January 18, 2018

The Long Read: Is James Franklin the next big thing?

Esks.com

You might remember Franklin the Turtle, the fictional storybook character that taught kids the values of kindness and perseverance and making friends. Maybe your parents read it to you growing up, or you read it to your kids when they were young.

The point is, whatever the obstacle, Franklin always brought the best out of everyone. It’s kind of like that with James Franklin, the quarterback of the Edmonton Eskimos. Like Franklin the Turtle, James can often be found leading the way. It just so happens he can also throw a football.

The 24-year-old had just completed a three-day mini-camp in Edmonton, where he spent his first full off-season as professional football player. When he wasn’t working out with renowned quarterback skills coach Will Hewitt, you would have found him throwing to Adarius Bowman and his other Eskimos teammates who stayed behind.

Franklin could always throw a football really far. Now he wanted to throw it faster.

“I took about .24 seconds off,” said Franklin. Meticulous, but that’s football. Football’s all in the details. Football players, quarterbacks. Machine-like, in almost everything they do. Never stop getting better.

Franklin is a football player and a quarterback in so many ways. When it comes to the list of quarterbacks in the CFL under 25, he’s right there at the top.

Yet if you didn’t know any better, just by talking to him, you might mistake him for something different. There’s one thing James Franklin says he likes more than football and is much better at than playing football. Like his father Willie, Franklin’s calling is to bring the best out of people.

— — —

“Yes sir,” Franklin answered a question, the same way he answers most questions. He was talking about his dad, who he says could inspire anyone. “My dad was always enthusiastic. He always changed his voice and did all this different kind of stuff and people could really relate. They paid attention and they liked it.”

Now an Evangelist, Willie Franklin could throw a football 85 yards in his day. He still holds the record for the longest javelin throw at the University of Oklahoma. More than anything though, Willie has a way with words and energy and passion. When Willie says something, people listen, including James, who as a result grew up with a different perspective in life than the average kid in Texas.

Ask any pro football player if he loves football and you’ll get close to the same answer. They all say they love it. Franklin won’t even fake it.

“I’ve never loved football,” said Franklin. “I’ve always liked football.”

It’s peculiar, especially if you know anything about football in Texas. The Friday night lights, they’re real. Crowds of anywhere from 10,000 all the way to 30 or 40,000 fill stadiums — just for regular season high school games. And for Championships? Upwards of 70,000.

“He always changed his voice and did all this different kind of stuff and people could really relate. They paid attention and they liked it.”
James Franklin

In and around Corinth, Texas, where Franklin was the second-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the country and number one in the state playing at Lake Dallas High, rules were put in place to stop players from moving or renting a place in a different city for the sole purpose of playing football.

“That’s how competitive it is,” said Franklin.

But where football was life for many, for Franklin it is and always has been a mean to an end. A gateway to something else. He doesn’t love football, but there’s a lot he loves about football.

“What I have loved about football is the opportunity that it brings, as far as being an example to so many younger athletes out there,” said Franklin. “Being on a platform where I can reach more people as far as trying to impact their lives. Most of the opportunities I’ve had have been because of football. I’ve gotten to live in Canada and met a lot of wonderful people and made great friends, and hopefully had an impact on people because of football.”

Where most quarterbacks crave the spotlight — excel in the spotlight — Franklin, much like his father, is driven by the opportunity to help others. If the spotlight allows him to do that, great.

Franklin’s mom, then Pamela Albanese, was a swimmer at the University of Wyoming and a junior Olympian at that. Willie, on top of being a javelin thrower and NFL player, was an all-American wrestler and a track and field star. It’s no wonder James was so gifted athletically. Yet in the end, that wasn’t what inspired James. And while kids growing up in Texas idolized Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Michael Vick, it wasn’t them either.

It was his father’s ability to motivate.

“They say almost the same thing every time – ‘Oh James, man, your dad changed my life’,” said Franklin. “Seeing my dad do it and just how it was so much different than anyone else I had ever seen – they may have the greatest message in the world but it’s hard to listen to someone when they don’t even sound like they want to be there.

“Just the impact that he had on people,” Franklin added. “I thought that was so cool. I thought, you know, wow, I want to be able to impact somebody’s life like that.”

— — —

Today, at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, James Franklin is pound for pound one of the bigger quarterbacks in the CFL. Size matters in football, especially at a young age, but there was a time it mattered a great deal to Franklin when really it shouldn’t have. Some kids are too small to play football, but when Franklin first started playing in fifth grade, he was too big.

“I actually had a weight limit,” explained Franklin. “I was in grade five and the weight limit to run the ball was 135 pounds and I was 185 pounds. I was quite a bit over so I played all of the lineman positions and linebacker.”

