Senior College Football Columnist

Mizzou QB Franklin's father was saved by football, despite coaches giving up on him


James Franklin's father, Willie, escaped the backstreets of San Diego with a juco scholarship. (US Presswire)  
James Franklin's father, Willie, escaped the backstreets of San Diego with a juco scholarship. (US Presswire)  

James Franklin will know more about Georgia's defense than he will about his father on Saturday.

That's not to suggest Missouri's junior quarterback and his 62-year old father Willie are not close. Both of them answer questions with the same clipped, military-style "yes sir" and "no sir." Both are college football veterans. Both are devout Christians, the model son a replica of his father, an evangelical minister.

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James is preparing for perhaps the biggest game of his career. Mizzou finds itself in the SEC, starting over at the top after a century in the many configurations that today is the Big 12.

There is nothing new for Willie, who leads his flock from his home in Dallas. He prepares for life the same way, every day. They call this African-American man "Uncle Chocolate," even some of the Missouri players. Back in 1976, as a young evangelist, his life was laid out for him after some preaching in Alabama. A 12-year old boy asked him to be his dad.

"I just started crying," Willie said. "To have a white kid down in Alabama tell a black man, 'I wish you were my daddy,' humbled me. If that kid saw something in me, I wasn't going to let him down. Kids have always motivated me because they're so innocent."

The love shines through father and son like a laser. Even the simplest things can produce a rollicking laugh. Get close to James and you get close to Willie. Not too close, because Willie is likely to kiss you pretty much anywhere skin is showing. Gender doesn't matter, nor should it. Willie Franklin does this because the Bible says, "Greet one another with a holy kiss."

But Willie has a past he keeps locked away in a silent place in his soul. It's not a past to be ashamed of. Willie wasn't the one who succumbed to alcohol or drugs or joined a gang. Willie couldn't help it if his family was dependent on welfare or that the presence of a well-dressed white man in his San Diego neighborhood meant one of two things -- FBI or narcotics officer.

James Franklin's challenge this week is that he, the Tigers and the school enter the big time in the SEC. At a similar age, his father lived on Snickers for an entire semester in junior college.

"I did [hide the past] for a long time because I didn't want them to know that kind of lifestyle was OK," Willie said of his children.

They are about to find out.

A book in the making

It is a life to be celebrated, so much so that Willie Franklin isn't stopping with a comprehensive interview about his past for the first time with

"That's why I'm writing this book," he said. Working title: From Ball Boy to All-American.

"In essence, it's the Forrest Gump story all over again," Willie said. "Nobody expected me to do anything."

Sometimes life is like a box of Uncle Chocolate. To this day, Willie doesn't understand how he graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in San Diego. Or that he has an Oklahoma degree when he was reading and writing at a grade-school level. Or that he couldn't really read until age 25. Or that the streets never swallowed him up.

He knows that he has forgiven former Sooners head coach Chuck Fairbanks and his assistants -- Barry Switzer, Larry Lacewell and Jimmy Johnson. They would become men who would win conference titles, national championships, even Super Bowls. Forty years ago they were soon-to-become famous men who stole something from him in 1971. Willie Franklin barely passed through their lives for two years at Oklahoma, but he cannot forget them.

"He calls me sometimes out of the clear blue sky," said the 79-year-old Fairbanks, who won three Big Eight titles with the Sooners before going to the New England Patriots. "I didn't lose interest."

He cannot. What those powerful men didn't know was that Willie didn't need football. He was playing as a way to get out of the abject poverty of childhood. His family was on welfare. His parents struggled with alcohol dependency. Only a few of his 10 siblings made it out of that San Diego neighborhood.

All Willie wanted to do was run track and field in the spring at Oklahoma after playing football. When the OU staff found out about his interest in track, they freaked. They demoted him as a senior to the scout team in 1971, Franklin said.

"Don't ask me that, I can't answer that for sure," Fairbanks said. "I might have at the time. Had he been in the program longer, I might not have said anything. If he was new to the program. ..."

He was new enough. Other veterans like Gregg Pruitt were allowed to run track in the offseason. For Willie, it was a reason to run him off. A kid who had warmed up John Hadl as a Chargers ball boy, a kid who had become a junior-college All-American, a kid who showed tremendous loyalty to Fairbanks, never played another snap of college football.

His school javelin record still stands.

"My junior year, I went out for track and field," Franklin recalled. "I didn't know anything about OU's 47-game winning streak. I just knew my mother was on the welfare and I was trying to get into pro football or pro track and field. The coaches all called me in. Chuck Fairbanks and Jimmie Johnson said, 'You're done at OU. You're not serious about football.'"

