TIGER KICKOFF: The many sides of James Franklin

Friday, October 5, 2012 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 1:22 p.m. CDT, Saturday, October 6, 2012
James Franklin, Missouri's quarterback, says life is about more than football. And his friends and teammates know it as they discuss the facets of Franklin's personality.

He's a magnet for both praise and criticism, a tough guy on the field and a teddy bear off of it. He's always candid, choosing to smile at critics and praise defenders after big hits. The most talked-about bursa sac in recent history is attached to his right shoulder, sore and painful and rife with controversy.

But who is James Franklin, really?

Well, that all depends on who you ask.

When Mitch Morse looks at James Franklin, he sees a rock.

He sees a constant – the same guy he’s known the last three years. The laugh is still there. The smile is still there. The "yes, sir" and "no, sir" responses in press conferences are still there, too.

Franklin has become a better player, but he has never changed as a person, Morse says.

Not even when snaps go high, low or sideways. Morse, the team's starting center, has had recurring problems with his shotgun snaps all year, spraying them erratically in all directions. It's been Franklin’s job, sometimes impossibly, to corral the misfires.

The offensive line, which has gone through an unending cycle of injuries and position changes, has also had trouble giving Franklin a clean pocket. The junior quarterback has had to deal with constant pressure, as pass rushers such as Georgia's Jarvis Jones and South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney have made homes in the offensive backfield.

Still, Franklin doesn't get frustrated. Almost immediately after picking himself up off the turf, he begins to tend to the psyches of his companions.

"He's always composed, which is an attribute of James that is unbelievable. To go through the pressure that sometimes he goes through and with the hits he takes — because of us, mostly — it's unbelievable," Morse said, slowly shaking his head as he speaks. "He always keeps us composed."

This season, though, Franklin has faced adversity in other forms than defensive ends. He's had his toughness questioned for the first time in his career, after choosing to sit out of Missouri's Sept. 15 matchup with Arizona State because of an inflamed bursa sac in his throwing shoulder. Missouri won 24-20.

Even throughout an early season that has presented more crises than triumphs for his quarterback, Morse says Franklin has approached everything in his life the same way. The team has never doubted his willingness to fight through pain. Now, more than ever, Morse feels the need to protect his quarterback.

"You know, he's our quarterback. He's the anchor of the offense, and he's always been there for us," Morse said. "It's not only an obligation … but a privilege for us to be with him through his tough time of being injured, and with the whole controversy."

"The controversy," as he calls it, was never one for Franklin's linemen. Even off the field, they're not ready to stop defending him.

When Gahn McGaffie looks at James Franklin, he sees a competitor.

And no, he's not talking about football.

It gets heated in the pingpong room after Missouri's practices, as Franklin, McGaffie, Brad Madison and Kentrell Brothers battle daily for ultimate table tennis supremacy.

The four teammates began playing pingpong during two-a-days this fall as a way to kill time between meetings.

Of course, Franklin, who was already an experienced player, dominated the early matchups. He was a vicious competitor, sending orange pingpong balls careening at and around the helpless, inexperienced McGaffie.

Looking back on the summer beat downs, McGaffie lets out a pained grimace. The cycle of humiliation was vicious, as was the victor.

"James pretty much is a ruthless player because he knew we weren't that skilled," McGaffie said. "So he'd smash the ball on us every chance he got and just laugh at us like it was nothing."

Slowly, but surely, the competition improved. McGaffie and Co. started practicing, and the margin of victory began to shrink. Eventually, the title changed hands, and Missouri's starting quarterback became a table tennis second stringer.

According to Franklin, though, McGaffie's recent success was all part of the plan.

"You know the term, 'If you throw a dog a bone, he'll always come back for more?' Well, if I'm always beating him, then nobody wants to play me," Franklin said. "They'll think, 'No, he'll beat me.' I give him a couple wins, make him feel good."

Despite their animosity with a paddle, McGaffie can't deny Franklin's positive traits. He's a good guy, he says, "definitely a person I would let my daughter date."

Sure, but would he let her play him in pingpong?

"Probably not, because he's pretty dominant in that game," McGaffie said. "But he's still a good guy."

When Corbin Berkstresser looks at James Franklin, he sees a blueprint.

Ever since Berkstresser arrived on campus in summer 2011, Franklin has been there — to teach, to help, to be the goofiest guy in the room. And all the while, Berkstresser has watched him, quietly taking notes.

Franklin served as Berkstresser's "Big Brother" in the freshman quarterback's first fall camp, rooming with him in the dorms, keeping him up to speed in practice and studying the playbook with him every night.

Even now, more than a year later, the roles haven't exactly shifted.

"On the field, he's always helping me. He's still my big brother, helping me with the plays," Berkstresser said. "And, off the field, he helps me every day to be a better person."

When Franklin unexpectedly missed a start for the first time in his career, Berkstresser was there to jump in. After the 24-20 win against Arizona State, he sat in Missouri's crowded media room, surrounded by a throng of reporters and fielded repeated questions about his big brother's toughness.

"James is probably the toughest kid on the team," Berkstresser said more than once throughout the press conference. "It's a long season. He wants to be there. He's definitely thinking about the team and not himself."

Admittedly, the criticisms got to Franklin. He has never been one to tune them out. But Berkstresser also knows that critics are not what matter most to his big brother.

"He cares what people think, but at the same time he knows that it's not up to them what he does. It's not as important to them," he said. "He looks to a higher power for his approval."

Even now, with a start and a win under his belt, Berkstresser follows Franklin's lead. After every series against Arizona State, Berkstresser found Franklin first on the sideline, asking him what could be corrected, how he could improve. He asks him the same kinds of questions off the field, looking for guidance from an old friend.

To Berkstresser, Franklin is the blueprint of what a big brother — and a starting quarterback — should be.

"If you lean on him, he's not going to let you fall," Berkstresser said. "He's always going to be there to help you."

When James Franklin looks at himself, he isn't sure what he sees.

He can be defined in so many different ways. The football player. The future public speaker (he hopes). The pingpong player. The son.

Going deeper, though, Franklin doesn't see himself as a quarterback first. He looks around the sport and sees a mass of people who think the game is all they are. They forget that football is just that — a game.

When the stress begins to overwhelm him — which he admits that it has at times over the past month — he tries to put his entire life into perspective.

"Obviously, people do not want to hear that football is not the most important thing in life and that it's just a game, but that's what I try to think of it as. If getting criticized or yelled at because I play bad is the worst that I'm going through, then I consider myself pretty blessed," Franklin said.

"Other people have disabilities, tragedies, poverty, all different sorts of things. Thinking about all that, it'd be selfish to think that I have it bad. Yeah, I'm on a big stage and I'm criticized and all of that, but it takes a lot more than criticism to get me down."

Through his first season and a half as a starter at Missouri, nothing has kept Franklin down yet. He's been sacked and hit in every place imaginable, and he continues to get back up. He hears people say that he isn't strong enough, fast enough, accurate enough or tough enough for the Southeastern Coference; the words bounce off of him like bullets off of Superman.

So, behind the helmet, behind the smiles, behind the table tennis competitions, behind the big brother mentality, behind everything:

Who is James Franklin?

"Since we're playing Vanderbilt this week, I'd say the Vanderbilt head coach," Franklin said Monday, a sly smile plastered across his face.

The reporters slowly leave his side, the interview over. The junior from Corinth, Texas, strolls out of the Mizzou Athletic Training Center's lobby and into the weight room, smirking happily as he goes.

The mystery continues.

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