For Ja’Mion Franklin, earning a scholarship to play football at the University of Notre Dame was a dream come true, but chronic injury, inconsistent playing time and a bout with COVID-19 turned that dream into a nightmare.
When Franklin committed to Notre Dame, he said the opportunity was “everything he could ever ask for,” but on Oct. 29, following three years of physically and emotionally challenging seasons with the Fighting Irish, Franklin announced he was entering the transfer portal. The defensive tackle released a statement, reading in part:
“I have felt that I have lost control of my mental capacity and I feel that I need to take time to gather and reevaluate myself. The process of rebuilding myself from the ground up is a much needed step in this stage of my life. I love the game of football and I have no doubt that I will be back and better than I ever was, but for the time being, I need to regain control of my life.”
Franklin had been frustrated by a lack of playing time and as a result was struggling with his confidence. Questions concerning his physical and mental health weighed heavily on him, leading those on the outside to question how a once-ideal situation had turned into anything but, in such a short period of time.
In 2017, Franklin was a three-star recruit at North Caroline High School in the small town of Ridgely, Maryland. As a 6-2, 300-pound senior, Franklin excelled on the basketball court, as well as the gridiron. Off the field, he was known for his indelible spirit; he was a big man with fast feet and a smile bright enough to light up a room. To his small community, he was more than a football player, he represented possibility; he was an example of what could be.
“I try to be a voice of reason and a source of hope for my community,” Franklin said. “I have my town tattooed on me, so I really take it to heart to represent where I’m from. It means a lot to me to be able to give everybody the vision that you can do whatever you want in life if you’re willing to work for it.”
Franklin was considered a difference-making prospect at North Caroline. During his final season, he registered 45 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 3 pass breakups and a blocked punt. He was strong at the point of attack, could anchor a defensive line and was able to push the pocket to create interior quarterback pressures. He held offers from 17 major collegiate programs including Wisconsin, Boston College and Pitt, but earning the right to put on a Notre Dame jersey was an accomplishment almost beyond his realm of imagination.
“It’s such a small town where I come from, and I never thought coming from this rural place in Maryland that I’d be able to reach such high goals and aspirations of attracting the interests of a school like Notre Dame, and then earning a scholarship was just mind-blowing to me,” Franklin said.
Once in South Bend, Franklin made an instant impression on the coaching staff, prompting Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea to say, “Ja’Mion really was a guy that was able to play for us.” But in a game versus Wake Forest, his promise came tumbling down when he suffered a significant quad injury that would ultimately end his freshman year after just five plays on the field.
The Irish finished the 2018 regular season 12-0, securing their first ever spot in the College Football Playoff. Franklin was thankful to be a part of the team but disappointed to not be actively contributing to its on-field success.
“It was amazing walking into AT&T stadium. The year before, I had been playing in front of maybe 5,000, so it was just crazy to be there,” Franklin said. “I’d be lying though if I said I wasn’t disappointed -- I wanted to play, but because of my injury, I was on the sidelines.”
By 2019, Notre Dame had lost several key defensive linemen to the draft, so despite his injury and subsequent nine-month rehab, Franklin was again in position to be a difference-maker. But training camp didn’t go as he hoped and as internal competition at his position earned additional reps, Franklin found himself sliding down the depth chart. As opposed to fighting for a starting role, he notched a grand total of just 119 snaps and ended the season with four tackles.
What was slated to be his comeback campaign turned into anything but, and the big man with the bright smile felt a portion of himself slipping away.
“Given what I’d already been through, with the injury and rehab, and then not getting a chance to play, things just continued to add up,” Franklin said. “I felt like I started neglecting the most important part of my life, and that’s my mental [health].”
Entering 2020, Franklin was healthy and prepared to prove once and for all that he could live up to the potential he flashed in his freshman campaign, but his third season was derailed before it started.
The coronavirus pandemic swept through the country, threatening to cancel the college football season entirely. Initially, only two Power Five conferences were set to play; the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences. Notre Dame, which is traditionally an independent in football, quickly called an audible, joining the ACC.
In early September, just two games into the season, Notre Dame suffered a COVID outbreak. Ahead of its Sept. 19 blowout victory over South Florida, the team held a pregame meal together, and as head coach Brian Kelly said, COVID “spread like wildfire” through the team. All total, 18 student-athletes tested positive, 25 were placed in isolation and 14 in quarantine -- one of them was Franklin.
“At Notre Dame, we test every week, and then certain weeks you get selected for random testing on top of that,” Franklin said. “The week I got it, it was weird because I had tested negative three times, then I started feeling bad. But I thought to myself, ‘there’s no way this could be the virus,’ because of my test results.
“Then I got contact-traced by one of my teammates and on the fourth day of isolation, boom, there was the positive test. It had been living inside of me for an entire week.”
Many of Franklin’s teammates who tested positive were asymptomatic, but for Franklin, the virus was “like a really extreme flu.”
