once had. Playing Houston was so much fun. The whole atmosphere was great, so to feel that again would make me very happy. Playing in October is funnot watching it from home.
Are you comfortable in the spotlight and being looked at as a role model?
JF: Absolutely, I am very comfortable. You have to humble yourself and realize that the good Lord puts you in certain situations for a reason. All of us athleteswhether we like it or nothave to be role models for kids, and I get really frustrated with guys who don't think they have to. I just want to tell them that being a good role model is part of their job. I enjoy kids and signing for them, because they are the future of the game. It means so much more to them then it does to some adult.
What is your inspiration when baseballor life in generalisn't going your way?
JF: When things aren't going great in anything, you just have to keep going and fight through. Bible James 1:2 talks about it, and I love it. To me, life is about persevering. It won't always be great, and you'll have your ups and downs. Some weeks in baseball, you'll get 12 hits, and other weeks you'll only get one. You just have to persevere and be your best.
What would you say to a high school athlete who is just starting his playing career?
JF: The biggest thing I always want to tell high school athletes is just enjoy the experience. Play as many sports as possible, and enjoy hanging out with your friends and spending time at the pool. Just be a kid, because there will come a time when playing becomes a job. You've gotta have fun in whatever sport you play. If you don't have fun, you shouldn't play.
Jeff's Key Lifts
Grab pull-up bar with overhand, shoulder-width grip
Pull yourself up until chin is above bar, without rocking or kicking
Lower with control until arms are straight; repeat
Sets/Reps: 2x as many as possible
Benefits: Strengthens back, shoulders, scapular region and arms for improved bat speed and power
Grasp handles of dip machine and support body with straight arms
Lower with control until chest is at hand level
Push yourself up until arms are straight; repeat
Sets/Reps: 2x as many as possible
Benefits: Stronger chest, shoulders and triceps for added power at the plate
Shoulder Raise Circuit
Hold light dumbbell in each hand, then move through circuit
Front: Raise dumbbells in front of body
Side: Raise dumbbells to side so palms face floor
Empty Can: Raise dumbbells to side so thumbs point to floor and pinkies to ceiling
Sets/Reps: 2x10 each way
Benefits: Increased shoulder stability for arm strength and injury prevention
Partner Med Ball Rotation
Stand back to back with partner, holding med ball in front
Rotate right; hand med ball to partner
Rotate left, receive ball from partner; repeat continuously
Sets/Reps: 2x10 each direction
Benefits: Improved rotational core strength and flexibility for batting power and injury prevention
Sit on bench holding barbell or dumbbells so that forearms rest on thighs
Using only wrists and without moving arms, curl weight toward chest
Lower weight with control as far as wrists allow; repeat
Benefits: Strengthened grip for better bat control and power
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock