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Featherweight Daniel Franco: 'I'm lucky to be talking to you right now'

Daniel Franco was placed in a medically induced coma after suffering a brain injury in June. Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Daniel Franco is lucky to be alive, and he knows it.

"I definitely think that I did get lucky," Franco said over the phone the other day, only a slight slur to his speech. "I'm lucky to be talking to you right now. I'm lucky to wake up in the morning. I always knew boxing was a dangerous sport. I know that people can die in boxing. I knew that, but I didn't think it would even be this close to happening to me because I was really good."

Franco, who turns 26 on Dec. 22, was an aspiring featherweight when his promoter, Roc Nation Sports, made a deal to put him on another promoter's card and he stepped between the ropes for a CBS Sports Network-televised main event against Jose Haro on June 10 at the WinnaVegas Casino in Sloan, Iowa. Eight rounds later, the fight was over and so too nearly was Franco's life.

Haro (14-1-1, 8 KOs) landed many hard right hands and knocked Franco down twice in the eighth round. The second knockdown, from a right hand near the temple, resulted in a brutal knockout.

Initially, it appeared as if Franco would be fine. He was alert moments later and was moved onto a stool so the ringside doctor could examine him. But it became clear all was not well. Franco had a terrible headache.

He was lain down on the mat, then put on a stretcher and taken from the ring to a waiting ambulance in minutes. About a half hour later he was in surgery to relieve pressure on his swelling brain, which was bleeding in two spots. He was placed in a medically induced coma for more than two weeks. He survived surgery, but a severe infection nearly killed him. He suffered the kind of traumatic brain injury that typically causes death or, at the very least, severe permanent injuries.

So Franco is lucky because, nearly six months and four brain surgeries later, he is still alive. He can care for himself. He can walk, talk and text and is generally healthy. He can hug his parents. He goes to a traumatic brain injury support group. He has dreams of continuing his college education. He should be able to live a mostly normal life even though his career as a professional athlete is over, a development that perhaps is small in the scheme of things but is still upsetting to Franco.

"I'm doing pretty good. I think seeing that my career has ended and I'm no longer able to train and I can't go running, at least not yet, and I used to be active every single day, and now I can't even go for a run to clear my mind, it's upsetting," he said. "I can't drive a car yet. I feel like I'm a little kid. But I feel all right. I don't feel great, and I still get massive headaches. I notice that my speech is still slurred slightly, even though they say that should improve. I want to make a full recovery and be as complete as I can be."

After months in hospitals in Iowa and in Omaha, Nebraska, Franco was allowed to return home to Rancho Cucamonga, California, to continue his recovery. On Dec. 1, Franco (16-2-3, 11 KOs) -- who for the time being must wear a helmet to protect his fragile skull -- will have a fifth surgery in which doctors will cover a section of his skull with an artificial bone plate.

Franco, who has some short-term memory problems, has still not watched the full fight, nor does he plan to, though he has seen clips of it.

He has come a long way from the initial injury and what he called the "complete fog" he was in.

"I'm doing pretty good. I think seeing that my career has ended and I'm no longer able to train and I can't go running, at least not yet, and I used to be active every single day, and now I can't even go for a run to clear my mind, it's upsetting. I can't drive a car yet. I feel like I'm a little kid. But I feel all right. I don't feel great, and I still get massive headaches. I notice that my speech is still slurred slightly, even though they say that should improve."

Daniel Franco

"I didn't even know I got injured, and then one day I put the pieces together as my brain started to get better and better through the rehab process," he said. "I remember asking a friend what happened. He said I lost. I said, 'How did I lose?' He said I got knocked out. I said, 'Let me see it,' but he wouldn't show it to me."

Franco said that his memory problems are improving but that he does not recall the fight at all.

"I don't remember it one bit," he said. "I don't remember the weigh-in. I don't remember lacing up the gloves, going to the ring. I don't remember anything. I watched some highlights of it, but I still haven't watched the whole thing. I've seen the knockout but not the whole fight.

"One day, a couple of months ago, I remembered the password to my iPhone and I Googled the fight. That was the last time I watched any of it. I didn't feel the need to watch because I knew what happened and what I was going through. I don't want to focus on the fight. I want to focus my energy on getting better and then I want to go back to school and finish college. I went for about a year and a half, so I got my feet wet. Now I want to make sure I go back, study psychology and get the best GPA I can possibly get."

Al Franco, Daniel's father (who also was his trainer), is, of course, overjoyed by his son's progress. Since the ordeal began, he has continually posted updates on Daniel's condition on a GoFundMe page as they try to raise money to cover the mounting medical bills.

"He's not the same as he was before, for obvious reasons, but he's good," Al Franco said. "He's laughing, he's talking. But he has to be careful with what he does because he doesn't have the flap [covering a section of his skull]. But in a couple of years, I believe he'll be back close to 100 percent, seeing where he already is now. I'm happy where he's at, considering what happened. Look, when we took him to the hospital and they took us into the chapel and told us he had a brain bleed, I was expecting the worst, being that I've been in boxing for so long."