“The first three or four days were bad. I had fever and body aches. I have asthma, that’s my underlying condition, so it really affected my breathing and respiration,” Franklin said. “My cough was pretty bad, and I broke out with a rash all over my body. My face and the insides of my ears were itching bad. It wasn’t like any sickness I’d dealt with before.”
Franklin’s battle with COVID was another setback in a line of setbacks. Many of his teammates returned to the field within one-to-two weeks, but for Franklin, it was closer to three. And when he did make his way back, he wasn’t the same. Physically, his body was still recovering, but what plagued him more was the uncertainty he was experiencing in his mind.
“I felt like I wasn’t where I was before. I attempted to make a comeback, but I felt like there was no way I could do it,” Franklin said. “I was experiencing all these thoughts -- I was constantly overthinking and the stressors weren’t going away. It was affecting me to the point I was putting so much pressure on myself that I couldn’t perform the way I expect out of myself.”
According to licensed professional counselor Aaron R. Whitehead, what Franklin was experiencing was common for student-athletes who have been through extreme physical or emotional trauma. Though some may initially be motivated by the idea of overcoming the obstacle, if the trauma is not properly addressed, it can develop into paranoia and lead to varying states of depression.
“Trauma can affect a student-athlete’s confidence and ability to focus or concentrate. It can cause them to feel disconnected, lead them to isolating and withdrawing from their team and other social activities. Feeling an overwhelming sense of pressure is a part of the equation,” Whitehead said.
“If someone we care for is experiencing this, it’s imperative we be on watch for changes of behavior. Is the student-athlete generally a loud person who then becomes quiet? Are they usually in a group but begin isolating? Do they hang out with certain players then stop? Behavioral changes are the best predictor that a student-athlete could be on the verge of a mental health crisis.”
Even after defeating the virus physically, Franklin remained fearful that he could make all the right decisions: wear a mask, wash his hands, social distance, and still not escape being infected again. To protect himself, he sought a reality in which he wouldn’t need to expose himself to members of the student population who weren’t a part of the team’s bubble. He applied and got approved for remote classes so that on any given day, he would only need to travel from his home to the team facility.
Despite his myriad safety precautions, Franklin could not escape the thoughts pervasive in his mind.
“The overthinking and the stress just wasn’t going away and it was hurting my game,” Franklin said. “It wasn’t about what was going on on the field. I wasn’t overthinking assignment, alignment and technique -- for me it was all about my health. I was constantly asking myself, ‘how do I feel? Will I be able to make this play? Will I be able to do this and still feel alright?’ I was beginning to question my physical health and safety.”
The mental and emotional toil of overcoming the virus mixed with the pressure associated with getting back on par with his teammates in a shortened, fast-paced season was more than Franklin desired to endure. He wasn’t progressing in his role on the team and felt he needed to step away from the game, reconnect with his family and focus on himself.
“Given what I’d been through, sacrificed and endured, I just felt like a fresh start is what I needed,” Franklin said. “The first conversation I had was with my father. That’s my rock, that’s who I go to. That’s the perfect example of a man for me. I told him I was considering leaving Notre Dame, that I wasn’t getting the opportunities I felt I deserved, and after fighting this virus, I didn’t know that I ever would. I needed to get my mental right. He, my aunt and my mom all had strong and encouraging words of support. They told me to take care of myself first before anything else, and that’s what I’ve been doing.
“I’ve been seeing a sports psych, somebody who is really experienced with dealing with guys in my situation who feel this way. I never really looked into or realized how much mental health really meant or what my situation was until I started talking to these people. They helped me become more aware of what I’m dealing with and that I’m not alone and that a lot of people go through it.”
After three years of physical pain and emotional growth, Franklin is walking away from Notre Dame but not from football. He believes now that he is older and more mature, he’ll be able to find a school and situation more in line with his needs.
“Wherever I go, I want to be able to contribute,” Franklin said. “I know I have a lot of dominant football still in me. I’m healthy, my confidence is at an all-time high and I know wherever I go, I’m going to give them my all and make a difference both on and off the field.”
Franklin may not have found that on-field success at Notre Dame, but he believes he discovered something far more valuable; the importance of mental health, a message he intends to share with other student-athletes who may be going through similar situations.
“The first thing I’d say to anyone else experiencing what I’ve overcome is, ‘Lions don’t lose sleep over the opinions of sheep,’” Franklin said. “There’s going to be a lot of people in your ear who don’t believe you’re facing the things you’re facing, but mental health is serious. I was one of the people who neglected it, and it put me in a place I don’t ever want to be again, so don’t be scared to reach out for help. Just continue to fight, pray and ask for help. You’re never alone. You won’t be the first or last to go through what you’re going through, so be sure to take care of yourself.”
In overcoming his physical ailments and becoming an advocate for mental health, Ja’Mion Franklin continues to serve as a positive example for his community. The big man’s bright smile has returned.