When the FIU Panthers opens their 2013 football season Aug. 31 at the University of Maryland, former Terrapins safety Ed Tomlin won’t have any trouble deciding on his allegiance.
He’ll be rooting for FIU.
“I hope Gio gets four sacks that day,” Tomlin said, referring to Giovani Francois, a 6-1, 250-pound junior defensive end for FIU.
Tomlin, whose brother Mike is the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, met Francois when he was 12 years old and living in Bradenton. Francois, raised by his mother, Trudy Gibbs, has gravitated toward Tomlin as a father figure ever since, even though there was never a formal adoption.
“I was in Bradenton doing sports marketing for [current NFL cornerback] Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie,” Tomlin said when asked how he met Francois. “Gio wanted to know how he could have one of those NFL Draft parties in his backyard one day.
“His mom has always been there for him, but just to have that support of a male figure … He calls me pops, and I’m honored to call him my son.”
Soon Tomlin was bringing Francois to the Maryland-D.C. area where he lives and also taking him to Pittsburgh to meet the Steelers.
“I’ve seen Big Ben [Roethlisberger] and all the players up close and personal,” Francois said. “That’s something I don’t take for granted. I know a lot of people would love to be in my shoes. Every time I’m up there, I ask a lot of [football] questions.”
Perhaps helped by that knowledge, Francois was a standout at Bradenton Southeast High. However, his mom felt it was best for him to go live with Tomlin and spend the last half of his senior season playing for Wise in Upper Marlboro, Md.
Because of the late transfer, Francois was only eligible for the last game of the regular season and Wise’s four-game run to the state title game. But in that short time span, Francois had five sacks, three forced fumbles and made all-state.
Wise lost the state final, but it was still a great experience for Francois, who got to play in the snow at the Baltimore Ravens’ stadium.
Despite the great finish of his senior year, Francois’ local university, Maryland, didn’t start recruiting him until December — probably because he had spent most of his career in Florida.
By December, though, Francois had already fallen in love with FIU and had committed to the Panthers.
On Aug. 31, Francois hopes to make Terps fans sorry their school let the defensive playmaker get away.
Francois was second in sacks for FIU last season with 4 1/2 and can’t wait for the opener to arrive.
“It’s going to be like a reunion for my family and friends,” said Francois said. , who hasn’t been back to Maryland since the summer of his freshman year.
“For this game to be against Maryland, the same school my dad played for, will be special for me, personally,” Francois said. “But it’s also the first game of our season, so we can make a statement as a team.”