2015 BY THE NUMBERS: JAMES FRANKLIN

franklin-numbres

» View full bio

The problem was Franklin wanted to play quarterback. Much like his dad the renowned javelin thrower, he had developed his arm early in life.

“Any time we’d go to any church camps or football camps or whatever, you know how little kids are – they want to go deep,” Franklin recalled. “They’d have my dad throw the ball every time super deep, as far as he could, and they made me run it back. Eventually I got tired of running it back so I started to throw it back and started to develop a little bit of an arm.”

In the sixth grade, Franklin moved from Missouri to Texas. As his dad traveled across the country for work, Franklin lived all over the place growing up, from Oklahoma where he was born to Tennessee, Missouri and then Texas. Texas was where he’s spent the most of his football life, playing every position from O-line in grade six to later running back, safety, linebacker, defensive end, defensive back – every position but the one he wanted to play.

He still wanted to play quarterback more than anything, and the reason makes perfect sense.

“As soon as I moved to Texas I wanted to play quarterback,” Franklin recalled. “It’s a position you can help out the most people. If anyone’s going to get the blame put on them, I’d rather it be me than somebody else. I really, really like that part of it.”

— — —

After graduating Lake Dallas High, Franklin whittled down his 34 scholarship offers to four schools: Clemson, TCU, Missouri, and Oregon. Only seven of the 34 were recruiting him to be a quarterback, while the criteria that mattered most to Franklin were education; church services on Sunday; and the a chance to compete to start. Missouri was perfect.

Franklin got his feet wet in freshman year when when an injury sidelined now-NFL quarterback Blaine Gabbert. In sophomore season he became a starter and threw for close to 3,000 yards while rushing for another 1,000, putting him on the NFL radar as a projected first to fourth round draft pick.

Injuries sidelined those hopes fast. Franklin suffered a pulled labrum in spring ball at the end of that season, then, after recovering from that, suffered a torn MCL, a busted shoulder and a concussion, all in separate instances.

“I was completely off the radar,” said Franklin. The next season, on the field and healthy, Franklin led his team to a 6-0 start. Momentum had just started to shift when his luck turned again.

“At the time, I was second in the country in total yards and touchdowns. Then this guy took a cheap shot and I separated my throwing shoulder. I missed four games in five weeks.”

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Johany Jutras

REDBLACKS quarterback Trevor Harris drops back to throw in pre-season action (The Canadian Press)

A rotational player when he returned, Franklin couldn’t restore his high draft stock. He became an extra arm for the Detroit Lions his first training camp after college, but when it came time to play he was the only one on the roster that didn’t get into a game.

Working with Drew Stafford, Dan Orlovsky and Kellen Moore, Franklin learned all about being a professional quarterback and why it’s important to know the offence inside and out.

“They’d throw a ball to the right and they would know on the left side of the field if a receiver was two yards short on his route or he ran the wrong route or he didn’t get the depth or things like that,” said Franklin. “It’s crazy to know, OK you just made a completion, but yet you’re noticing all these other things. It was definitely an eye-opener.”

An eye-opener, but when Franklin didn’t get to play in any pre-season games, a painful lesson as well.

“I always wanted to know what it was like to take some snaps in the NFL,” lamented Franklin. “They say it’s the highest level and the best league and everything, so I definitely wanted to see if I could have that success. Obviously I thought that I could have, but I wouldn’t have known unless I’d have gotten out there. I definitely wish I could’ve gotten out there to play a little bit.”

When Franklin was released by the Lions, it was the first time in his football life he had no clear path. A conversation with Archie Manning is what led him north of the border. The two had met one year at a camp and Archie, the father of NFL greats Peyton and Eli, offered his advice after college games through text message.

“I texted him, ‘hey Mr. Archie, I need to talk to you about something’,” said Franklin. “I called him and I was telling him the options that I had and he suggested the CFL.”

Franklin tried out with the Bombers, Lions, Stampeders and Eskimos but never heard back. He attended another tryout with the Eskimos run by Chris Jones in Nebraska with only about 10 players and no other quarterbacks. Jones suggested further development with the indoor league.

“I was thinking there’s no way this team wants me because the head coach was saying to go develop my skills,” recalled Franklin. “And about a week later he called and invited me to mini-camp. A week after that, about a week before mini-camp, he called and they said they wanted to offer me a contract and I was pretty pumped.”

— — —

How did James Franklin get to be such a big kid? In a word, pushups. Franklin played all the sports growing up but when he asked his dad if he could start playing football in grade four there was one condition.

“My dad said ‘if you want to play football, you have to do 100 pushups every night for a year, and then I’ll let you play’.” So Franklin did 100 pushups every night for a year, and the following year he asked again. “He said ‘yes, but then I want to see you do 200 pushups every night during football season’.”

