As he packed up his locker in January after an up-and-down rookie season that had taught him so much about himself, Johnathan Franklin was upbeat.
“It’s not too bad. Right now we’re just being patient, being smart, and anything with the neck, I think you should take precautions,” the Green Bay Packers running back said of the neck injury he’d suffered while returning a kickoff against Minnesota on Nov. 24. “Things are going well. I look forward to coming back next year.”
There had been times during his first NFL season when he hadn’t been so positive. After a rough training camp, he’d made the 53-man roster as the No. 3 running back, behind fellow rookie Eddie Lacy and veteran backup James Starks, but in the first two games of the season, he played only sparingly on special teams.
But when Lacy suffered a concussion in Week 2 against Washington and Starks went down with a knee injury the following week at Cincinnati, Franklin suddenly became the Packers’ go-to running back. He responded by carrying 13 times for 103 yards and a touchdown, but he lost a fourth-down, fourth-quarter fumble that was returned by the Bengals for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.
Franklin carried the ball only six more times after that, even with Starks missing three games, before suffering a concussion and the neck injury while returning the opening kickoff in the Packers’ tie with the Vikings. By then, he’d already faded from the running back picture as Lacy was on his way to winning the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year award with the best rushing season (1,178 yards, 11 TDs) by a rookie in Packers history.
All the while, there was Franklin, supporting his friend.
“I’m so happy for Eddie,” Franklin said in January. When he got over 1,000 yards, I told him, ‘Man, God has really blessed you this year.’ Just to see a guy like that have success, be young and still be the same guy, same person from Day 1 to now, you don’t see that often. You see guys have success and they change. But Eddie’s been the same guy, real positive. He’s just enjoying life.”
And so, it seemed, was Franklin. Despite being accustomed to success – he’d left UCLA as the school’s all-time leader in rushing yards and all-purpose yards – he didn’t see his rookie season as a frustration or disappointment as much as a learning experience.
“I learned a lot about myself,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself even when I wasn’t able to go to practice and wasn’t able to play football. You find out who you are as a person, and how you deal with negativity, how you deal with adversity. I just have to keep learning and getting better at it because adversity, it’s a lifetime thing. It’s going to come again. You just have to keep growing. It’s a life process.”
Now, his life has taken an unexpected turn, and the adversity he’s facing now seems considerably more daunting.
“Damn football. This is his life,” running back DuJuan Harris said. “It’s like losing a family member. It’s not about football, it’s his life. He’s just got to be careful. A certain fall or a minor accident or anything could probably change his life. It’s not about football anymore.”
And yet, there was Franklin again, texting each of his fellow running backs a message of encouragement, along with a piece of advice: Make sure you cherish every moment you get to play.
“We studied the playbook together; we pretty much did everything together. And for it to be taken away from him like so fast, it definitely hurts, it definitely makes you cherish [that time] even more,” said Lacy, who roomed with Franklin beginning with last year’s post-draft rookie orientation camp and revealed the content of his friend’s texts.
According to Lacy, all of the running backs were planning to meet up with Franklin following Thursday’s practice and spend some time with him. While the initial thought was to do it in an effort to cheer Franklin up, Lacy was expecting it to be the other way around.
“When you can’t play like so [suddenly], you’re definitely going to be down,” Lacy said. “But Franklin is a very positive person – always upbeat. So he’s going to be all right.”
That was the consensus around the locker room, where defensive end Datone Jones, who played with Franklin at UCLA and has known him since the two were high-schoolers in the Los Angeles area, wasn’t surprised by his longtime friend’s positive outlook.
“I’ve known Johnathan since we were in the 10th grade. We actually committed to UCLA on the same exact day at the same time,” Jones said. “To see him work so hard to actually make his dream come true and make it to the NFL, man, it’s tough to see it end this way, because I knew how hard he worked.
“[But[ he’s a special guy. He was a special guy at UCLA, and not only on the field but off the field; he was very involved off the field. One thing I do know: He has a calling outside of football to lift people and bring people’s spirits up. Hopefully he can pursue his dream to become the mayor of L.A.
“He’s not just a football player to me, man. He’s a brother. We shared a special bond at UCLA. It was a special brotherhood. When I found out the news [Wednesday], for me, I didn’t really care about the injury anymore because I knew he was OK in that area. But I wanted to see where his mind was at.
“His spirits were up, he felt like God had opportunity for him.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.