There is no debate about Missouri senior quarterback James Franklin’s legacy in the Tigers’ locker room.
He’s an inspiration.
“James is probably one of the toughest kids I’ve ever seen play the game with all the injuries he’s had,” sophomore center Evan Boehm said. “Everything he went through last year, he could have just given up, but he fought back.”
He is a beloved locker room voice.
“James is a great leader — passionate, funny,” senior cornerback E.J. Gaines said.
He’s a unifying force.
“Sometimes, you get a guy who walks in the locker room and he immediately has an impact on the whole team,” senior L’Damian Washington said. “James is that guy.”
But Franklin’s personal assessment isn’t nearly as glowing. His sophomore year was as promise-filled as any Missouri quarterback’s starting debut, but to Franklin, an injury-plagued junior season complicates his legacy.
Even in the midst of a sterling senior year — which included berths into the SEC championship game and now the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma State at 7 p.m. Friday at AT Stadium — a separated shoulder cost Franklin four midseason games.
Still, Franklin’s 8,481 yards of career total offense with one game to play trails only Chase Daniel (13,485) and Brad Smith (13,088) at Missouri.
It’s impressive, but Franklin will always wonder if he could have surpassed both quarterbacks.
“Coming into (my career), it was something that I wanted to break, but a lack of performance and lack of opportunity, being injured and everything, I didn’t get to accomplish that,” Franklin said. “But it is going to be pretty cool in the long run to see that I was up there close to the top.”
Franklin came to the Tigers in 2010 as a much-heralded high school quarterback from Lake Dallas High School in Corinth, Texas. He was rated as the No. 4 dual-threat passer by Rivals.com.
As a sophomore, Franklin had 3,846 yards of total offense, more than any Tiger other than Daniel in a single season, and accounted for 36 touchdowns, which ranks third in a MU season.
Franklin capped his sophomore year by winning the MVP in the Independence Bowl, helping the Tigers wrap up an 8-5 season with a four-game win streak.
Greatness seemed inevitable, but Franklin had offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum he suffered during spring practice. Another shoulder injury in Missouri’s SEC debut against Georgia during the second week of the 2012 season proved crippling.
Franklin, who also dealt with a knee injury and a concussion last season, was never healthy during the final 10 weeks.
“He was about 40 percent some games,” said Franklin’s father, Willie. “He was just playing on mental toughness last year. There was always pain, but he fought it out and toughed it out. He wanted so bad for the team to win and wanted to do whatever he could do.”
Instead, Franklin struggled. The Tigers finished 5-7 and missed a bowl game for the first time in eight years.
Franklin became a lightning rod for fan criticism, especially after coach Gary Pinkel’s pregame quip before a win against Arizona State that Franklin “didn’t want to play” after Franklin refused a pain-killing cortisone injection in his throwing shoulder.
Suddenly, Franklin’s toughness came into question and remained an issue his senior season when he suffered a separated shoulder at Georgia.
Still, with a win in the Cotton Bowl, Missouri’s 2013 squad will match the school record for victories with 12 and have a claim to the greatest season in the program’s 123-year history.
Franklin undoubtedly deserves enormous credit, but that’s not what he says he’ll remember most about his career with the Tigers.
“I think I’ll remember more the life lessons taught to me than my football career,” he said. “Just how to be positive, how to handle adversity, how to turn a negative into a positive and keep pushing through.”
It’s unfair to say that Franklin has become hardened during his time at Missouri. He’s still the same faithful, at-times goofy and always-smiling person as when he arrived.
He’s generous with his time — interacting with young Tigers fans at practice or after games — thoughtful and overly kind. Except during the game, of course.
“James is a lion,” Willie Franklin said. “Have you ever seen those National Geographic shows with the lion just lying there in the grass? Most people don’t understand. They think he’s just lying there sunbathing, but he’s getting ready to go get dinner.
“James may look carefree, but he understands in the big picture what really matters. So he can laugh and he can have fun, but when it’s dinner time, when it’s time to go hunt, he can get focused, because he’s spent time developing that.”
There’s no denying Franklin has changed after four seasons at Missouri. He says now that the adversity he faced — the string of injuries and the social media-fueled negativity he endured — was a blessing.
“There was a lot of negativity,” Franklin said. “There was some stuff on the team and with our own fan base. It was definitely frustrating and got to me, but I’m really thankful for going through those tough times and dealing with that adversity, because it’s really helped me out in life in general.”
Of course, even for a player as levelheaded as Franklin, that was a hard to see that lesson sometimes.
“When he came home last December, they didn’t go to a bowl game and he was home for a long time, he did a lot of soul-searching, kind of preparing his mind,” said Franklin’s mother, Pam. “He was comfortable being at home and getting encouragement that way, but you could see he was trying to process everything.”
Asked if it was hard to watch James endure the criticism he was pelted with as a junior, Willie, a former wide receiver at Oklahoma and later with the NFL’s Baltimore Colts, chimed in: “For his mother, yes.”
“But that’s part of the territory as an athlete,” Willie continued. “Having been through that myself, it was not hard, because that’s part of his maturation and becoming a man. You go from everything is fun and games to having to learn how to lock and load when it’s time to set your mind, set your course and be determined that you’re going to get there. That criticism made him more determined, more focused and made him work harder.”
Rather than back down, James became inspired to turn those negatives into a positive.
“He was resolved to go back and prove the critics wrong,” Pam said. “He was disappointed with how everything went, not just him but for the whole team. He’s worked so hard in the offseason, the spring and summer, to get better.”
Before suffering a separated shoulder when he was driven to the ground early in the fourth quarter at Georgia, James was putting together an incredible senior season. He was making those critics choke on the barbs that once snared him.
While injuries have robbed Franklin of eight starts and tamped down his performance in several other games during the last two seasons, the career numbers still say Franklin has been one of Missouri’s best quarterbacks.
He is 19-11 in his career, including 8-1 as a starter this season. Franklin completed 21 of 37 passes for 303 yards with three touchdowns and an interception in the only loss, a 59-42 defeat to Auburn in the SEC championship game.
Franklin’s 6,788 career passing yards rank fifth at Missouri, but with 172 passing yards or more in the Cotton Bowl, Franklin would pass Jeff Handy (6,959) and Blaine Gabbert (6,822).
As a senior, Franklin has completed 183 of 279 passes — 65.6 percent — for 2,255 yards with 19 touchdowns and only five interceptions in nine starts.
His 152.4 passer efficiency rating is the third best in a single season in Missouri history behind only Daniel in 2008 (159.4) and Phil Johnson in 1990 (154.3). And Franklin is the second highest-rated career passer in Tigers history (139.7) behind only Daniel (148.9).
That seems like a legacy worth remembering, worth celebrating and perhaps even gloating about a bit, but that’s not Franklin’s style.
“He’s pretty hard on himself,” Pam said. “He’s always been that way.”
History almost certainly won’t be so harsh.