Al Franco, 50, boxed as an amateur from age 12 until he was 26. Since then, he has trained fighters. He was also close to Frankie Leal, a Mexican featherweight who suffered an eighth-round knockout in a fight with Raul Hirales in October 2013 and died three days later from a brain injury.

"It was horrible, so I didn't say anything to my wife [Teresa]," he said. "Everybody was there, our family, [manager] Ray [Chaparro]. We were praying and hoping for the best, but I was thinking the worst. Everybody I've known -- when this happens, it's bad. But when Daniel came out of his coma and was finally alert and began to speak and move, I thought, 'OK, he's going to be OK.' I knew it would be a long road, but I think he'll be OK. His improvement has been extremely rapid compared to what I thought it would be."

While Franco's recovery continues, the medical bills continue to mount. His purse for the fight was $10,000, and the standard $10,000 in insurance coverage he had was a pittance relative to what was needed. Al Franco said the first day in the hospital cost $180,000. He said that his family insurance has paid for some of the bills and that they have spent $112,000 of their own money but that "right now we're at about $552,000 that we owe and still haven't gotten all the bills yet." And that does not include the upcoming surgery.

Teresa Franco works full-time for Coca-Cola, and Al Franco works as a personal trainer "from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. I'll be dead before I'm finished paying this off unless I win the lottery. If I could find more hours to work, I would. I need to make money. We have medical bills past, present and future, not to mention the rest of the bills."

The family had hoped it would receive assistance from Roc Nation Sports, which is owned by music mogul Jay Z. But the family said the company has not lifted a finger to help in any way.

"I'm happy where he's at, considering what happened. Look, when we took him to the hospital and they took us into the chapel and told us he had a brain bleed, I was expecting the worst, being that I've been in boxing for so long."

Al Franco

It led Daniel Franco to pose for a photo that has been widely circulated on Twitter in which, wearing his helmet, he is seen holding a sign that reads: "I fought every time you asked. I never turned down an opponent. I sacrificed my life, my health, my future. I can't even get a call? Please share!" It ends with #F---ROCNATION.

Franco's injury occurred one week before Roc Nation promoted Andre Ward's rematch with Sergey Kovalev, and Roc Nation promoter Michael Yormark vowed at the final prefight news conference that the company would support Franco in his recovery and with the medical bills. Al Franco said it has done nothing, but he also said he didn't expect Roc Nation to pay the bills. He said all he wanted was for Roc Nation and Jay Z -- with millions of followers on social media -- to publicize their fighter's GoFundMe page.

When they got nowhere with the company, they posted the photo that got its attention and spurred Dino Duva, who works in the boxing department, to call Al Franco and ask him to take it down, with the promise that he'd try to get one of the top executives -- Yormark or Juan Perez -- to get in touch with them. That still has not happened.

"I didn't expect Roc Nation to say, 'Here's $100,000 or $200,000," Al Franco said. "I just wanted them to put up the GoFundMe to help us raise money. Dino Duva told us not to do anything and they'd put out something. So we refrained and didn't talk to anybody, which took away the opportunity right after the fight. Yormark said they'd help us, and we never even got a call."

Duva and Joshua Roy, who also works in the boxing department and was with the Francos the night of the fight, have kept in touch but nobody higher up in the company has.

"They left us high and dry," Al Franco said. "They just forgot about us."

Said Chaparro: "I think it's wrong that Roc Nation has not reached out to Daniel at all. We still hope they'll help Daniel going forward. I've dealt with [promoters] Top Rank and Golden Boy with other fighters, and Roc Nation is a very hard promotional company to deal with, and then not to help Daniel at all, not to help his family raise money? It's an unfortunate situation going on."

Various Roc Nation personnel have repeatedly declined to comment to ESPN.com.

"They said they'd help take care of us and help me in some way. I just wanted them to share my GoFundMe page," Daniel Franco said. "That helps pay the bills and helps my parents out. I don't have a penny to my name, and we have all these bills and it's terrible to see my parents struggle. I feel like it was my fault because boxing was something I loved doing. And I just feel like Roc Nation should have had my back. They should have had Jay Z put this out there. They didn't do a darn thing.

"I really wanted them to call and see what I was going through, and they didn't. It really seems that they don't care about me as a fighter or as a person. I was their fighter. They were part of my team, part of that close-knit family vibe, my trainer, my manager, my promoter. Everyone is supposed to work seamlessly together to get the right fights and get in position to be a world champion, and as soon as the ship sank, they jumped off board. Fighters should know that Roc Nation is not going to be there for you when times get tough."

Donations through the GoFundMe page are close to $58,000. Al Franco said he is "humbled and honored" by strangers who have donated, even if it was only $1.50. He singled out promoter Lou DiBella for his support.

"I've met Lou once, and he's donated and Roc Nation hasn't," he said. "I just want people to know that they should stay away from this company after this catastrophe. ... These guys have no heart."

But Al Franco is at least heartened that Daniel is alive and doing well.

"It's an absolute miracle," he said. "Seeing what has happened to other fighters in this situation, it's absolutely amazing. For him to be where he's at now is amazing. It's a blessing."