COLUMBIA — Columbia Trojans coach J.D. Franklin patrols the field with his hands behind his back. He's taking everything in, dissecting each player’s movement, as his football team runs drills.
At 6 feet 3 inches and 250 pounds, Franklin is built like a refrigerator. His presence dwarfs men taller and larger than he is. Franklin wears dark sunglasses, making it impossible to know where his eyes are looking, forcing every one of his players to be on guard. He wears a sleeveless shirt displaying his cannon-size arms. Even in such easygoing clothing, Franklin's Patton-esque comportment makes it easy to imagine him wearing an Army general's uniform.
Franklin is disciplined. His father instilled that characteristic in him, and his football coaches at Texas A&M and the Kansas City Chiefs cemented it. Now, Franklin's goal is to mold his team into a squadron of football players that exhibit the same discipline he does — even when they're not playing football.
The Trojans are a newly formed semiprofessional football team in the North American Football League. Every Tuesday and Thursday, they practice at the Rock Bridge High School’s football field and play games on Saturdays. No one is paid to play for the Trojans. In fact, the players paid all start-up fees: $200 or more for pads, helmets and jerseys, willingly paid for the chance to suit up for a football team once more. But for some Trojans, involvement with this football team is not just about touchdowns, tackles and interceptions.
It's a life-changing experience.
During high school and sometimes college, football can be the centerpiece of a player's life, and without the game, it is easy to go astray. For those in central Missouri who still have the itch to play, the Trojans provide a valuable service, something Franklin is quick to remind his players about while lambasting his defensive unit.
"If you aren't going to hit him, then go play flag football," Franklin tells his team.
Franklin says he can create a great football team, but he also hopes that, in the process, he can create better men.
“For many on this team, this is the first time they have been in a structured environment. So it’s my job to provide that for some of these men,” says Franklin, who works with mortgages by day. “Some of these guys were having problems with the law, doing things they shouldn’t have been doing. That stuff hasn’t happened since they joined this team.”
Franklin's involvement with the Trojans began when team members asked him to play. Decades of football have left Franklin with two bad knees, so he instead opted for a coaching position. When founder and general manager Lawrence Washington left the team in April, and it looked as if the Trojans would fold before their first game, Franklin took control of the team. He has run it his way ever since, leading the Trojans to a 2-0 record and instilling a system of accountability to keep his team on task.
"We have a program where each one of the players is required to call into one of the coaches three days a week, to check in, to talk about finances, job opportunities, health," Franklin says. "They are required to check in, and they do. It makes sure that they keep accountable to their teammates and themselves, and that's why we do it."
That structured environment has created a brotherhood in football. Players, without hesitation, refer to the team as a family. But the team didn’t always have such camaraderie.
In the last practice before the Trojans’ second game, Franklin is impressed with his team’s efforts. He calls for a huddle and paces through the team as it relaxes at midfield.
“We thought we had a self-destructing football team,” Franklin says, alluding to the segregation the players exhibited in the team's first few practices. “This is your gang now.”
For Justin Cooper, Franklin’s analogy hits close to home. Cooper moved to Missouri at the age of 12 after his mother had enough of his life as a gang member in Southern California. He played football in high school, but college was never an option. Now 20, Cooper has been clean from drug use for nearly four years but was recently struck by the news that his mother had been diagnosed with cancer.
After Cooper’s mother saw a fundraising car wash for the Trojans, she stopped and met coach Franklin. Then she went to her son with a request to play football once more.
“She wants me to fulfill my dreams," Cooper says. "Not many people can say no to a dying mother.”
Cooper says he has come to see Franklin as a father figure, something he and some of his teammates never had.
“I’m grateful for this team," Cooper says. "I used to be racist, but I’m not anymore. These guys are family. And, if we act like a team and a family, we can accomplish so much.”
Cooper isn’t the only Trojan using football as a steadying influence.
