Every year was a new football team, a new city, a new coach. John Franklin III couldn’t run fast or far enough to elude the same old problem.
No matter where he played — Florida State, East Mississippi Community College, Auburn or Florida Atlantic — he was the best athlete, but not the best quarterback.
Franklin averaged 11.4 yards every time he ran, passed or caught the ball during his college career.
”I’m no mathematician, but that’s a first down,” said Franklin, 25. “I think the probability of me getting a first down every time I touch the ball is pretty high. I’m no coach. I just know common sense.”
At his 2018 pro day at Florida Atlantic, at the urging of his agent, he worked out at five positions, including defensive back.
The Chicago Bears signed Franklin to their practice squad as an undrafted free agent at cornerback, a position he had never played. The Bucs brought Franklin in last December but switched him to offense after only a few days. Now he is trying to earn a spot with the club as a receiver.
But the biggest change for Franklin happened when he became the unexpected star of Last Chance U, a Netflix series focused on the East Mississippi Community College Lions in the heat-slugged town of Scooba, Miss.
Because of the reality show’s popularity from the 2015 season, Franklin received fame before he had established his game.
Franklin lost the starting job at East Mississippi to Wyatt Roberts, who later retired from football to become a full-time student.
Because he handled his frustration with such quiet resolve, Franklin became an inspiration to a global legion of fans who watched the show and followed him on social media.
“Junior college, it was life-changing for me,” Franklin said. ”That’s when I hit rock bottom. That was a time when I grew the most as an individual and the most as a player and really the most as a man. It taught me how to survive. I was all the way out in Mississippi by myself. School was bad. Everybody got to go home, and we had only six guys from out of state. You had to learn to survive. Dinner was at 6, and we got practice until 9. We would only have Subways and gas stations, so how were you going to eat? It really made me grow up and learn to do without. ...
“I got to where I hated football. I was ready to give it all up. I really had to find my love for it, and that’s where I really learned to make the most out of every little chance you got.”
Throughout his college career, someone always stood between Franklin and the starting quarterback job.
In two seasons at Florida State, he sat behind redshirt freshman Jameis Winston, who won the Heisman Trophy and national title in the 2013 season. Franklin’s role as a freshman was to portray the opposing quarterback each week on the scout team, a role he embraced.
He did such a good job imitating Auburn’s Nick Marshall that his teammates gave him a lot of credit for their success in winning the national championship game, 34-31 over the Tigers.
Franklin credits Winston, who later was drafted No. 1 overall by the Bucs, for helping him learn how to read the defense and the intricacies of playing quarterback.
“I was just the better athlete more times than not, and I relied on my instincts more times than actually knowing what was really going on,” Franklin said. ”I didn’t really know football. I learned the game there. ... You look at that season, and we went undefeated. That was fun for me because after the (national championship game), the coordinator (Jeremy Pruitt) came up to me and told me they wouldn’t have been prepared if not for me, because I was faster and more elusive than Marshall.
”I felt like I earned the ring.”
• • •
Franklin’s decision to transfer from Florida State did little for the trajectory of his career but changed his life. Last Chance U is an appropriate title for the series and East Mississippi.
Most of the players are there because they didn’t do the work on the field or in the classroom. Many come from impoverished neighborhoods and have NFL dreams that would solve a multitude of financial issues for their families. Some are good kids who found themselves in bad situations, with arrest records that prevented them from going to the Division I-A school of their dreams.
”People in my situation usually don’t make it out of the JUCO,” Franklin said. ”Leaving from a big school and then going to a bigger school afterward.”
Franklin’s struggle wasn’t in the classroom but on the field. The list of re-invented alumni is impressive and includes former Bucs running back LeGarrette Blount; quarterback Chad Kelly, who left Clemson after a fight, then won a national title at East Mississippi before quarterbacking Ole Miss; Bo Wallace, who left Arkansas State and after one season with the Lions, also became an Ole Miss starter.
