The FitnessGram Man

Roger Francisco, the voice of the FitnessGram Tests (courtesy of Roger Francisco).

Sam Frank, Assistant Editor-in-Chief

In 1982, a small regional production company based out of Champaign, Illinois, produced a series of short videos for a small local publishing company. Roger Fancisco, one of the founding partners of The Prairie Production Group, provided the voiceover. Francisco read aloud from a script, put it all on a timeline, added some background music, and shipped off the final product. Francisco didn’t dwell on his latest creation; why should he? It was just another week on the job. 

Over the next four decades, more than ten million children across the United States heard Francisco’s voice. Roger Francisco is the FitnessGram Man.

FitnessGram, the infamous fitness test created by the Cooper Institute, has plagued generations of gym classes with its various assessments, including push ups and curl ups. The 20 Meter PACER (Progressive Aerobic Cardiovascular Endurance Run) test is by far the most notorious of the bunch. With its near universal hatred amongst students and its iconic audio, it is also perfect fodder for memes. 

A copypasta (a block of text which is copied and pasted across social media platforms and online chat rooms) of the test’s instructions – “The FitnessGram PACER Test is a multistage aerobic capacity test that progressively gets more difficult as it continues…” – started spreading around the internet in 2016. Memes began popping up, as former students commiserated about their struggles with the test, and took the opportunity to poke fun at their childhood trauma. In February of that year, the satirical news website Neomongolia News Network published a story headlined “Pacer Test banned for Child Cruelty” that elicited a response from Snopes (spoiler alert: it’s fake news).

The voice of the FitnessGram tests,

 meanwhile, was growing famous in his own right. On Reddit, one user posed the question: “Can someone help me find the voice actor from the fitness gram pacer test?” In December 2017, Michelle Khare, a former professional cyclist turned YouTube star, tweeted “[I] wonder whatever happened to the guy who narrated the fitness gram pacer test.” A simple Google search on the matter proves fruitless.

This really piqued my curiosity. If I had just found a name, and maybe a picture, to pair with the rich baritone voice in my head, then I would’ve been satisfied. But there was nothing. The FitnessGram Man, I thought to myself, must be the most famous person that nobody knows, and I embarked on a quest to find him. 

The quest proved to be much easier and shorter than I h

ad imagined it would be. Thanks to Human Kinetics and their superb customer service, even while the staff worked from home, I soon had a name and an email address. They were so helpful, I even began rethinking my long-held grudge over having to endure the fitness testing since the fourth grade.

I began chatting with Francisco over email and Zoom. Mostly, I asked him about the PACER Test. He told me of his first glimpse of his internet fame a few years ago, when a coworker told him that he was a meme. “I said, ‘what is a meme?’” Francisco recalled. I told him that over ten million students in the United States had heard his voice and he laughed in disbelief. He told me about his grandchildren, who were unfortunate enough to take the test in school. Their friends didn’t believe them when they said that their grandfather was the man whose voice boomed out of the gym teacher’s speakers. Along the way, I learned more about Francisco’s life, and an image of the FitnessGram Man began to take shape in my mind.

Francisco was born in Decatur, Illinois in 1938. While in high school, he learned how to play the bass. He played all different types of music, including classical in the Springfield Symphony, jazz, and lots of rock. Later, he picked up a guitar, and proudly showed me a framed photograph of him meeting Les Paul. I couldn’t help but ask if he would consider being a guest star for Pops N Jazz, but he remained noncommittal, saying he needed to practice. After studying electrical engineering degree at the University of Illinois, Francisco worked for Magnavox stress testing missile components and top-secret electronic communication devices for the military. “It was an enjoyable time,” Francisco wrote over email, but his passion for music beckoned.

In the 1960s, he began playing bass for some big bands and roadhouse bands. His time recording with The Galaxies in Nashville inspired Francisco to build his own home studio. Word got around, and Francisco began getting requests to record musical groups, commercials, and jingles. By 1970, Francisco outgrew the home studio and built a larger studio in Urbana. There, he recorded many area music groups, including REO Speedwagon, Dan Fogelberg, Head East, Starcastle, the Guild, and Al Franken. While working as chief engineer for 

Creative Audio Studios, Francisco worked on the Grammy-nominated children’s soundtrack album for the CBS miniseries “Alice in Wonderland.”

Meanwhile, Francisco was using his experience making commercials to audition for voice and acting roles. He booked a talent agent in Chicago who told him “Cut your hair and you can get more on camera parts,” so he did. “You go for an audition and you’re in a room with ten other guys all auditioning for the same part and they all talk to each other in these very deep voices,” Francisco recalled. Nevertheless, he won national television and radio spots for Hamm’s Beer, NAPA Auto Parts, Amoco, and Allstate Insurance, not to mention a brief uncredited appearance in the Chuck Norris film “Code of Silence.”

When Francisco was doing part-time production for WICD-TV in Champaign, the weekend weather anchor quit. “The news director told me, ‘Hey, you’ve done commercials and been on TV. Why don’t you do it?’ So the next week I was on air – magnetic weather symbols stuck on a metal map,” Francisco said. Soon after, he began his work with Human Kinetics.

While producing videos for Human Kinetics, Francisco narrated one segment that ended up in Cosmic Voyage, an Oscar-nominated documentary narrated by Morgan Freeman. If only Francisco had narrated the whole movie, I’m sure it would have won. 

Francisco’s most enduring legacy, funnily enough, was not nominated for any major awards. “I’ve had a long and quite varied career,” he reminisced. “I guess you’d have to say that my greatest recognition is via the Pacer Test.”

Not all of that recognition is positive, of course. I asked Francisco what he would say to all of the students who hated FitnessGram and by association, his voice. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sure I wouldn’t have liked it either. Maybe the one-meter Pacer Test.” In short, don’t shoot the messenger.

Francisco retired from Human Kinetics in 2016. Since then, he has continued to travel the world with his wife, including to Machu Picchu, Fiji, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Ireland, Iceland, China, and Tibet. Once this pandemic ends, they plan on scaling back a bit to visit family and parks across the United States. Francisco also loves movies – some of his favorites include the “John Wick” and “Despicable Me” series. 

Of course, as our talk winded down, I had to ask Francisco if he remembered any of the scriptof the Pacer Test. “Not much,” he replied, but he held up a copy and began to read. At the sound of his voice, I was instantly transported back to elementary school. A wave of deja vu passed over me. As I listened, I thought about the many wild twists and turns of life that brought this very same voice to the millions of ears. “The FitnessGram PACER Test is a multistage aerobic capacity test that progressively gets more difficult as it continues. The twenty meter PACER Test will begin in thirty seconds. . . .”