COLUMBIA — There’s a hot, late-September wind blowing on the practice field. Missouri freshman quarterback James Franklin is squinting but still smiling his impossibly bright smile, trying not to look bored by a photo shoot that’s lasting longer than any photo shoot ever should last.
He has done this before. He did it in high school, as the phenom quarterback at Lake Dallas High School in Texas. Has talked to reporters over and over (and over and over and over), grinning into the jumble of microphones and video cameras thrust in his face, jostling for position. He did it after his first practice, his first scrimmage, his first in-game snaps as a Tiger, and he will keep doing it for the next who knows how many years.
Missouri (10-2, 6-2 Big 12)
vs. Iowa (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten)
WHEN: 9 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM
Somehow, it still hasn’t gotten old to him, and you believe that it never will. It’s as if the novelty of who he is, a Big 12 quarterback who is most likely the next in line for Missouri’s starting job, hasn’t worn off. Franklin’s default expression is the picture of childish excitement, a boy’s face somehow fused with a man’s body — a body that sports an “Oscar the Grouch” T-shirt like it's just as normal as a black and gold Missouri Under Armour top. For Franklin, it probably is.
Franklin's almost extreme politeness makes him stand out more than any clothing choice could in a room full of too-cool-to-be-friendly young men. “Hey, Mr. Chad,” are his first words upon arriving at media day each week. While the other players meander into the room, joking and fist-pounding, Franklin always heads straight to Mr. Chad, who is known to everyone else in the room as Chad Moller, the team spokesman. He was told to check in with Moller first, he said, so of course that’s what he is going to do.
And then there’s the misters and the misses, the ma’ams and the sirs. No one’s just an equipment guy, just a groundskeeper, just a reporter. If he knows your name — and chances are, he probably does — you’re a mister or a miss. If not, you’re a ma’am or a sir. He is the essence of politeness, of almost awkward innocence.
His favorite television show? "Spongebob Squarepants." His favorite book? The Bible. After just a few minutes with Franklin, there’s only one question on your mind: Who is this kid?
So different it’s almost confusing
The 2010 NCAA football season has seen its share of drama. At Missouri alone, running back Derrick Washington was permanently suspended from the team and now faces sexual assault charges, and three players were arrested on suspicion of alcohol-related offenses. Auburn’s quarterback, Cam Newton, was accused of negotiating a pay-to-play scheme and of cheating, and LaMichael James, an Oregon running back, was arrested and charged with domestic violence. The college football world that Franklin entered can be one of entitlement and egos, and you have to wonder just where a character like him fits in.
There’s no mystery to Franklin’s role on the field. The 5,077 passing yards and 48 touchdown passes of his high school career made him who he is today: Blaine Gabbert’s backup who saw limited playing time in one-sided nonconference wins and ran the ball on several occasions in Big 12 play. According to coaches and teammates, he’s disciplined, hard-working, attentive — all the qualities that any successful football player should and must embody.
It’s off the field, where the poised man turns into an exuberant boy, that Franklin leaves his teammates wondering, laughing and even sometimes watching what they say. He’s so different that he’s almost confusing, and it’s an alternate set of values that made Franklin into the person — the almost-man — he’s become.
Matt White, a redshirt freshman safety, hosted Franklin on his official visit to Missouri last fall, and the two have remained close since. It’s not hard to imagine how they are friends. Like Franklin, White is poised and well-spoken, and he’s an unwavering admirer of Franklin, not only for his polite demeanor, but for his ability to lighten any situation.
“Everything’s like a joke to him,” White said. “He’ll tell a joke at inopportune times, and it’s funny how he can relate everything, make things funny, not serious.”
A sense of humor hardly makes Franklin unique among football players. It’s his type of humor — clean and irreverent, almost a little immature — and his delivery, his method of what teammate T.J. Moe described as “goofiness,” that show the child lurking inside the 6-foot-2, 230-pound teenager.
“Well …” he will say, drawing out the word into a long, earnest delivery. His face will be as close to serious as it ever is before he breaks into a smile that can only be described as dazzling and says something so irreverent you wonder if he knows how funny he actually is. Chances are he doesn’t, and his almost unexpected humor is the perfect example of Franklin’s almost dual personality. His almost disarming quiet will erupt into relaxed humor in just seconds.
Smile and let it go
Perhaps Franklin has developed this ability to induce laughter out of necessity, as a way to lighten the mood around him. The freshman quarterback’s complete lack of ego almost borders on destructive, and he’s spent years trying to overcome a complete inability to let anyone else take fault for a loss. From an early age, Franklin saw football not as a fun afterschool pastime, but as a responsibility. He can blame, or perhaps credit, his parents for his devotion to the game.
Football plays a huge part in Franklin’s background, maybe even in his genetics. His first word was “ball,” and his father, Willie Franklin, played for the University of Oklahoma and in the National Football League for the Baltimore Colts. James Franklin seemed almost destined to play the sport, but his parents thought otherwise. For them, playing football was a privilege, something their son would have to prove that he was truly disciplined enough to do.
Willie Franklin, who is now an evangelical motivational speaker, moved beyond football in his career goals, but he knew that sports were a way for his children to learn discipline and get quality college educations. When James Franklin was just 6 years old, his father gave him a jump rope and a daily workout. He wanted his son to understand the hard work and repetitive training that sports involve.
“If I wanted to do a sport, I just had to work at it and just get the OK from my parents,” James Franklin said.
