John Franklin

John Franklin III may be a longshot to make the Bears, but the former ‘Last Chance U’ star isn’t giving up on his dream

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John Franklin III may be a longshot to make the Bears, but the former ‘Last Chance U’ star isn’t giving up on his dream

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.”

'Last Chance U' star John Franklin III keeps fighting as he looks to make Bears as a defensive back

'Last Chance U' star John Franklin III keeps fighting as he looks to make Bears as a defensive back

Most of the undrafted free agents and rookie minicamp tryout guys floating around the NFL right now are anonymous faces in large crowds of players. Then there’s John Franklin III.

“Yeah, even the guys on the team come up to me when I walk around and are like, you were on that show,” Franklin said. “I hear that literally two or three times a day, literally every day.”

That show is “Last Chance U,” the Netflix documentary about East Mississippi Community College's football team on which Franklin starred in 2016. Franklin transferred to EMCC from Florida State after being buried on the Seminoles’ depth chart; after one season largely spent as a backup behind Wyatt Roberts under coach Buddy Stephens in Scooba, Miss., Franklin transferred to Auburn. He played as a backup quarterback there in 2016, then transferred to Florida Atlantic and played wide receiver in 2017. 

Franklin was not picked in April’s NFL Draft but tried out at the Seattle Seahawks’ rookie minicamp as a defensive back. He didn’t earn a contract there, so he tried out again last weekend, also as a defensive back, at the Bears’ rookie minicamp. On Sunday, he signed a contract with the Bears.

And on Wednesday, he and his jovial, positive personality spent a few moments expounding on how he wound up in Chicago in a “last chance camp” of sorts. 

“I’m a fighter, I’m a competitor and I’m a winner so that alone helps, and I got a chance to show that on the show,” Franklin said. 

We’ll get into Franklin’s chances later of actually sticking on an NFL roster while learning an entirely new position on an unfamiliar side of the ball. But Franklin figured out — in front of the cameras for the whole world to see — while at EMCC that he had to have a certain persistence and mental toughness if he wanted to stick with football. 

“From when I was a little kid, I’ve always been very persistent,” Franklin said. “If there was something I really wanted, I always made sure I did whatever I had to do to get it. And that’s going back from being, like, four years old — if I wanted a piece of candy, I’m gonna get my piece of candy one way or another, you know what I’m saying?” 

But Franklin admitted he considered giving up football while at EMCC, and said the year that was so thoroughly documented on “Last Chance U” was a “low point” in his life. 

“That was where I actually grew the most, in that low point,” Franklin said. “I kind of got myself together and was like, bro, you can do this, you wouldn’t be in this position if you couldn’t. And then as I look back on my journey, I’m like man, God’s really faithful and really good because every time a door closes, another one opens right after. It doesn’t happen like that all the time for everybody, but it happened for me. And I’m truly blessed to have that, be chosen to do that.”

Franklin didn’t produce much as a wide receiver last year, catching seven passes for 95 yards, but his off-the-charts athleticism still showed up with 659 yards on 62 carries over 23 games at Auburn and FAU (10.6 yards per carry). Franklin claimed he ran a 4.19 second 40-yard dash in February, and while he ran an official 4.44 second 40-yard dash at the National Scouting Combine (which is not the NFL Combine), the point is this: He’s fast.

And, as the Bears see it, fast enough to be given a shot as a cornerback. 

So that brings us back to this question: What chance does Franklin actually have of making an NFL roster or practice squad, specifically with the Bears?

“It’s definitely tough running forward for most of your life and now you’re running backwards,” Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “It’s definitely tough. (Defensive backs coach) Ed Donatell is great with details and great at coaching guys. I think this is the best spot for him to be because of the coaching.”

Franklin is confident he can make the switch because he’s not only played wide receiver, but also quarterback, giving him a good knowledge of what opposing players will try to do to him as a defensive back. But he’s not yet at the point where that knowledge will be an advantage, because he’s in such a nascent stage of his development as a defensive player. 

“Rome wasn’t built in one day,” Franklin said. “It’s like learning a new language for me. Learning how to run backwards instead of forwards, that’s different. I just take it day by day and I really try to focus on one thing and get better at that, and then once I get better at it I can move on to the next thing.” 

Franklin’s goal is to make the Bears’ 53-man roster out of training camp, which may seem lofty — but this is a guy whose goal was to win the Heisman Trophy in college, whether he was at Florida State, Auburn or FAU. So maybe don’t be quick to count out the “Last Chance U” guy who’s on his third position in the last three years. 

“If your goals aren’t big enough to where it’s not something to strive for, then what are you doing,” Franklin said. “You know what I’m saying? That’s something to push forward to. Nobody can ever have higher expectations for me than I have for myself. I always believe that if you don’t believe in yourself, then nobody should believe in you.” 

Bears announce the signings of five tryout players

Bears announce the signings of five tryout players

The Chicago Bears announced the signings of five tryout players Monday, including receiver Matt Fleming, offensive linemen Jeremi Hall and Matt McCants, and defensive backs John Franklin III and Tyrin Holloway.

To make room for the moves, the Bears released Travis Averill and Cameron Lee and linebackers Howard Jones and Nyles Morgan.

Matt Nagy made it clear at the start of rookie minicamp that unheralded players will get a fair look from his coaching staff, and he stayed true to his word.

The most intriguing name among the new Bears is Fleming, a Division-III pass-catcher who made the rare decision to turn pro early despite his status as a small-school player. He was a productive receiver at Benedictine, finishing 2017 with 45 catches for 731 yards and 10 touchdowns. He caught Nagy's eye early in the minicamp and was singled out for his play. 

Fleming will add more juice to the receiver group. He was a four-time All-American in track and field and he'll need every bit of that speed to crack the final roster at the end of training camp. He's not the biggest guy (6-foot, 180 pounds) and he's joining a crowded depth chart that includes Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller and Kevin White as locks to make the team. Bennie Fowler and Joshua Bellamy will be tough to unseat, too. 

Still, Fleming and the rest of the newly signed Bears represent a great story and will be fun to follow in training camp.