Minor League Sports

Former Cedar Rapids RoughRiders player, NHL draft pick Will Francis fighting his way through leukemia

Defenseman going through treatment after being diagnosed in mid-March

Cedar Rapids RoughRiders' Will Francis (20) pursues Chicago Steel's Travis Treloar (19) behind the goal in Game 3 of the
Cedar Rapids RoughRiders’ Will Francis (20) pursues Chicago Steel’s Travis Treloar (19) behind the goal in Game 3 of the USHL semifinals at Cedar Rapids Ice Arena on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The scouting reports on fishing around these parts have been kind of mixed so far. Some people are having good luck, others none at all.

For Will Francis, it was a great last weekend that way in Northern Minnesota, near the Canadian border. Lots of fish were biting.

“Kind of during sunrise and sunset, we were catching walleyes,” he said. “We were going for some walleyes to eat some dinner. Then we were also mixing in some pike and bass. But kind of mostly walleyes.”

That the former Cedar Rapids RoughRiders defenseman could be outdoors doing something he loves is a good sign. A great sign.

Francis was diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia in March.

“I’m doing really good,” he said, from his parents home in the suburban Twin Cities. “Every day gets a little better, a little more normal.”

Francis, 19, played all of the 2018-19 season with the RoughRiders and 10 games this past season before injuring a knee while working on post-practice power-play drills with teammates of all things. He caught his skate on poor post-practice ice, twisting his leg.

Surgery was performed to repair his meniscus, and his season was over. A sixth-round draft pick of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks last summer, Francis decided to enroll at the University of Minnesota-Duluth for its winter/spring semester, getting a head start on classes prior to his anticipated freshman hockey season the following fall.

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But he started feeling off physically, a sore throat and always tired, something he initially thought was simply a cold. He was diagnosed with tonsillitis initially, taking an antibiotic that took care of his sore throat but not his extreme fatigue.

During UMD’s spring break in mid-March, he traveled with his father, Jeff, uncle and two cousins to a family cabin in Lutsen, Minn., an hour and 45 minutes north of Duluth. After a day of snowmobiling, Francis had supper with his family but found he could barely eat anything, having zero appetite.

Then what he described as “wicked” nosebleeds began, and it was decided he should be taken to a medical facility in nearby Grand Marais, Minn., to get checked out.

“At first, the nurses up there thought it might be coronavirus,” Francis said. “They were in full scrubs, face shields, gloves, masks, the whole deal. Because that’s when (COVID-19) first hit. They took blood labs, a mono test, a coronavirus test and tested me for the flu.”

Turned out it wasn’t any of those things.

“We were sitting there waiting, and the doctor came in. No mask, no shield, just in street clothes,” Francis said. “I immediately thought ‘Something ain’t right.’ He was kind of just going through everything, wasn’t really getting to the point. I kind of stopped him and said ‘You can just tell us straight up what is going on.’”

The doctor told him his white blood cell count was off-the-charts high at 178,000 per microliter, with normal being 10,000. Francis asked what that meant.

The reply was leukemia.

“I was obviously shocked, in denial,” Francis said. “Told him ‘No, I think you’ve got the wrong guy here. I’m pretty healthy, work out every day, eat well, am physically active. This can’t be real.’”

It was very real. Francis was not in good shape, needing blood transfusions before being sent by ambulance to University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, where he spent nearly a week in intensive care before getting moved to the oncology floor.

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He was there a couple of days before being allowed to go home in late March. A common chemotherapy infection sent him back to the hospital for two more weeks, though he’s home now, receiving his treatments on an outpatient basis.

He said he is in what he calls Phase 2 of that treatment. Phase 3 will require him to spend more inpatient hospital time.

With a compromised immune system, he doesn’t venture outside of the house much, with the threat of COVID-19 looming. That made last weekend’s fishing trip that much more special.

“It’s not like you can go into this saying you’ve got another option but to fight,” he said. “You can’t say no to it. There’s no other way around it. That’s kind of how I look at it, it’s just a bump in the road.”

Francis said RoughRiders Coach/General Manager Mark Carlson and his wife, Tammy, phone him regularly to see how he is doing. He mentioned how the Carlsons bought his family supper from a state away the first night Francis came home from the hospital in March.

He said he believes he has heard from every single former RoughRiders teammate, too. That includes guys from the 2018-19 season and guys that moved on to college or to other junior teams.

“That probably says a lot about the program,” he said. “How tight of a bond we had these last two years.”

But it hasn’t just been former teammates. His story was mentioned by the very popular hockey podcast “Spittin’ Chiclets,” with video of Francis doing a pro wrestling-style elbow drop that collapsed a table in the locker room following a RoughRiders win last season going viral after being shared by “Spittin’ Chiclets” co-host and former NHLer Ryan Whitney on Twitter.

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Speaking of NHLers, players from the Ducks like Ryan Getzlaf have reached out to him. Hall of Famers Guy LaFleur and Bobby Orr have called him, too.

Orr is Francis’ idol. The hockey community is something.

Francis wants everyone to know he’s doing as well as possible right now. Everything is looking positive.

His hair is beginning to fall out, but, eh, who cares?

“Probably going to shave it anyway because it’s starting to patch out,” he said. “No big deal. It was bound to happen.”

The plan is to return to Minnesota-Duluth at some point this coming school year, where he will receive a medical redshirt season. A year from now, he’s confident this will be in his rear-view mirror, and he’ll be well on his way to his goal of becoming a better hockey player than he was before he got sick.

“It’s one day at a time,” Francis said. “I’m battling every day.”

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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