Nathanael Franks: The Real Student-Athlete

Nathanael Franks was the total package during his career at Arkansas as a student and decathlete.

Make no mistake about it, Arkansas multi-event coach Travis Geopfert targeted Nathanael Franks as a highly regarded decathlete after his junior year in Damascus, Ore. But it is probably true that Franks had picked out Arkansas just as much as Geopfert picked Franks.

“I had liked Arkansas all along,” Franks said. “I did my research on the academics. They had what I wanted. I was looking at Duke and Northwestern for pre-med, but Arkansas had the better track program.”

Franks filled out the track recruiting letter with specific questions about the academics. Geopfert made some of the key members of the UA faculty available to the Oregon academic whiz and there was an immediate connection.

“We always do that, but rarely do the athletes want to talk to our faculty as deeply as Nathanael did,” Geopfert said. “Our professors gave him specific answers and they said he asked intelligent questions. Credit our professors for helping get him here.”

Four degrees later, Franks is the SEC’s H. Boyd McWhorter top scholar athlete. He was a finalist last year for a Rhodes scholarship. He was one of 73 UA athletes on the SEC honor roll released this week. Franks' name was deep into the list, organized by sport alphabetically. He should be at the top, in bold letters.

Franks finished his eligibility in the NCAA Championships last month in Eugene, Ore., where almost 50 family members cheered. It was a dream come true for him to return to his home state for his final meet. It didn’t look like something that would happen in May at the SEC championships, his last chance to qualify.

“To be honest, track is about the hardest thing Nathanael does in college,” Geopfert said. “There are some of the events in the decathlon that aren’t natural. He can really run. He’s a great 1,500-meter guy. But the jumps, they are hard for him. School is the easy part because he’s ultra smart.

“So it didn’t look like he’d make it going into the SEC. He’d been in a slump. But it all clicked there and a lot of it was in his last throw, last attempt in almost every event.”

Franks calls it his “miracle meet” and points out that he may have been the final qualifier for the NCAA meet in the decathlon. Franks closed with a rush to finish fourth at the SEC meet.

“I hit my best marks on my last jump in the high jump, last throw in the shot put, last throw in the discus, last throw in the javelin,” he said. “I beat my best in the discus by 15 feet in my last throw. That was the difference.”

Franks, deeply religious and one of the campus leaders in Athletes In Action, said it was a series of answered prayers.

“I was blessed,” he said. “You know something like that, someone is behind you. God said, ‘I’m here.’ I give God the glory.”

Those words were sprinkled throughout a highly interesting interview with Franks. He knows he’s blessed. Those around him say they are blessed to have spent the last four years with him. They also know he will most likely succeed in his goal to become a neurosurgeon.

“I’d let him operate on me,” said Travis Bucknam, the head coach for the men’s track team. “I know he’d be the best. I also know that he’d talk to me just before the surgeon and tell me it’s going to be alright. He exudes that kind of confidence.”

Geopfert said, “Me, too. I do know this, when I’m 80, I will be telling people stories about Nathanael Franks. He’s a great, great person and so humble. He’s like many great leaders, he lifts up everyone around him. It’s been truly special for me to be around him here at Arkansas.”

Franks has Masters in accounting and business administration. He has Bachelor of Science in physics with emphasis in biophysics and chemistry. Interestingly, the accounting gave him trouble.

“I was in classes with fourth-year accounting students,” he said. “There were problems I didn’t understand. There was a class that I got just a C, and that was after I rallied. I was in a hole, but toward the end of the semester I got it. I began to learn it.

“It’s not about the GPA, it’s about what you learn. If you focus on the learning, the grades will follow.”

Focused would be a good description for Franks. A five-sport athlete in high school, some thought he’d be a tight end for Oregon under Chip Kelly.

“I went to their camps,” Franks said. “They were recruiting me for football. I was the blocking back for the top running back in our state. They saw me as a tight end. But I wasn’t going to play football.”

Plus, the academics seemed better elsewhere for pre-med studies.

“I was always impressed with the academics at Arkansas and I knew the track tradition,” he said. “My goal was to come here, study chemistry, study abroad and be part of the great track history here.”

Frank has studied in Germany and Greece, easy stuff since he speaks five languages.

There have been few real bumps. He’s applied to five medical schools. He’ll likely have his pick.

Bucknam said it’s the decathlon that tested him the most.

“There’s little doubt that he had a lot going on and the decathlon takes the most time,” Bucknam said. “You have 10 events in training. And, he did so much in academics, too. I tell our athletes it’s about compartmentalizing and that’s what we talked about the most with Nathanael.

“But he pulled it off. He came through in the conference meet. What he did is pretty tough. Things can bleed over and make it difficult in other areas. I told him a few times, to stop and smell the roses. He was trying to do a lot. I think at the end, he did that. I’m happy for him with the way he finished and to get that trip back home.”

Franks said the key all along was that he was surrounded by solid people. Some of that was his doing.

“I think one of the things I was taught, pick your friends,” he said. “I came to college looking for someone with the right focus. The people you are with can bring you up or bring you down. It’s the people around you that are so important.

“For example, when I got here, I found someone with the same priorities, Solomon Haile. He had strong faith, strong academics and was a great athlete. He had those three woven chords that make you great.

“I have learned so much from AIA here. It’s a great ministry for a college athlete. I’ve learned how to go one-on-one in mobilization, building from faith. There are lots of temptations for a college athlete.”

Franks was among the speakers at the AIA spring banquet, speaking on his faith.

“I learned to be transparent,” he said. “You must get rid of your facade so you can grow towards Christ. I wanted to be real with what I said.”

Geopfert was not surprised.

“He has the ability to communicate,” Geopfert said. “He can talk to you on your level. Now, sometimes we can be at the long jump pit and we are working on something and he uses a word to describe it from physics that I don’t understand.

“I just have to stop him and explain to him that I don’t know that word. I’m just a physical education major. He’ll say, ‘Oh, coach, I’m sorry.’ He knows what is important is relationships. He captures you. He’s going to praise his professors, his coaches and his teammates for his successes. You see at all times that he’s special.”

That might be a better description than student-athlete.

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