EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series.
It’s a really cool story in a number of different ways.
It was planned for a long time, and has also taken a long time to be written. But "The End" is nearly ready to be placed just below the final paragraph.
And that paragraph will be penned in about two weeks. After that, the book will be closed.
That will come Saturday, April 28 when the Divisions 4-7 game in the 73rd annual Ohio North-South Classic, sponsored by the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association (OHSFCA), is played at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon. Kickoff is set for noon. Having begun in 1946, it’s the longest-running continuous state high school all-star football game in the country and, down through the years, has showcased some of the most famous Ohio schoolboys in history, including Paul Warfield and Jack Lambert, each of whom are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The other part of the Classic, the Divisions 1-3 contest, will begin at 4 p.m. That game includes two players from The Suburbanite’s coverage area on the North roster in Jackson’s Jaret Pallotta, one of the team’s two quarterbacks, and Coventry’s Treon Sibley, who is among three running backs.
Tickets, costing $10 and available at the gate the day of the Classic, are good for admission to both games.
Being picked to play in a high school all-star game is really cool.
But the really cool story we’re talking about here is from the first game. It involves the local area’s only representative, North wide receiver Jo Jo France, a four-year varsity player from Manchester.
France’s appearance in the Classic certainly isn’t any more significant than that of Sibley and Pallotta in a general sense. It becomes special only in that this marks the culmination of his having played the last four years for both his grandfather, Panthers head coach Jim France, and his father, offensive coordinator Jason France.
A player performing for his father in Ohio high school football is not a common occurrence, but it certainly isn’t rare. However, a player performing for his grandfather? That’s not just rare. Rather, it’s unique. It’s a first and only.
Jim France, who has been a head coach for 47 seasons, including the last 46 at Manchester after spending his first year at Coventry, could not think of another situation in the state where a football coach – or a coach in any sport - has gotten to coach his grandson.
So, then, just like France is the state’s all-time leader in victories with 383, he is also the state’s all-time leader in getting to coach his grandson, with one.
According to Jason France, though, a second one might be added to that list this fall at Steubenville, where longtime coach Reno Saccoccia is reportedly set to coach his grandson.
Jason France isn’t part of the Classic in any way, shape of form.
"I’ll be at the game just as a fan," he said.
Jim France has coached in the Classic before, but is not doing so this year. He does, however, have an official role in that he serves as the president of the OHSFCA, and thus still has a tangible connection to Jo Jo.
"I have a little part of what’s going on in that I’ll be checking out the practices, but that’s it," he said.
Jim France, who also coached Jason, and his brother, Jeff, at Manchester more than a quarter-century ago began thinking about coaching Jo Jo when the boy was just 18 months old. He got that chance, and with Jason and Jeff, who served as Manchester’s offensive line coach last season, a real part of the experience to boot.
It doesn’t get any better – or more family-friendly – than that.
But Jason and Jeff will return next season to the Panthers. Jo Jo won’t. He will be off playing in college – probably basketball, at a school to be determined.
Jim France thought Jo Jo’s high school football career was over after the Panthers lost to Canfield South Range in the second round of the Division V playoffs last November.
"I knew in the back of my mind that it was coming, but it didn’t hit me until after that game that that part of my life, getting to coach Jo Jo, was gone," France said.
Then Jo Jo got selected for the Classic, and there was a reprieve of sorts.
But the all-star game on April 28 will be it. There will be nothing after that. Jim France will have no tie at all to Jo Jo’s athletic career going forward.
"It’s kind of a sad time," Jim France said. "We got to watch Jo Jo play during the basketball season (the point guard was a second-team Division III All-Ohioan), but now that that’s over, my wife (Nancy) and I will have to find something else to do on Friday nights."
France said he treated Jo Jo as simply one of his players during the football games and practices, and that’s not hard to understand. There’s too much for a head coach to do to pay special attention to any individual player, even if it’s a blood relation. That’s especially the case at a place like Manchester, which has a small staff, forcing each coach so very busy in having to handle several different responsibilities.
Still, Jason France, who laughingly said that he wonders if he even exists "because I’m known either as Jim France’s son or Jo Jo France’s dad," points out that, even if it had to be only emotionally because of everything else going on, the vibe between the oldest and youngest France was anything but normal.
"I got to sit back and watch it play out, and it was cool," Jason said. "I can tell you that as much as Dad enjoyed coaching Jeff and I way back in the day when we played for him, he enjoyed coaching Jo Jo even more. There has always been a special relationship between Dad and Jo Jo.
"I was running the offense, so I was in constant contact with Jo Jo during games. But when Jo Jo came off the field, I purposely let Dad have the first interaction with him so he could be the one to pat him on the back, yell at him or just turn his back and say nothing at all, whatever he chose to do. Then once that happened, I would go over and talk to Jo Jo – but not until then. It wasn’t my place. Dad is the head coach."
And the grandfather.
None of this was lost on Jo Jo.
"It was certainly unique to get to play for my grandpa, and it was definitely fun," he said. "Every day when I would go home after football the last four years, I realized how special this was.
"He (Jim France) is a very competitive person, just as I am, so we got along well."
And now it’s coming to an end.
"Sure, I’ve thought about it a lot," Jason France said. "You can say that it’s sad that it’s almost over – and it is, for sure – or you can just be grateful that it happened. I’m just going to be grateful."
NEXT WEEK: The coolest part of the whole story.