DALLAS — When James Franklin thinks about his career at Missouri, he doesn't reflect on what he was able to accomplish as a Tiger.
He sits in the corner of a conference room at the Omni Mandalay Hotel in Irving, Texas, days before Missouri plays Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic, which will be the final game of Franklin's collegiate career. He has the same smile he's always had — polite but guarded. He sits and struggles to come up with his favorite memories from his career.
It’s not the sophomore season in which he accounted for 36 touchdowns or the run to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game as a senior. What Franklin will carry with him is the time spent on the sidelines and in the training room, the lows of a career that took more turns than any quarterback in the Gary Pinkel era. Those will be Franklin’s sharpest memories.
“I’m really thankful for going through those tough times and dealing with adversity in life and in general,” Franklin says. “I would say those are most memorable in the bad times because it’s tough when you go through a lot.”
Dealing with adverse situations has become a strength of his, so his teammates weren't surprised that he was the one lifting spirits after the team's toughest loss of the season.
Nearly an hour after Missouri’s 59-42 loss in the SEC Championship Game, Franklin sat in a quiet locker room still in his full equipment. While some players hurried out of the locker room, fought back tears and hardly made a sound, Franklin still had a smile. He turned his chair to face running back Henry Josey and comforted his teammate.
“It really has no benefit whatsoever being negative,” Franklin said. “I like to be positive Patty not negative Nancy.”
For such a positive person, Franklin has a tough time giving himself the same praise he gives everyone else. He’s third all-time in Missouri history in yards of total offense behind only Chase Daniel and Brad Smith. With 172 passing yards in the Cotton Bowl, he will be third all-time in passing yardage as well. That's still not good enough in his eyes.
“There’s still some things I do want to prove,” Franklin said. “If I can rack up about 2,000 yards passing this game and 25 or 30 touchdowns or so, I think I can do that.”
Those numbers are out of reach, but it’s not a stretch for Franklin to be included with Smith and Daniel as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play at Missouri. Unless you ask Franklin. He doesn’t think fans will see him as one of the greats.
“Probably not,” Franklin said. “No, sir. I don’t think so at all. Just because I had one of the worst seasons last year. Just really inconsistency and getting hurt.”
He's accepted it and moved on. He's not trying to win anyone over or live up to anyone else's standards anymore. Football isn't important enough to Franklin for him to let it control him in the way he once did.
"People can say a lot and think a lot," Franklin said. "At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter."
It’s not that he doesn’t care about football or doesn’t work hard. He does. Teammates marvel at what he sacrificed as a junior to play through injury, despite the criticism he took publicly. The criticism taught him a lot and forced him to learn how to deal with it. It helped him realize that football wasn't everything.
“It’s just a small part of my life,” Franklin said.
That’s not an easy attitude to have in a college football locker room. Not in a culture where winning is everything or on a campus where football is such a big part of the tradition. But it works for Missouri's quarterback.
“James is a true sport, man,” defensive end Kony Ealy said. “Win, lose or draw, he’s going to come out with a smile on his face. That’s just James. His personality is great, and I hope that for my future kids to have the same personality he has.”
Ealy isn’t alone. Franklin’s teammates and coaches can’t say enough about the job his parents did raising him. His style of leadership is unique and so is the manner in which he’s carved out his place in Missouri football history.
“Sometimes you get a guy who walks in the locker room, he immediately has an impact on the whole team,” wide receiver L’Damian Washington said. “James is that guy. The players watch what they say around James, are very respectful of him. He’s our leader.”
That was in question at times in 2012 and over the summer. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel had an open competition for Franklin’s job in the summer. Still, Franklin was nothing but smiles throughout fall camp. After head, shoulder and knee injuries in 2012, a competition in camp wasn’t going to keep him off the field.
Less than 24 hours after Franklin was announced as Missouri’s starting quarterback for 2013, he stood in front of a crowd of reporters and was no different than he was throughout the competition.
With the same smile he has when joking with teammates, Franklin insisted nothing had changed since he was named the starter. He was more focused on getting on the field and righting the wrong from his injury-riddled 2012 season than the quarterback competition.
He righted the wrong by leading Missouri to a 6-0 record and looking like a Heisman Trophy candidate in the process. But as the Tigers celebrated a victory against Georgia, its biggest of the season, Franklin’s smile was gone. His shoulder was wrapped in a sling and the initial outlook was not positive.
The next week, freshman Maty Mauk led Missouri to a win over Florida. Chants of “Maty Football” rained down from the crowd while Franklin stood on the sideline and watched.
“I think that kind of did a little bit to him,” Washington said.
Four games went by before Franklin was able to return to the field. This time, he picked up where he left off. The injury didn’t derail his season. It was just another low that he’s learned to spin into a positive.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Pinkel said. “We all face adversity. No one likes it, but we all go through it. And if you go through it with the right attitude, you can learn so much to help yourself. I think that is what he did. He is a little bit mentally tougher. He is a little bit more resilient.”
That’s been the difference for Missouri in 2013. Ealy said there was a lot of finger pointing going on during 2012 both inside and outside the program. That’s gone now. Even after a 17-point loss to Auburn in which the offense put up more than 500 yards, no blame was placed on the defense inside the locker room.
Pressure was on Missouri in 2013. It started with Pinkel and Franklin, but the whole team felt it. There was a certain standard they needed to get back to, players said. They did that, winning 11 games and going to the SEC Championship game.
But like Franklin, Missouri wanted more. It didn’t win a conference championship or reach the national championship as it hoped. There’s nothing a Cotton Bowl win can do to change that.
A win against Oklahoma State would give Missouri 12 wins, though. More than anyone expected back in August. The 2013 Missouri Tigers had a chance to be the best team in school history but came up just short. Just like injuries prevented Franklin from placing his name among the great Missouri quarterbacks before him in the eyes of fans.
But Friday won’t be about defining a legacy or proving anything to anyone. At least, not for Franklin. For him, there’s more to life than the game that has put him through good and bad times at Missouri.
As Franklin sits and reflects, most of what he’s saying isn’t about football. The man who coaches say will become a pastor some day, realizes his football goals are out of reach, but it doesn’t bother him like it used to.
“It’s going to come to an end one day, and it’s not going to dictate my whole life,” Franklin says.
Supervising editor is Erik Hall.