They were basically right. Football was a means to an end, supporting his family. Those coaches didn't know that the only reason Willie was in football at all was because he lost a bet in high school, or excelled as that Chargers ball boy, or that a man named "Mutt" had fished him out of the San Diego backstreets to play juco ball in Arizona.

A few years later Willie would find Christ and confirm what he already knew. Football wasn't that important. But in the late 1960s and early '70s, it was all he had and he played it damn hard. Football and/or track would one day pay him, and maybe one day get his family off welfare. How serious was that?

Edgar "Mutt" Ford had recruited Franklin to Mesa (Ariz.) Community College in the 1960s. Folks in the area weren't tolerant of African-Americans at the time, so seven black players stuffed themselves into a two-bedroom apartment. No one had any money. Willie called one roommate "Big Man." Dude weighed 450 pounds. He would literally break furniture when he sat down.

Big Man's mom would send pies. Big Man would then increase the torture by selling slices for a dollar each. Who had a dollar?

"You talk about starving," Willie said.

It was at that point Willie found an overnight job cleaning streets. He found another job cleaning restaurants. Whatever customers left on their plates became sustenance. What little money he had after rent left him enough to buy those Snickers. Willie figured that if he ran track and wrestled, he would get fed on the road. He became All-American in both football and track.

At that point, coaches began to bring him groceries.

Willie suddenly became a commodity. Heisman winners Mike Garrett and O.J. Simpson recruited him to Southern California. Fairbanks swooped in and got Willie to visit Norman three times. The coach then flew to San Diego to get Dorothy Franklin's signature on the letter of intent.

"Chuck Fairbanks tricked Mother into signing that letter of intent," said sister Mary Franklin. "I didn't want Willie to go back there. I thought he'd get more attention if he went over to the schools in Southern California."

But Willie was loyal. He politely put off Bob Devaney, telling him, honestly, it was too cold at Nebraska. USC's John McKay had turned Willie off, big-timed him, smoking a cigar and letting the assistants do the recruiting and run practice.

"Coach McKay never spoke to me," Willie said. "I wanted a father figure."

Dewitt Franklin wasn't that figure. He was an alcoholic who drifted out of Willie's life after junior high. Fairbanks said he would take care of the vulnerable transfer from Mesa. The stats show that Willie caught nine passes in 1970 in OU's run-heavy wishbone offense. Fairbanks vividly recalls Franklin saving a game that year against Iowa State. But he caught only two balls in '71. For the epic Game of the Century against Nebraska that year, Franklin says he spent the afternoon on the sideline in uniform.

"There's no way they could have covered me man-to-man," Franklin said of the Huskers.

It was hard to prove that on the scout team.

"Larry Lacewell ran scout team for the first-team defense," Franklin added. "He'd go tell the defense that I was running a post route. It was war, every practice, five days a week between me and Lacewell's defense. They were trying to run me off, trying to make me quit."

Franklin doesn't know why he kept showing up, except there was still some sliver of hope that football would provide. Back then, Ron Fletcher was an OU grad assistant. He had played quarterback for Bud Wilkinson's last team and still owns the longest pass completion in OU history (95 yards). Fletcher was also persistent. He would see Franklin each day at the training table and urge him to play in the annual alumni game.

"Aren't you married?" Franklin would say. "Go home and get a life."

Playing in that alumni game was a big deal to Fletcher. The 69-year old didn't stop until 1996, at age 53. But in the spring of 1972, he might have saved Willie Franklin's life and career -- in that order. Franklin eventually relented and played, catching four touchdown passes.

"He was like half animal and half man," Fletcher recalled. "He could run track, play basketball, tennis. A lot of it was motivation to socially climb the ladder."

Baltimore Colts scout Bobby Boyd saw him that day and signed him to a free-agent contract. A year later Fletcher saw him in Norman and asked the bruised, beaten but suddenly solvent Franklin to study the Bible with him. Something took. For Franklin, football truly didn't matter unless it meant earning enough money to get to Bible school.

There are first names that pass through his life -- nicknames, influences, caregivers who nurtured him along just enough to get by. Marcus. That's all the Franklins knew him as. Marcus stole -- a lot. They called him Robin Hood in the neighborhood. When both their parents were away, Marcus would break into a grocery store just so Willie and his 10 siblings could eat. To the Franklin children he was a hero. To society, Marcus was an outlaw.

A few years ago, Willie tracked down Marcus in San Quentin, trying to teach him the Bible.

"I'm too far gone," he said.

Marcus died a few years ago.

"We were so low a submarine would look up," Franklin said of that San Diego upbringing. "We wanted to do something positive with our lives."

Those 11 kids were bound together by strife, welfare checks and their own character. Both parents struggled mightily with alcohol. They eventually divorced. Willie still has siblings who are drug addicts. A few of his brothers and sisters made it out. Gary is in construction. Betty ran a bank. Mary is a successful attorney.

