Johnathan Franklin has a legion of fans, and it has almost nothing to do with his All-American senior season at UCLA or his being drafted by the Green Bay Packers.
There are the sick kids at the Mattel Children's Hospital on the UCLA campus. Franklin went there every week, spending countless hours trying to cheer up and inspire the patients.
"They knew Johnathan so well at the Mattel Children's Hospital that he just walks over and they don't even check his ID because he's there so often," UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure said.
And there are the at-risk children he and Datone Jones found time to speak to between practices and meetings and interviews with teams at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
"He's just a winner. I have so much respect for him," Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage said.
Franklin was enjoying a good career at UCLA but it was hardly spectacular. Then he inexplicably gave his phone number to a janitor, accepted Jesus into his life and embarked on a record-setting senior season for the Bruins. His path to the NFL was chronicled for a forthcoming inspirational documentary called "Franklin's Playbook."
"Not at all," Franklin said when asked if he could have envisioned this even a couple years ago. "It's such a blessing, it really is. It's crazy that I was just praying, praying, praying that God place me on a platform to shine and that I'm able to lead and do great things. It's amazing how things are coming to pass and how He's moving. It's a blessing, it really is. Nothing surprises me because I know how big my God is."
Franklin embraces every opportunity to use his platform. At the Senior Bowl, a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes was handing out Bibles at the team hotel. They struck up a conversation.
"It's amazing how God works," Franklin said. "He told me that every year they have this event where they bring in about three or four athletes from the Senior Bowl to talk to kids in a rough neighborhood — kids that are in a single-family household. He said, ‘I would love for you to come and have an opportunity to inspire these kids.' Right after that, the first person that came to mind was Datone. I texted Datone and asked him to come with me, and we talked to about 300, 400 kids who were in a single-parent household or a rough neighborhood and have been going through rough, hard times. It was a blessing to be able to talk to them."
Jones' version of the story is slightly different.
"We were sitting down eating dinner and Johnathan told me, ‘Hey, Datone, are you going to do some community service?'" Jones recalled. "I said, ‘Yeah.' He said, ‘We're going to talk to five people, this group of boys, at this church. I said, ‘OK, cool.' So, we get to this church and, I kid you not, it's this really big church and there's at least 1,500 people there. I'm not lying."
Relayed Jones' recollection of the events, Franklin laughed.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. It definitely surprised me," Franklin said in how the group went from five kids to several hundred. "The way the guy explained it, there would be a small group of kids. We get there and it's a whole auditorium of kids. We said, ‘Whoa!' It surprised us but it was exciting. It was funny. When we walked in there, Datone gave me this look like, ‘Really? For real?'"
What was for real was the source of their message: their hearts. Franklin is from a "rough neighborhood" in Los Angeles and Jones grew up in the notorious suburb of Compton, Calif. Both saw too much of the ugly trio of gangs, drugs and violence. With football as a goal and with strong mothers serving as the backbone of the family, Franklin and Jones steered clear of life's minefields.
"I told them how I grew up in a single-parent household — it was just me and my mom — and it was hard," Franklin said. "A lot of my friends didn't go down the right path in life. A lot of people I grew up with ended up gang-banging and dying. A lot of people I knew went to jail or dropped out of high school. I talked to them about having the right people around you. Sometimes, you have to separate yourself and go in a different direction from your friends if you want to become something in life. You have to surround yourself with the right people. I told them, ‘If you're the smartest person in the group, then you're in the wrong group.' You always want someone around you to encourage you, challenge you and make you a better person. I told them to stay focused and dream big — dream big, have dreams and don't let anybody hold them back."
It was a memorable couple hours for the kids as well as for Franklin and Jones.
"We all got up and told our stories and how we got to our schools," Jones said. "It was so amazing to see how the kids reacted. They were so touched that we came out just to talk to them. That's one of my greatest memories of the Senior Bowl."
Now, a few months later, the close friends' journey continues together in Green Bay. Jones went right about where everyone expected in the bottom of the first round. Franklin went much later than everyone expected, toward the end of the fourth round, after enduring a fruitless wait through the second and third rounds of Day 2 of the draft.
It's all part of the plan, Franklin said.
"I know God made those things happen on that day for a reason," he said. "Friday (Day 2), it was humbling. I had my family here, I had my teammates, we had a camera crew here. It was humbling. But it was a blessing, too, because I felt like I was getting caught up into what people were saying. God was probably like, ‘You know, Johnathan, I need you to listen. I'm in control. It's not about what man says but it's about My purpose for you and my plan for you and you have to trust in Me.' So, it was a blessing to go through that because it allowed me to step back and really think about where I've come from and to know that, ‘Don't let anything change you, Johnathan.' I'm happy the way things worked out the way they did and it's really been a blessing in disguise. I'm excited for what's to come."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.