One reason was to give Franklin an advantage over the rest of the kids. He’d be bigger than everyone else. But that wasn’t all.

“He said, ‘if you get hurt, I’m going to get in trouble from your mom because I let her baby get hurt’,” recalled Franklin. “That’s why he wanted me to make sure I could take care of myself and be able to take a couple of hits.”

It’s why to this day Franklin looks more like a linebacker on the field than a defensive end. He’s often compared to NFL Most Valuable Player Cam Newton, another big quarterback with similar attributes. If not Newton then Warren Moon. Franklin recalls a fan who recognized the CFL logo on Franklin’s arm at the airport in Florida coming back from mini-camp. The man asked Franklin what position he plays.

 

“He goes ‘quarterback? Man you look like a linebacker, you’re like Cam Newton out there’,” recalls Franklin. The comparisons are flattering, he says, but he doesn’t want to be like anyone else. He doesn’t want to be the next Moon or Newton. He wants to be James Franklin.

“When people compare me to great quarterbacks it means a lot. But I always thought, why would I want to wear their shoes when I can wear my own? They’re like, ‘you are a lot like this guy, a lot like that guy’, and to myself I’d think ‘he didn’t make football’ or ‘he didn’t create this’ or ‘he wasn’t the one that started that’.

“I want to be myself. I want to be my best version of me.”

So far that’s exactly what he’s doing. At Missouri, Franklin earned the nickname ‘Frank the Tank’. A thousand rushing yards in a season was the norm. It’s not that he was fast. He didn’t run around anyone; he ran through them.

After competing in camp, Franklin earned a spot on the opening day roster as the third string quarterback. When Mike Reilly suffered a knee injury in Week 1, Matt Nichols became the starter and Franklin became the primary backup. The Eskimos kept winning with Nichols, but it didn’t stop Franklin from pushing for playing time. By the end of August he had earned his first career start against the Argos.

Franklin had gone from NFL practice roster cut to starting CFL quarterback.

“Oh man, it was – it was pretty cool,” said Franklin. “Obviously I’ve started games before and things like that, but . . . in a year when I thought it was going to be more of a learning year and more of a ‘sit back and watch everyone else do their thing’, being in that starter role was very cool from the standpoint that it seemed like nothing could have gone better.”

And early on, nothing could have gone better. While his team beat the Argos 38-15, Franklin threw for 335 yards on 29-of-38 passing and led the game with 51 rushing yards.

“I think I gained a lot more respect from some of the guys, and just seeing that I was able to hold my own out there – I think that was very helpful for myself and also for the team.”

Nichols was on the next plane out of Edmonton in a trade with the Bombers, while for Franklin, the sudden foray into the spotlight was decisive – if not just a little too sudden.

— — —

It’s not that James Franklin had never played in big games. They’re pretty hard to avoid when you go to high school in Texas and play college at Missouri. The crowd assembled in Calgary on Labour Day in 2015 was nothing like some of those Franklin was used to playing in front of. But in that game, a 16-7 loss to the hated Stampeders, things went wrong early for Franklin and snowballed.

It was a lesson in mental toughness.

“The first series I took a sack,” recalled Franklin, “and the second one, Adarius Bowman was going down the seam and he had the guy beat by five yards. I was throwing into the wind and I didn’t put enough on it, so the wind caught it and it died down.”

What could’ve been an early 50-yard touchdown resulted in the second of many punts on the afternoon. “I was thinking ‘oh man, this is a big game, I can’t do that, I’ve got to be able to make that throw, I can’t make that sack’.”

As the offence struggled and the two rivals locked in a defensive showdown, the struggle became mental.

“I kept beating myself up and then on top of that, one of the coaches was also being very negative and I was starting to listen to it,” said Franklin. “I was starting to believe in it and I kept getting down on myself. He was upset so I felt bad and that kind of got everyone down so it was just a mental battle I was struggling with.

“That was the biggest reason I didn’t perform well or at least consistent and make the best decisions,” he added. “Because I was too busy trying to think of what I can’t do or what I shouldn’t do.”

The game still within reach, Franklin was benched in the fourth quarter and Reilly, not yet 100 per cent following his injury, went in to try and salvage the game. The Eskimos lost that game and Reilly became the starter again. They haven’t lost since.

Playing quarterback requires a great deal of physical strength, whether it’s being able to throw a football far or knowing how to get knocked down and get back up again. The physical part of it? Franklin says he can throw a football almost as far as his dad once could. But there’s more to it than that.

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THE CANADIAN PRESS

Franklin hands the ball off during pre-season action vs. Calgary (The Canadian Press)

Franklin remembers playing in college when the injuries happened and people saying negative things. It motivated him mostly, but there were some days he may have believed it. After the Calgary game, Franklin had all year to regroup — to re-build that confidence. And while everyone watched Reilly win a Grey Cup, Franklin was in the background, making the most of his situation by taking mental reps.

