Down in Bourbonnais, one of the handful of players who stuck around the longest to sign autographs for fans after training camp practices was the starting quarterback and hopeful savior of a franchise that’s been mired at the bottom of its division for years.
Another was a fourth-string cornerback who had never played that position before May and has an extremely difficult path to make it in the NFL.
“Most of the time I’m out here with Mitch (Trubisky), like the last person,” John Franklin III said. “I’d rather have people know me than people not know me. So that’s a good thing.”
You might know Franklin as the super-talented Florida State quarterback transfer in Season One of “Last Chance U” on Netflix. A low point of Franklin’s life played out in living rooms across the world as he played sporadically behind Wyatt Roberts at East Mississippi Community College, but the south Florida native turned that strife into a lesson in persistence.
From East Mississippi Community College, Franklin transferred to Auburn, where he stayed as a quarterback but didn’t see the field much. He graduated from Auburn and transferred to play his final year of college ball at Florida Atlantic, where Lane Kiffin gave him a shot at playing wide receiver. He didn’t put up the kind of production as either a quarterback or a receiver to get drafted, but his excellent speed is a trait that got him into rookie minicamp.
After failing to secure a gig with the Seattle Seahawks at their rookie minicamp, the Bears brought Franklin to Halas Hall as a defensive back for a tryout a week later. He signed shortly after, and here he is, trying to figure out how to make it in the NFL at a position he’s never played on a side of the ball he was completely unfamiliar with until May.
“People are so quick to quit when it doesn’t work the first time,” Franklin said. “It’s like, if you really give up and it didn’t work, then you really didn’t want it. If you keep pushing, it’s going to happen. Life’s not going to be peaches and cream, but you get what you get.”
Defensive backs coach Ed Donatell couldn’t recall ever seeing a player make the switch from offense to cornerback without any prior defensive experience before, let alone for a rookie battling to make a roster.
“It doesn’t come up that much and usually they have some kind of training in there,” Donatell said. “Nothing comes to mind.
“But why not us? Why can’t we?”
This isn’t a story about a player who is likely to important to the Bears’ success in 2018, like Trubisky or Allen Robinson or Leonard Floyd or Kyle Fuller. The odds are massively stacked against Franklin, especially after he was picked on by Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Auden Tate in last week’s preseason game (he did, too, have a nice break-up of a pass intended for Ka’Raun White). The stuff Franklin is learning right now are second nature to most NFL cornerbacks who’ve played the position — or at least, played on defense — their entire football lives.
“I definitely feel like I was in good position most of the night, I just gotta — I know one thing I’m focusing on is getting my head around,” Franklin said. “That’s one thing that I still haven’t felt 100 percent comfortable with and that’s one of the things a lot of the vets are working with me on is to make sure I get my head around because most of the time I’m in a good position. Just finding the ball is still very new to me.”
Training camp and preseason practices, then, present a difficult dichotomy for Franklin. On one hand, he knows he has to be patient as he learns an entirely new job that he likened to “trying to write with your non-dominant hand.” On the other hand, he has to show considerable progress to even be considered for a spot on a practice squad, let alone a 53-man roster.
While Franklin has seen himself make significant progress on tape over the last few months and weeks, he knows he’s not where he needs to be or where he thinks he can be. It’s sort of a race against time for him, because rookies who don’t make a roster or practice squad usually don’t get a second chance in the league.
“He’s such a willing soul,” Donatell said. “He came in here, he’s taking everything in, the veterans are helping him. But he has a skillset that you can see him doing things on the other side of the football that we want to translate to defense. … It’s a race for us right now and a race through this month, and he’s willing. We see progress every day. Time will tell how much.”
What Franklin puts on tape in these final three preseason games — Saturday against the Denver Broncos, Aug. 25 against the Kansas City Chiefs and Aug. 30 against the Buffalo Bills — will be critically important to his chances of sticking in some capacity in the NFL when the regular season starts.
Taking a step back, the task seems almost impossible. This is a guy who played quarterback his whole life, then moonlighted as a receiver for a year, and now is trying to make it in the NFL playing cornerback. It would be a remarkable feat if Franklin were to make a practice squad and allow himself more weeks and months to develop.
But there’s no doubting Franklin’s desire to make it work. He wants to make it work to live out his dream of playing in the NFL, one he’s had since he was four. He wants to make it work to repay his parents for all they did for him. He wants to make it work to be an inspiration to others to never give up on their goals.
Will it work? We’ll see. But it’s not in Franklin’s nature to give up, no matter how much of a longshot he may be.
“I’m accepting the challenge,” Franklin said. “Doing something different at the highest level of football ain’t easy by any means.
“But it’s also doable and possible.”