Johnathan Franklin, whose career has ended because of a neck injury sustained last season, was one of my favorites. It was just a year ago that I put him on the cover of Packer Report Magazine's Training Camp Preview edition. That Franklin was merely a fourth-round pick made no difference to me. His personal story was of first-round quality.
I first featured Franklin at the Scouting Combine. He was sitting at one of the small tables near one of the three main podiums at Lucas Oil Stadium. The podiums are for the star players. The tables are for everyone else. I don't recall who was holding court at the podium nearest us, but he was surrounded by dozens of reporters. Meanwhile, it was myself, Sam Farmer from the Los Angeles Times and a writer from one of the other Southern California papers. Franklin was, simply, riveting.
On his way to the NFL after a brilliant senior season, Franklin could have thanked new coach Jim Mora for giving him a clean slate after fumbling too often under the previous regime. He could have thanked his mother. He could have thanked the mayor of Los Angeles, for whom he had interned.
Instead, Franklin thanked Jesus and a janitor.
"My commitment to God allowed me to work harder and want to be better," Franklin said. "Last summer, I accepted Christ in my life and my life just totally changed. It's amazing, when I did that, the kind of people that came into my life and pushed me to be great, both on the field and off the field."
And just who gave him that push?
"The reason I found him was a janitor on campus that led me to accepting Christ," Franklin said. "Guys on my team, who I really never thought I'd talk to or have a relationship with, came into my life and pushed me to maximize my potential."
It was an unlikely story. The paths of Franklin and the janitor, Keenan Riggs, crossed regularly outside the university's credit union.
"He knew me because I was a football player on campus," Franklin said. "He would always call me, ‘Frankie.' He'd say, ‘Hey, Frankie.' One day, he asked me for my number. I don't know why I gave a janitor my number but I gave it to him."
Not only did he give Riggs his phone number but he answered the phone. And he talked. And eventually, they met.
"He said, ‘I know you've got the Holy Spirit in you because if you didn't, you wouldn't understand what I was saying,'" Franklin recalled. "He started talking about Him and I was actually interested. After three times, he invited me to Bible study. The pastor that night was talking about the world and how people try to look toward things to satisfy them like fame and football or money or girls or partying. He told me, ‘The only thing that would really satisfy you is Jesus Christ and the only thing that will give you peace is Jesus.' I accepted Christ that day and my life has been different ever since — the way I carry myself, the things that I say, how I control my thoughts, how much I want to work. This whole season has reflected what God can do."
As a senior, Franklin rushed for 1,734 yards and was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation's top running back.
Not only was Franklin a better play on the field, but he was a better man off the field. At Bible study, one of his teammates was talking about his time at Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA.
"I said, ‘OK, I'm going to go just to do a good deed,'" Franklin told me in a lengthy phone interview after the draft. "When I went, I fell in love with the kids there and it really opened my eyes to life."
As Franklin continued telling the story, you could hear the passion grow in his voice.
"You had kids who are 10, 12 years old that had cancer, kids that were blind, kids that have been burned. Some of the kids had no family at all. It's crazy, I looked at my life and I complained about so much but these kids have nothing. These kids don't even know what's going to happen tomorrow. These kids might not be alive tomorrow. I did whatever I could to impact those kids' lives and be an encouragement and show them the love that they didn't have and be there for them. It was amazing, it really was."
Franklin wasn't there for a photo-op and wasn't satisfied with bringing a smile to a sick child just one time. Angus McClure, the UCLA defensive line coach who mentored first-round pick Datone Jones, said Franklin was at the hospital so often that officials there stopped checking his ID.
"That's true," Franklin said. "I went every week — every week. I even went on my birthday."
Hilary Gan, the special events coordinator for the Chase Child Life Program at the Mattel Children's Hospital, has worked with numerous athletes but Franklin held a special place in her heart. Whether it was talking football or playing Barbies, Franklin was her go-to guy.
"We have patients who are here for very long periods of time, so to know that somebody's going to come back and see you again – it's the time that's really the most meaningful to them," Gan said. "It's not who they are (as an athlete). For a girl who's most interested in Barbies, she doesn't care about football. What she does care about is that there's somebody here who's making the time for her and is willing to do what she wants to do. It makes them feel important and it makes them feel seen and heard, and I think that's what all the patients feel – that they're being made feel special. Sometimes, you get lost when you go into the hospital. When you're in isolation, you don't get to see your friends. Sometimes, people sort of dwindle away from you. That somebody comes in for you and makes you feel important is huge."
The Packers are losing a "classy" individual, as coach Mike McCarthy put it on Thursday. Chances are, some sick little kid will be gaining a new friend.