It’s a really cool story that Manchester High School head football coach Jim France got to coach his grandson for four seasons, or that Jo Jo France got to play all four years of his prep career for his grandfather, however you want to look at it.
But the coolest part, by far, of this really cool story – a part that has never been brought to light, at least publicly, and one that neither them nor anyone else could have ever imagined, even as late as the middle of last season – is that Jo Jo saved the day for his granddad. His performance as a senior in the second half of the 2017 season enabled Jim to secure the most special coaching accomplishment in Ohio high school football history, the one for most career victories.
It was misleading because the quality of the competition made it one of the most challenging non-league portions of a schedule that a Jim France-coached team has ever faced, but the Panthers, with six-point losses to both Indian Valley (which finished the year 11-1) and Canfield South Range (13-1), nonetheless began the season at 1-2. They then got on a roll heading into the Principals Athletic Conference part of their schedule, winning their first three games by nearly 100 points, a combined score of 142-43.
Then came a Week 7 contest at home on Oct. 6 against PAC newcomer Northwest, with which the Panthers have had a spirited backyard rivalry going back decades. The game was still very much in doubt when, early in the third quarter, Manchester junior quarterback Robbie Wagner was hit while scrambling near the sideline, unfortunately suffering a severe neck injury that ended not only his season, but also his athletic career. Fortunately, he is slowly but surely recovering.
The team’s quarterback situation already had to be reshuffled after Elijah Payne transferred to another school a couple years earlier, but Wagner had stepped in at the start of the 2017 season and did an outstanding job, throwing for 651 yards and nine touchdowns with just three interceptions. Now the position was facing another transformation.
Quarterback is the most important position in team sports at any level. If a team has a quarterback, then it has a chance. Indeed, as the quarterback goes, so goes not just the offense, but the team overall.
So inserting a new quarterback at the start of a season is a significant challenge. But doing so in the middle of a drive in the middle of a game – a rivalry game, to boot – in the middle of the season? That’s a whole lot tougher.
And did we mention that the quarterback who took over for the Panthers, Jo Jo France, had never played the position in a regular-season game ever – other than on an occasional gadget play on extra-point attempts -- dating all the way back to his days at Manchester Middle School?
That’s as tough as it gets.
At that moment in time 6½ months ago – though no one obviously thought about it then since every concern was with Wagner’s injury, as it should have been – Jim France’s chances last season of breaking the state record for career coaching wins was in serious jeopardy.
Following a 51-14 victory at Fairless the week before as the Panthers scored more than 50 points in a game for the second straight week, France’s wins total, which, following some confusion, turned out to be 374 at the start of the season, had increased to 378 with four games left. That put him three victories away from tying retired Ironton coach Bob Lutz, who held the record with 381.
Then, of course, there was something that Jim France would tell you in no uncertain terms was much, much more important then, and it was whether the team could continue winning and, for the second straight season, go 7-0 in the PAC and capture the championship. The Panthers hadn’t lost a league game since late in the 2015 season.
After that three-game non-league stretch to start the 2017 season, Manchester’s defense had improved dramatically. But football, even at the high school level, has turned into a game of offense and outscoring opponents, not necessarily slowing them down to any extent, so while the Panthers had been able to score points in bunches through the first six games, the sudden and unexpected change at quarterback had seemingly made the prospects of continuing that spotty at best. Such changes take time to do. But there was no time, for Manchester was already knee-deep in the week-to-week grind of playing games.
The decision to insert Jo Jo France at quarterback was not an easy one, especially since it was made in a matter of moments.
"There was a lot of confusion right then, as you can imagine," said Jason France, Manchester’s offensive coordinator and also Jo Jo’s father. "I wasn’t even thinking about who we were going to put in at quarterback. Then all of a sudden, it dawned on me that, ‘Geez, I’ve got to get someone ready to play.’ So I went over to Jo Jo and said, ‘Get in there. Here’s a play to run.’ "
France was having another big season as a wide receiver. In the first 6½ games, he had 33 receptions for 401 yards, both of which were still team-bests by the end of the year, for five touchdowns. So when Wagner threw the ball, he was almost always looking for France, who, with excellent hands and great run-after-catch ability because of his elusiveness, was an inviting target.
Jo Jo France had such a good season as a wide receiver in less than a year that he was selected to play that position in the 73rd annual Ohio North-South High School All-Star Game, set for April 28 at Massillon’s Paul Brown Tiger Stadium. He will suit up for the North squad in the Divisions 4-7 contest that starts at noon. Two other local players, Jackson quarterback Jaret Pallotta and Coventry running back Treon Sibley, will be on the North squad in the Divisions 1-3 game at 4 p.m. Tickets, costing $10, will be available at the gate that day and provide admission to both games.
But back to that seminal moment against Northwest
Would someone else step up and replace France as the go-to receiver if he went to quarterback?
Then there was the elephant in the room when it came to questions: With no real game experience at that position, could he even handle quarterback?
The answers to both questions turned out to be yes, and yes.
"Coye Schuler did a real good job at wide receiver the rest of the year," Jim France said of the senior, who finished the season with 17 receptions, four of which went for scores.
And sophomore running back Ethan Wright, in addition to becoming Manchester’s first 2,000-yard rusher in a season with 2,468, had 28 catches for 336 yards and a team-leading seven touchdowns.
But those two players would not have done that had Jo Jo France been unable to get the ball to them. Without a passing threat, opposing defenses would have crowded the line of scrimmage against Manchester to try to stop Wright, who rushed for 32 touchdowns, and fellow sophomore back Hunter Foster, who had 752 yards rushing and eight scores.
Not to worry. Jo Jo France did the job – and then some, exhibiting a near-perfect touch on his passes and quick feet in the pocket to allow himself to buy time to throw or take off and run. He completed 65 percent of his attempts (39-of-60) for 558 yards and 10 touchdowns with just one interception, good enough for a whopping 127.6 quarterback rating. He was nearly flawless.
"I didn’t have any time to worry about it. I just went in there and did the best I could," Jo Jo France said. "It really wasn’t that difficult, though. I got to touch the ball on every play, which I enjoyed doing."
And his teammates and coaches enjoyed him doing it. The Panthers finished the Northwest game with a flurry, winning 26-12, notched wins over Orrville (36-21), Loudonville (57-14) and arch rival Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy (58-42) to finish the regular season 8-2 overall and 7-0 in the league to garner the title. They also earned the fourth seed in the Division V, Region 17 playoff rankings. They won their postseason opener, topping Fairless again, 38-12, before falling 34-14 in the rematch with South Range to complete a 9-3 season. The Panthers had not only averted a disaster, but they also put together a great year.
"Jo Jo has real good ball skills," Jim France said, alluding to the fact that his grandson was an All-Ohio point guard in basketball, and set to play that sport, and not football, somewhere in college beginning next school year. "He understands the game inside and out. And he wants to win."
Added Jason France, "Jo Jo had been coming to our practices not long after he got out of diapers. So he knew the offense, and he knew what was expected of him.
"I know I’m his dad and no doubt a little partial to him, but I had no doubts whatsoever about him being able to go in there, do a great job and keep the offense moving."
And to top it off, with all of this came the fact that, with the Panthers not missing a beat offensively and as a team after Jo Jo France went in at quarterback, Jim France was able to record career victory No. 382 to break the state record. It came when Manchester, in scoring a season-high for points, defeated CVCA.
A better story could not have been written.
So Jo Jo France gave his grandfather a tremendously special gift, one that Jim France will long cherish, and one that was already in the making long before – three decades before – his grandson was ever born.