Franklin alternated with Roberts in the season opener against Southwest Mississippi Community College, going 18-of-25 passing for 186 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 40 yards.
He got the start the next week against rival Copiah-Lincoln, but lost a fumble on his first play and went 0-for-2 passing before Roberts rallied the team, which eventually lost 31-24 in overtime, the only defeat of the season that also ended coach Buddy Stephens’ 25-game win streak.
Franklin sulked a little, but mostly worked on his game and waited for a break.
“Whatever life threw at me, whatever the devil threw at me, I got closer to God in that timespan because I was alone for so long,” he said. “That’s when the real me was formed, in that dark place, that bottom pit of my life.”
Franklin’s big break came in the final game of the season against Mississippi Delta, a perennial cellar dweller more interested in fighting than playing football.
Franklin knew then-Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee was coming to watch him play. Roberts injured his knee early in the game, and Franklin came off the bench to score six touchdowns in the first half. Five came on the ground as he rushed for 172 yards on 10 carries and passed for 119 yards and a score.
Leading 48-0 with a minute left in the first half, Stephens called two timeouts in an attempt to run up the score. A late hit by a Mississippi Delta player led to a brawl that ended the game and forced East Mississippi to forfeit the win, keeping the team from the playoffs but landing Franklin in the SEC at Auburn.
He soon found himself in familiar territory. Franklin was No. 3 on the depth chart behind Sean White and Jeremy Johnson, though he still rushed for 430 yards and two touchdowns (9.3 average).
”I went in with the intentions of being the guy,” Franklin said. “I felt like I performed well enough to be the guy from what I heard from other people on the team. ... I thought I should’ve been starting. You’re not going to start me? Cool. You give me the ball five times, I’m going to score three (touchdowns). That’s been my mentality.”
• • •
Another school and another opportunity awaited Franklin.
Former Florida State and West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett, who was Franklin’s position coach at East Mississippi, had been the co-offensive coordinator at Florida Atlantic and convinced Franklin to join the Owls for his final season.
He only attempted two passes and played more at receiver, where he caught seven passes for 95 yards and a score. Most of his success came on the ground, (16 carries, 229 yards, two touchdowns).
”He saw a lot, learned a lot and he was still playing a lot, too,” Trickett said. “But I think once the (Netflix) show went mainstream all over the place and he got a lot of notoriety from it, I think he realized what the spotlight can do and it’s not as great as it seems.
“I think a lot of people like the way he handled himself because it didn’t always go his way and then when the opportunity came, he made the most of it.”
Franklin started getting messages of support on social media from all over the world. South Africa. Belgium. Morocco.
“I can be that living example that what people see, what determination looks like, they can think about me,” he said. “That is what it looks like to go after something you really want and not take no for an answer. I think that’s what my purpose is on this earth and I embrace that. I know football is going to end for me one day.”
But in the NFL, Franklin is hoping for a fresh start. He arrived to Tampa Bay in December as a practice squad cornerback. After a couple practices, coach Bruce Arians saw his arm and athletic ability and switched him to offense. His first job was a familiar one, impersonating Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson as the scout squad quarterback. Franklin was signed to the 53-man roster for the season finale against the Falcons.
“He’s one of those guys who has got so much talent and athletic ability, you’re trying to find a place for him,” Arians said. “We ran that little wildcat package with him, and he did a great job with it. He can throw.
“(Now) he’s coming in as a wide receiver, so he’ll be in the offensive rooms. He could possibly give us a third quarterback on Sunday with his ability, so he’s got a lot of options, and it’s up to him to make the ball club as a wideout.”
As always, Franklin is up to the challenge.
“That’s one thing I love about (Arians). It took two days for him to say, ‘Hey, this kid has something rare.’ It took him two days, and he acted on those two days.
“Like I said, I’m not a mathematician ...”
But Franklin has the belief that this is not his last chance.