“One thing I learned, doing something mentally can sometimes be better than physically doing something because you can make it perfect in your mind and you can actually make your mind think you literally did the rep,” Franklin explained.

Everything Reilly did, Franklin visualized himself doing – from leading the huddle to going under centre.

“OK, think it through, look at the coverage, here’s the snap of the ball, where am I going with it,” recalled Franklin. “I’m going here, here and here – make the progression from first to last.

“I found when I did that it was very helpful and it made me feel more comfortable, like I was actually out there performing on the field.”

— — —

When he committed to Missouri, James Franklin didn’t know who the starting quarterback was. Until he signed with the Eskimos he had never even heard of Warren Moon.

“I didn’t even watch football that much because usually I was playing sports or hanging out with friends,” Franklin admitted. “I just never paid a whole lot of attention.”

All he knows is he’s comfortable in his own shoes. Who he is. Who he wants to be. He knows that one day he wants to be a starter. After all, he didn’t do 100 push-ups every night to play football when he was nine years old to be a backup.

Franklin has faced his mental demons, no doubt. The injuries in college that took him from a projected fourth round pick to going undrafted. People he had never met telling him he wasn’t good enough. Being cut by the Detroit Lions without so much as a single snap. And even what happened last Labour Day in Calgary.

It’s not that he’s going to forget about those things. Who would James Franklin be without them?

“I’ve actually thought about this recently over the past year or so, just because I’m thinking more positive and having more confidence in myself,” reflected Franklin. “I think I have the ability to accomplish a lot because every team that I’ve ever been on, in any sport, when I have been a starter or a main contributor – we’ve always had a winning season.”

For Franklin, there’s no reason that wouldn’t continue.

“I know it’s a team sport, but I had a big part in that. So I think about being a quarterback in the future, in the CFL, and I’m still confident that I can for sure help a team have a winning season. I do think I have the ability to accomplish a lot more than people think that I can.”

From that first free agent camp to his first career start, the Eskimos might believe it as much as Franklin.

“James obviously has a big arm, and he’s a very intelligent quarterback,” said General Manager Ed Hervey. “We have full faith in Franklin’s ability to learn, progress and understand and more importantly be a team player.

“Every step as a young quarterback in this league, you want them to gain new heights,” Hervey added. “He’ll have a chance to go out there, compete at a high level and we have expectations of him to take his game to the next level.”

Esks.com

James Franklin joins fellow quarterbacks during Esks training camp (Esks.com)

For now, the Eskimos want to see Franklin continue to grow and learn and develop the way other successful young quarterbacks have, and this year that’ll probably be from the sideline in the shadow of a premier pivot in Reilly. It’s an ideal situation. For everyone involved. For now.

The Esks know it can’t last forever.

“He did some work in the off-season,” noted Head Coach Jason Maas following mini-camp back in April. “He’s been diligent with his studying, his preparation, throwing – physically he looked great. Mentally he looked sharp. I’m excited for him. I think the sky’s the limit in the league – he just needs an opportunity and no one can forecast when that happens.”

True, when that happens and where is anyone’s guess, but for now, Esks fans shouldn’t worry. Franklin loves Edmonton and the Eskimos. And Edmonton and the Eskimos love him.

“He’s a great quarterback,” said Bowman. “I’ve been with him this off-season so I’ve seen it. Frank the Tank. And the way he carries himself and goes about the game and the way he explains plays – even me, we go at it sometimes – but in the end, I’m going to listen to him.

“I feel like Frank would start with someone else, hands down,” Bowman concluded. “Frank can play.”

Oh, and Frank the Tank? That’s old now. Franklin has a new nickname he believes is even more fitting: Franklin the Turtle.

“More so because I’m a scrambler, I’m not a runner – a lot of people think I’m fast but I’m actually pretty slow like a turtle, and I’m also a lot heavier than people think,” said Franklin. “I’m 235 and a lot of guys think they can just kind of lay me out and stuff like that so I can take a hit.

“A turtle’s usually pretty solid – you got that shell – and I can count by two and tie my shoes like Franklin the Turtle so that kind of goes together.”

And Franklin’s story reads kind like a children’s book, too. Where it takes him next is anyone’s guess. For now, though, he’d like to think of the journey — not the destination — meeting new friends and helping as many people as he can along the way.

“I think Franklin the Turtle is a lot more fitting now because Franklin and friends – I like making friends, I like playing with all of the different types of animals and races and backgrounds.

“I think that’s a little more suited for me now.”

Much like his dad and the turtle, Franklin was born to lead. It may not be long before he’s seen leading a CFL team.