Parkview salutes Francoeur by retiring No. 12 jersey

LILBURN - For 162 games, Jeff Francoeur stands in the batter's box against baseball's most intimidating pitchers.

In high school and professional athletics, the Atlanta Braves outfielder has been in the most difficult circumstances, yet he always seems calm and in control.

Not on Monday evening at Parkview High School.

Francoeur, speaking on a night when the Panthers retired his No. 12 jersey, stumbled over words here and there. His voice quivered at times. He was emotional, particularly when talking about former coach Hugh Buchanan, and he was admittedly nervous about speaking about his old high school and his many friends.

In fact he could only recall one other time in his life when he was this nervous - his first major league game.

"It's one thing when you get up there and speak in front of a lot of people," Francoeur said Monday prior to Parkview's game vs. rival Brookwood. "It's another when you get up there and speak about something you're very passionate about. It's very tough.

"When you start talking about Coach Buch, that was very tough. It was emotional. Looking out at the crowd, seeing all the teachers and people you know. I got overwhelmed to be honest to you."

People don't see that from the 23-year-old too often.

"I've never seen him nervous like that," said Buchanan, the Panthers' longtime and now retired coach whose jersey is the only other one to be retired by Parkview.

The most emotional part of Francoeur's speech involved Buchanan, whose name also adorns Parkview's field. He called the legendary coach a "second dad" and told the story of how they both cried on the phone when Francoeur got called up to the big leagues.

He fought back tears as he thanked Buchanan for always being there for him, drawing equally emotional responses from fans in the crowd, whether they were wearing Parkview orange or Brookwood maroon.

The game was originally scheduled as a home game for Brookwood, but Bronco coach Rick Howard agreed to switch it to Parkview so Francoeur could be honored when the Braves had an off day.

"That speech just said it all," Howard said. "He had everybody in the stands crying. You got a great appreciation for who it is. He's a player, no question about it. But what an individual. If you were taking a vote right now and he was running for governor, everybody would have voted for him.

"To see a guy like that and what he means to all of these kids, I was glad to (move the game). I watch him. I tell my 5-year-old about him. What a great honor and he deserves it. What a tremendous individual. A class act."

Even on a chilly evening, fans of both teams came out to see Francoeur, who also threw out the varsity game's first pitch. Spectators showered him with applause, then lined up after the ceremony to get autographs and take photographs.

They came to see the guy who made his name with unbelievable high school performances, then took his game to the highest level for his hometown Braves.

"People always say, he's going to be the next Jeff, he's going to be the next Jeff," Parkview athletic director Karl Bostick said. "But you only get one chance to see a Jeff Francoeur."

Buchanan spoke of how much Francoeur galvanized the Parkview community during his high school heyday. He was the star football player as the Panthers won back-to-back state championships in 2000 and 2001, and that wasn't even his best sport.

His feats in baseball were Ruthian as he powered Parkview to state titles his final two high school seasons. Panther supporters and even those from other schools referred to him as "Superman" in those days.

He was 11-for-14 (a .786 batting average) with seven home runs and 13 RBIs in the state finals as a junior and senior. He had a county-record 55 career home runs and 164 RBIs, and always seemed to deliver when his team needed him.

"He was the focal point," Buchanan said. "It was almost like, 'We've got something nobody else has got.' That's dangerous because at the high school level it's difficult to get someone who can control games in any of the sports. But he had that capability. The bigger the game, he raised to that level.

"Some of the things he did are almost mythical. I read the article in Sunday's paper and I was there, I lived it, I saw it. But it still was like, 'Holy cow.' It's even more incredible now when you sit there and look at it."

The Panthers took Monday to honor their favorite son for all of those accomplishments, giving him a night he'll always remember.

"I'll always bleed orange," Francoeur said. "People ask me all the time where I'm from and I'm always so happy to tell them. This is a great community."