Johnathan Franklin grew up in South Central Los Angeles with his mother and sister. A star at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, Franklin always dreamed of playing in the NFL. When he received a scholarship to play for UCLA, he was one step closer to living that dream.
While at UCLA, he set a school record with 4,369 career rushing yards. In 2013, Franklin was drafted in the fourth round by the Green Bay Packers and his dreams of playing professionally had finally come true. Then, a career-ending injury in his rookie season forced Franklin to give up the game he loved and pursue a new career path.
His LinkedIn profile landed him a job here at Notre Dame in Student Welfare and Development. While the journey to Notre Dame hasn't been without heartbreak, Franklin has remained unbelievably positive throughout.
Johnathan shared his story with me.
Tell us about the play that caused your career-ending injury.
We were playing the Minnesota Vikings at home and I was at kick return. It was the first play of the game and they kicked me the ball. I was running with it and pretty much got hit on the crown of my helmet. I didn't know I got hit, I mean he smacked me. I was out on the ground and then when I finally woke up, I remember the ball had come out and I saw the ball moving around but I couldn't move at all to go and grab the ball. Eventually, when the play was over I got my feeling back and jogged to the sideline. After that, it was just a journey of seeing doctors and trying to get cleared to be able to play. Unfortunately, in June of 2014, I had to medically retire.
When you got hit, did you know it was that serious? Or did you think you would just be out for a couple of games?
I got hit and we just thought it was a concussion. We were playing the Lions the following week and they just said you won't be able to play, you have a concussion. But I talked to the doctor a bit about how I couldn't move or couldn't feel anything from my neck down and he had me go get an MRI. So, I went to go get an MRI a week after the Lions game and they saw a bruise around my spinal cord. He didn't know what it was at the time so he asked me to go get another MRI a week later. When we went to go get another MRI, they saw the same bruise so I ended up being on injured reserve. Injured reserve is when you're still on the team but you just aren't able to play for the rest of the season.
So I was on IR and I was like, "Okay, probably God just put me here. It's a learning experience and I'll be back next year." So, I kept getting MRIs and we kept seeing a bruise so he sent me to go see some other doctors. The first doctor told me, "You know, you probably won't be able to play football again." In my head I thought, "This dude is crazy, I'll be back." I went to go see three, four more doctors throughout the country and they all said the same thing. Then, I just had to come to the decision where I had to just retire. I wasn't able to play due to the risk of being paralyzed and not being able to move on my own. I just had to make a life decision.
How tough was it to make that decision to stop playing?
It was tough. A couple of weeks before, we played the Cincinnati Bengals. I was playing kick return the whole season and I was about third string for running backs. The week before the Bengals game, Eddie Lacy, he was our starter, got hurt. James Starks was starting that game and he ended up getting hurt. So, at halftime, coach came in and was like, "Alright, it's time for guys to step up." So, I went in at the half and I was able to rush for 100 yards and score a touchdown. I thought, "Man, this is my moment. I went out, had a great game and I'm gonna be in the league forever."
So, to have that high and a couple weeks later, suffer that injury... It was a humbling moment. It was a life-changing moment. I started playing when I was 10 years old and it was hard to let go - emotionally, the transition financially, and just the group of people around me. Life has been the greatest teacher for me these past couple of months. We all have a purpose, which I realize. I've been blessed to just be drafted and to score and to play in a football game. Don't get me wrong, I miss it and I'm in love with it but my purpose is just to be somewhere else and I'm happy I'm here.
After you made the decision to medically retire, you transitioned from being a player to working in the front office of the Green Bay Packers. How did that job at the Packers come about?
Man, we talk about a purpose. It was about two weeks after I ended up medically retiring. I went on a trip and the president of the Packers randomly e-mailed me. I looked at the e-mail and he asked me to call him. I'm like, he probably just wants to say sorry and, don't get me wrong, I appreciate it but when you hear that so many times, the meaning just isn't as powerful. So, I just called him, I mean it's the president of the Packers, can't ignore that one. So, I gave him a call and he said, "You know we'd love for you to stay around for a year." I thought about it and was like, absolutely. The internship was absolutely amazing. I bounced around to different departments throughout the whole season. From marketing, to human resources, to PR, to community outreach, and really just seeing how the Packers organization was run. So I started there in June and left in the beginning of January of this year.
