Five years ago, Daniel Franklin emerged from the mountains of north Georgia as one of the top linebacker prospects in the nation.
He signed with Oklahoma, which had just won its second consecutive Big 12 Championship a month earlier. Franklin had his football life mapped out. "Honestly, I thought I was going to come in, start as a freshman, be an All-American and be here three years and get drafted," Franklin said.
Of course he would. Franklin ranked No. 92 on the ESPN 150, behind Andrew Luck (No. 61) and ahead of Mark Ingram (No. 108).
Ingram won a Heisman. Luck finished second twice. Franklin? Something funny happened on his way to the NFL draft. By the five-star, blue-chip, stat-maven, Roger Goodell-hugging metric, Franklin didn't pan out.
In four seasons, he never started a game at linebacker. He spent last season as the long snapper on the punt team. In his entire career at Oklahoma, Franklin made one tackle. and that came in the next-to-last game of his final regular season. Franklin spent five years going from Sure Thing to Sure Wasn't.
And Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops wants a locker room full of Daniel Franklins.
"He did contribute," Stoops said the other day. "He was always positive, even when he wasn't playing as much as he had hoped. It takes a whole group of players like that to have a team. And not everybody is going to be the star. Not everyone is going to start. But your better teams have players like that who contribute in whatever ways they are able."
Franklin recalled the feeling he had when he arrived at Oklahoma and saw the size and speed of linebackers like Ryan Reynolds and Travis Lewis. He redshirted as a freshman. Fall turned into spring into summer. Another season came and went. Franklin began to understand that his football career had veered off the route he had mapped.
There was the play in practice when he raced full speed in the open field to take on tailback DeMarco Murray, now of the Dallas Cowboys. He juked, and Franklin went down like he had hurt himself. There was the day in the spring of his sophomore year when Ryan Broyles lined up in the slot and ran past Franklin to catch a 40-yard touchdown pass -- three times.
That was a long day.
"It got to the point where I was just totally incapable of making a play," Franklin said. "I felt like the quarterback knew, 'Hey, if Daniel's covering the slot, we're throwing it to him.' I just felt like I couldn't cover receivers. I just totally felt out-athleted."
Franklin thought he would be one of those guys. Broyles, now of the Detroit Lions, showed him he wasn't. Franklin went home to Georgia and mentally, at least, curled into a fetal position.
"That summer was the hardest mentally for me, the hardest thing I went through in my time at OU," Franklin said. "I kind of realized then that I wasn't going to be able to play here. It was just difficult, very difficult. I questioned, should I be at OU? Should I transfer some place where I can play? And you know the answer to that was a resounding no. I knew I wanted to stay at Oklahoma. I loved it. I loved the team. I loved the guys. I was not interested in going anywhere else."
He did contribute. He was always positive, even when he wasn't playing as much as he had hoped. It takes a whole group of players like that to have a team. And not everybody is going to be the star. Not everyone is going to start. But your better teams have players like that who contribute in whatever ways they are able.
"-- OU coach Bob Stoops on Daniel Franklin
Franklin returned to school and controlled what he could control. He worked hard. He lettered in weight-room spirit. He soothed the fears of the younger guys, all of whom arrived thinking they would be All-Americans.
At the end of his redshirt junior year, Franklin thought about quitting. Oklahoma had a graduate assistant job open. Franklin had his degree in multidisciplinary studies. But the Sooners needed a long snapper. He had done some of that at Habersham Central High. He volunteered. He did his job and he did it in all 13 games.
And he finally got that tackle, against archrival Oklahoma State. He snapped the ball, ran downfield and brought down the returner. A hustle play.
"Even though it didn't pan out for me football-wise, I really thought my experience at OU was incredible," Franklin said. "I mean, even now, looking back, I really hate that it's over. I really enjoyed every minute of it … I really felt like the coaching staff developed me into a man. When I came here, I was just intellectually a child. I really feel like they really played a pivotal role in turning me into the person I am today. And really, I can't thank them enough for that."
Franklin will leave Oklahoma with an undergraduate degree, a master's degree, a spot in law school (he's still deciding which one), and a wife, former Sooner golfer Chelsey Collins. You could make the case that Franklin got more from Oklahoma than Oklahoma got from Franklin. You would get an argument from the head coach.
"So you have to remind yourself why are you in it," Stoops said. "That may not be popular in the media. You still gotta win. But never lose track of the beauty of the kids and the purity of college sports as opposed to the NFL. When you remind yourself of that periodically, it matters."
When you hear "purity" and "college sports" in the same sentence, there's usually "lack of" in there somewhere. But somewhere in its core, beneath the money and the ambition and the ego, there's still a coach pulling something out of a kid he didn't know was there. Sometimes it's a hug from the NFL commissioner. Sometimes it's law school.