In the 1970s, she was also a radical. They kept reminding her she was one of the first black women to matriculate through the University of San Diego Law School. She was counting on Willie making it in football so he could pay for her education. Is that serious enough?

"Every day, they were denying me, saying they never had a black woman," Mary said of USD. "Every day I would remind them they never had a witch like me. Probably because I was black, skinny and had long hair. I cut all my long hair off, washed it in vinegar to get it to kink up and have that bad Afro, and scare those white folks to death."

Mary is now 59, does public defense work and has that hard place in her heart for Fairbanks. This is where Willie's story turns. The same athlete who was recruited to USC by Garrett and O.J. also didn't have enough money to play Pop Warner football. The same kid who was impressive enough that he warmed up Hadl once told a recruiter, "I can't go to college. I can't read or write."

But in the mid-'60s, Hadl also once told Willie, "Kid, you've got potential."

It was a word he kept hearing over and over as his body filled out. The kid they called "Country" went home and checked himself in the mirror to see what potential looked like. Was it a rash? A blotch? A blemish?

Finally, he concluded, potential must have been something good. People wanted to give him things -- chances, opportunities. A well-dressed man walked up after a Chargers practice and offered to pay his way to college -- whatever college he wanted. No strings.

"I went to my knees and cried," Willie said. "I was overwhelmed."

Then he remembered his mother. As flawed as Dorothy was, she had told her children to never take a handout. "You'll be looking for a handout the rest of your life."

A high school P.E. coach who couldn't believe Willie didn't play football once challenged him to a wrestling match. If the coach won, Willie had to play. The 145-pound coach beat the kid who seemingly could have broken him in two. Willie once wrestled six guys in his neighborhood -- never did say if they were all at once. He never lost. Until that high school challenge.

"[The coach] was the quickest white dude I've ever seen," Willie said. "If you try to throw a guy 145 pounds five yards, that's tiring."

The coach kept getting up, just like Willie had his whole life. He lost the bet and played football for Lincoln, the same school that would produce Marcus Allen and Terrell Davis.

Part of his reluctance was social. Willie had been funneled into special education classes at a young age. Kids called him "retard" and "dummy." In the lunch line they called him "bum" or "beggar" for eating subsidized food his family couldn't pay for itself.

At times Willie had nothing but that body, that potential. In junior high, there were scores of gangs waiting outside after school to slice off the fresh meat. Hispanic gangs, Japanese, black, white. You had to belong or there was a price to pay.

Willie never paid it. As he got older they eventually called him "Country" because he was a big, athletic, gangly kid in high school who didn't know any better. They also called him "Hercules" because that size and gentle strength were enough to keep the gangs and bullies off his block.

After his junior year in high school, officials came through school offering job opportunities for underprivileged kids. It sounded promising. Life was getting too complicated. They had told "Country" he needed a license to fish in California. When his family moved from the Deep South to San Diego, Willie had never heard of such a thing.

"I came from Louisiana," he said. "As long as you avoid the snakes and gators you're all right."

He made $300 that summer washing jocks, shorts and T-shirts as a Chargers ball boy. Hadl and Lance Alworth noticed his athleticism. Potential wasn't just a blemish on Willie's body. One day, that man in a suit came to the house.

One big problem for Mutt Ford. Everyone left their dogs out at night to keep those gangs off the streets. Chubby, the Franklins' dog, was loyal.

"The dog was running him off," Mary remembered, "because those kinds of people don't go into our neighborhood for any legitimate purposes. Chubby was chasing that man away."

Ford eventually was able to explain to Willie that he wanted him to come play football in Arizona. Could Willie Franklin happen these days? How an athlete-turned-preacher couldn't read until age 25 sort of reflects badly on the system that produced him.

But football saved his life, because Willie turned the system in on itself. He used football to get an education. He succeeded because others wouldn't let him quit. That's what he preaches these days. When football cut him loose, he still persevered.

"So many of them," he says now of the modern landscape, "their lives fell apart because they had all their marbles in one bowl."

Maybe there is another child somewhere who will see the qualities of a father in Willie. The qualities that saved a boy and made him a man. Willie Franklin should be bitter. He should never want to see Chuck Fairbanks again. But he did, he does.

If Missouri beats Georgia, James will owe some small piece of gratitude to his father's former tormentor/coach. A few years ago, James took some tutoring from an elderly man who was also working with a grandson at Dallas-area Midlothian High School.

"I used to meet James at 7 in the morning and work with him for an hour or two," Fairbanks said. "I would teach him basic fundamentals. I've been following him even before I started working with him."

Reconciled? Sometimes James' dad still calls the coach who essentially cut him for no good reason. Willie Franklin still calls out of the clear blue sky.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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