James Dudley is the team’s starting running back. Once a wrestler at Missouri Valley College, where he graduated with degrees in economics and sociology, * Dudley served two years in prison, starting in 2007, for a joint conviction of D.W.I., forgery and leaving the scene of an accident and is now trying to get his life back in order. Playing football is a major part of that process for him. Dudley says the stability of Franklin's Trojans can be a base in his life.
“I’m out here because I love the game," Dudley says. "You have to love the game. We aren’t getting paid or anything. But right now, this is all I have.”
Helping Franklin with his efforts are two veteran athletes, former NFL running back Allen Williams and former MU point guard Jason Sutherland, who call themselves the grandfathers of the team. Both are in their mid-30s and quick to encourage and pass wisdom on to the younger Trojans. They are role models for their teammates, examples of men who are successful.
Williams and his wife are the founders of Athletes 4 Change, an organization that promotes awareness about diabetes in sports. Williams is entering his third year in the NAFL. He played for and was a part owner of the Kansas Kaos for the past two seasons. While there, Williams convinced Sutherland to play quarterback for the Kaos.
Sutherland, a mortgage broker in Columbia, was nearly a two-sport athlete for the Tigers, but Norm Stewart put an end to that notion. Now Sutherland wants to squeeze every last ounce of football ability out of his body.
"I can play basketball for the rest of my life. You can find a pickup game anywhere, but there isn't that much time left for me to play football," Sutherland says.
When Sutherland joined the Trojans, he brought Williams with him.
“I didn’t ask Allen to play for the Trojans; I told him. I drove out there (Kansas City) for two years; he owed me,” Sutherland says.
The Trojans have impressed Williams and Sutherland. Both have seen how other NAFL teams operate and feel that the Trojans work on a different level.
"Discipline is at a premium in this league, and Franklin has it," Sutherland says.
“This is a great situation for Columbia. I’ve lived the dream. Now I’m out here for these guys,” Williams says.
Along with all the success of Franklin's off-the-field program, the Trojans are a quality football team. Along with Williams and Sutherland, the Trojans have a roster that includes former Missouri safety Jason Simpson and former USC right tackle Barry Long.
Simpson is on the roster with the Iowa Barnstormers in the Arenafootball2 league but opts to stay in Columbia and play for Franklin. And while he has a full-time job as a salesman at Columbia's Quality Inn, he is happy to make time in his schedule for the Trojans.
"No, we don't get paid," Simpson says. "But I get to hit people, and that's payment enough for me."
Simpson gets his chance when Franklin experiments with a running play, lining up the 6-foot-8-inch, 350-pound Long at running back. Long towers over everyone on the field, but as the ball is snapped, Simpson blitzes and knocks the giant down. The sideline bursts out in laughter.
“Timber!” yells running back David Cammack.
Simpson finds a redemptive quality in Franklin's goal to give back to the community, something Simpson hopes to expand once the team becomes more entrenched in Columbia. Furthermore, Simpson says Franklin's system of accountability is working.
"You can't help anybody else until you fix yourself," he said. "This gives people something else to do at night, it keeps them more focused. They have a reason to stay out of trouble, because there is someone else who cares. When that's a friend, that care sticks a lot more. And we're all friends, no matter what race, religion, city or state, because of our love of football."
After Simpson helps Long up, Franklin reminds his team that he has to cut his roster for their next game, one it would win 36-17. After Long’s lackluster performance at running back, Franklin is more than happy to keep the big man as starting right tackle, though Long maintains after the practice that he tripped. Everyone else is working overtime to prove their worth. Despite a heat index over 100 degrees, few complain. This is exactly what they signed up for.
After the final drill of practice, Justin Cooper tears off his helmet as if it were preventing him from breathing and pours water on top of his buzz-cut Mohawk. Cooper expresses his hatred of Midwestern weather, comparing California's heat to the humid, stale and thick air of Missouri to anyone within earshot.
“I’m in hell,” Cooper says. “But I love it.”