I read somewhere that during that time you took up tennis lessons and playing the saxophone. Is that true?
Absolutely! I did tennis lessons and started to learn the alto saxophone. I'm pretty good, I'll have to play sometime.
How did you eventually end up working here at Notre Dame?
I'm so thankful. When I was interning at the Packers, I was advised to create a LinkedIn. So I created a LinkedIn in October of 2014 and I didn't have a picture up. I just had my name, no resume or anything. Mike Harrity, the Senior Associate Athletic Director here at Notre Dame, messaged me on LinkedIn. He said, "I read about you, asked around about you, and I would love for you to come to Notre Dame and check it out." So, I ended up coming to Notre Dame a couple weeks after. I came on a Friday and by Sunday, he offered me the job I have now.
Some things are just meant to happen. I just believe that the injury, while I would've loved to play football for 10,15 years or do other things, you know, I'm supposed to be here and it's been a journey. It's no coincidence that the Packers president just e-mailed me and created that position or that Mike Harrity reached out to me on LinkedIn. You know, we all have a journey and I'm happy where I am. It's not the easiest thing, the 9 to 5 and not playing and learning that language and learning how to dress in this business world but I know there's a purpose for where I am today.
What was your initial reaction when Mike Harrity reached out to you and said Notre Dame? Did you have any impressions of Notre Dame at the time?
Growing up in California, you definitely hear about Notre Dame as this prestigious school. I didn't know what to think too much. But I definitely didn't have any second thoughts about hopping on the airplane to come out here and visit. I was excited and it surprised me, the town and the people. It's been great.
Let's talk about your role here at Notre Dame, Community Relations Coordinator for Student-Athlete Welfare and Development. What does your job entail?
I plan and create community outreach programs for all of our student-athletes here on campus. That's just pretty much getting them out into the community and breaking that barrier between the community and Notre Dame. These outreach programs could consist of getting the student-athletes to hang out at the Boys and Girls Club, visiting hospitals and sitting with the patients, going to the homeless shelter, hanging out with kids that might have disabilities, whatever it might be. The goal is to really build relationships with the community and speak life into those kids but also allow our student-athletes to grow, become better people and know their worth and take advantage of the platform they have.
What has been your favorite thing about this position so far?
I really enjoy everything. I think that it's so powerful going out into the community and seeing people that might be less fortunate and might not have what we have. Seeing the student-athletes go out into the community, their faces just light up. It might be at the homeless shelter, where these residents might not know where the next meal will come from or where they might stay the next day. You know, we come over there and they just completely forget where they are or what's going on in their life. I think that's very meaningful. I mean, that's what life is all about. Regardless of the money, who you are, what your name is, who you know... Changing people's lives is one of the most important things and it's one of those things money can't buy.
In the future, where do you see yourself? Would you ever consider trying to get back into football as a coach?
Honestly, I was just having this conversation earlier. Whatever life has for me. I'm about living life to the fullest. I think getting hurt so suddenly in football has allowed me to just live moment by moment and take it day by day. Don't get me wrong, I have dreams and aspirations but you just never know what life has for you. I guess my dream and my goal is to just get everything I can out of today and change as many lives and make the biggest impact. If I'm blessed to live another day tomorrow, then I'll do that and when the time comes to move on somewhere else, if that's needed, then I'll do that.
Have you ever been to a Notre Dame football game?
No, never in my life.
So your first one will be this season?
I can't wait. Everyone's been talking about football season and how crazy it gets.
What are you expecting from the football scene at Notre Dame?
I'm excited for some wins definitely, as everyone else is. I'm excited to tailgate, I've never tailgated before in my life. You know, just that atmosphere. Football season is a good time regardless of where you are. People have been talking about some high expectations just enjoyment and entertainment-wise. You know, it starts on Thursday night and goes until the end of Sunday. So, I'm just excited to really see what it's all about.
You just saw the all-green Shamrock Series uniforms. What do you think?
They're amazing, I like them. I want to get out there and play in them!