His mother, Pam Franklin, was concerned about the physical danger involved with her son playing football, so Franklin’s father came up with a solution to placate his wife. Although their son was always big — his three sisters called him “Butterball” and “Coconut Butt”— James Franklin’s father decided that his son would have to do 100 pushups every night, in addition to his jump rope training, before he could play. Even that didn’t guarantee his safety, but it was enough for Franklin’s mother to let him on the field, however anxious she might have been. He had to earn that right, had to realize that playing football wasn’t just about him. It was about his family and his teammates and his coaches, and his parents taught him that he had responsibilities to them all — to be safe, to work hard and to respect everyone and treat them as equals.
It didn’t stop with the thousands of pushups over weeks that stretched into months — Franklin’s parents have played a huge role in making him into the player he is today. Franklin is aware of the character it takes off of the field to be a team leader, and no one did a better job of teaching him those values than his mother and father. No matter how talented he is or how many games he wins, Franklin, who said that his mom made sure he “ate seven pieces of humble pie a day,” will never be overconfident.
There’s a flip side to that though, and Franklin’s high school coach, Michael Young, said that his former quarterback is almost too humble, too ready to take the blame. Young said he is accustomed to pulling his quarterbacks into his office for talks about their actions off the field, but it’s usually because they’re getting a bit full of themselves. The only thing he had to reprimand Franklin for, though, was the intense pressure — too much, Young said — that he put upon himself.
“He’s not one you’ve got to yell at when he makes a mistake,” Young said. “No one feels worse than him. He wants to win, winning’s very important. But even if we win, he can be upset about his play.”
Franklin’s teammates at Missouri have seen his inner critic come out after disappointing practices and in-game mistakes, and Missouri’s offensive coordinator Dave Yost said that most of the time he has to remind himself that Franklin is only a freshman. His poise impressed Yost from the start, but he knows that the missteps that Franklin makes are based only on inexperience, not on a lack of focus.
Freshman running back Henry Josey, a close friend of Franklin’s, said he can tell that the quarterback is always thinking about football — always. Even when they’re hanging out in their rooms and talking about girls or eating dinner together, Josey said he knows his friend's mind is at least partially on football. He knows that Franklin can be hard on himself, but Josey said he can sense that his friend is finding a way to work through the internal criticism, and maybe that’s where the humor comes in. Through it all — through the pushups and the losses, the interceptions and the unwanted attention — Franklin has been smiling, and he has started to rely on that ability to put others at ease and to channel it into moving on.
“He’s learned to smile and then let it go,” Josey said.
Taking it in stride
Once Franklin became a well-known quarterback at Lake Dallas High School, his parents realized the potential for him to become their worst nightmare: an entitled athlete. Classmates made room for him in the hallways — “Here comes the quarterback. It’s James, James Franklin!” — and lobbied for teachers to change his grades to all As. The Franklins made sure that their son saw did not see these developments as normal or deserved.
“His parents are responsible for his maturity,” Young said. “They really taught him about being humble and how to treat people the way they should be treated.”
The Franklins urged their son to channel that attention into more positive outlets. Young said that Franklin enjoyed going to elementary and middle schools to talk to younger students and play football with them. He was aware of the potential he had to impact younger students’ lives.
“That was just a really comforting feeling to know that I could be an example or role model to one of those kids,” Frankin said.
He wasn’t being cliché, and no one fed him that answer. He went onto explain that he really thinks that football can be a positive force for children, and he seems to have accepted that people are simply going to know who he is. Instead of becoming flashy or begrudgingly introverted — typical responses to fame from many athletes — Franklin decided he would just take it in stride. It’s not normal, but he tries to act as if it is.
Different is normal
What exactly is normal for a college football player, though? There’s no one definition — there are the athletes and the hard workers, the players that Missouri coach Gary Pinkel describes as “headsy” and “company men.” And then there’s Franklin. Pinkel never speaks about his personality, just his poise and his strength on the field. It almost makes you wonder if the real Franklin appears that often to Pinkel, or if he’s so unwaveringly respectful that even his coach hasn’t noticed the childlike personality within.
There are few factors that, at face value, set Franklin apart. He’s funny, yes, but even Gabbert will occasionally crack a joke. He’s polite, but many of his teammates’ reserved manners of speaking border on politeness. He is religious, but many Tigers thank God for their success on the field. With Franklin, the differences are in the details, and when you’ve spent time with him you realize just how unique those details make him. His humor is different, more genuine and guileless, and his politeness isn’t just a means to evade questions. His religion, though so much less overt than many athletes’, is deeper — there’s no need to talk about it, but it drives everything he does.
“He has this intense belief in God, that’s kind of his thing, and he doesn’t like you to be disrespectful or curse or anything,” Josey said.
That’s the catch, where Franklin’s differences could push him to the outside or alienate him from teammates. He does demand a higher level of behavior from those around him, but he’s so genuine — Gabbert said that all of his actions seem to come from the heart — that his teammates don’t seem to mind.
“No matter where you’re from, you’ve got to accept everybody,” White said. “Everyone really takes him in and acknowledges what he believes. They continue to live the way they do, but they acknowledge what he is and what he thinks, where he comes from and everything.”
Moe said that above all, he appreciates having someone with Franklin’s morals and values on the team, and he says that he thinks that they rub off on other players, whether or not they even realize it. Moe said he could tell from the moment he met Franklin that he wasn’t like other players, but he’s come to realize how good that is for the team.
“He’s just kept himself out of the world, really,” Moe said. “He was brought up a little bit different than all of us, and that’s refreshing.”
That’s the thing — maybe Franklin doesn’t have to fit in. Maybe he doesn’t need a place or a role. For Franklin, maybe different can somehow be normal.