Franklin, team see big picture after injury ends career
Johnathan Franklin and Datone Jones always have been more like brothers than teammates.
Five years ago, the Los Angeles area natives purposely committed together to UCLA to change the culture of the program. They ran stadiums every night at midnight when they first arrived and became notorious for their video game battles in Mario Kart, NBA 2K, and NCAA and Madden Football.
When the Packers took both players in last year's NFL draft, they assumed they'd be playing together for at least another four years, but that won't happen.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy announced Thursday afternoon Franklin won't return to the team due to the neck injury he suffered against the Minnesota Vikings last November. Moments later, the 24-year-old running back acknowledged on Twitter his NFL career is over.
"First off I would like to thank everyone who supported me upon getting to this part of my life (it) has been a tremendous blessing," Franklin wrote. "Unfortunately this week I have been ruled out of returning for the 2014/15 season and returning to play in the NFL. But I understand God knows what he is doing and for now he has another platform for me to step upon."
Franklin joins safeties Gary Berry and Nick Collins, receiver Terrence Murphy, guard Tony Palmer and linebacker Jeremy Thompson as former Packers whose careers were cut short due to significant neck injuries since 2000.
Two others — tight end Jermichael Finley and defensive lineman Johnny Jolly — underwent neck fusion surgeries this past year and remain unsigned. So far, only safety Sean Richardson has returned as the fusion of his C-5 and C-6 vertebrae was far enough down the spinal column the Packers felt comfortable enough to clear him.
Franklin's neck injury didn't require surgery, but he also hasn't been cleared to return to the field since sustaining a concussion and neck injury on the opening kickoff of a 26-26 tie with the Vikings on Nov. 24, 2013.
"He's as classy of a young man that's walked through these doors," McCarthy said. "Anybody that's had a chance to get to know him on and off the field, he's a class act. You'll always remember his smile and energy — so positive, his outlook. Just the way he handled this whole process of going through all the different tests and so forth."
Franklin, who finished the season on injured reserve, has received five different medical opinions regarding his neck injury to this point. His agent, Kenny Zuckerman, said they still plan to seek out more experts in the field.
There are a few details to work out, but the Packers are expected waive the former fourth-round pick Friday with an injury designation.
"Everyone knows he's a special guy and that he understood from the get-go that football was something that was going to be a stepping stone to his next career," Zuckerman said. "He understands that, 'Hey, it might just happen a little earlier than expected.' I think he has big plans and I think that if this is the final outcome and he can't play again, then I think that he'll be successful in anything he does."
The news was sobering for both Jones and fellow running back Eddie Lacy, who was expected to be the thunder to Franklin's lightning when the Packers drafted the two backs to revitalize their run game.
Lacy became the first Packers' player to win the NFL offensive rookie of the year award in more than 40 years after a 1,178-yard rushing season while Franklin got off to a slow start.
With both Lacy and James Starks injured, Franklin made the most of his opportunity in rushing for 103 yards in the second half of the Packers' 34-30 loss to Cincinnati in Week 3. He fumbled late in the contest and carried the ball only six times before the incident.
Franklin sent the entire running backs group a text message to inform them of the decision.
"We were definitely sad," Lacy said. "It just makes you cherish the moments that you get to play. We came in together, we got to know each other real good and we spent a lot of time together. He was just starting, and just like that, as fast as you get it, it can be taken away."
The news shocked Jones when he found out Wednesday. They'd known each other since high school and Jones had seen him absorb so many high-impact collisions during his career with the Bruins where he finished as the school's all-time leading rusher.
The two have a very competitive but fun-loving friendship. Franklin would bring his N64 system into the dorms in college and they'd play for hours. On Saturdays, they'd work out together by the dunes near the UCLA campus.
A nagging ankle injury limited Jones' production during his rookie season. A first-round pick with high expectations, he'd drop by Franklin's house in Green Bay whenever he was feeling down.
Although Franklin kept his spirits up after the injury, Jones has tried his best to pay back the favor.
"I talked to him and he said, 'I keep my faith first. I believe if this wasn't it, it was a sign from God that I may have to pursue something else in life. The run was great,'" Jones said. "We all know coming into this game any day your career can be over. It was sad for me because not only is he my neighbor, he's one of my good friends I've known since high school. I know how much we worked for it. It's tough to see it end this way for a guy like that."
Franklin graduated with his degree in political science from UCLA and hopes to one day become the mayor of Los Angeles after growing up in a rough neighborhood and seeing many of his peers fall into trouble.
Franklin always turned to football, but McCarthy, Zuckerman and Jones don't have any doubt about his skill set translating into another field if that's no longer an option.
"Johnathan has the ability to bring people up in a special way," Jones said. "He was a great leader on our football team at UCLA. Not only on the field, but he's a great leader in the communities as well. Johnathan is going to be great. Now, I know for a fact he's going to become the mayor and I'm going to vote for him."
— firstname.lastname@example.org follow him on Twitter @WesHod.