UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin in pursuit of excellence

Here’s the feature I wrote on Johnathan Franklin’s rushing-record chase and mayoral ambitions. It also ran online and in print Thursday, but I pasted it here too for anyone who missed it otherwise.

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The first nickname was born in 1999, on a dirt track in Los Angeles.

Johnathan Franklin, then in fifth grade and new to football, raced another kid in his neighborhood. As he took off, his feet struck the earth, kicking up clods behind him like a frothy trail. “Jet Ski” stuck.

Franklin now is a redshirt senior and one of the oldest players on the UCLA roster. He measures a shade below 6 feet, a solid frame bookended by bowling-ball shoulders. Below a thin mustache is his wide, ever-present smile, one befitting a politician or preacher.

He’s also on the cusp of one of the great records in school history: career rushing yards, last set at 3,731 by former Gardena High standout Gaston Green in 1987. With four regular-season games left, Franklin needs just 21 more yards to reach first place.

UCLA is not a place where athletic success generally goes unrecognized. The school earned its 100th Division I title in 2007, when the women’s water polo team won the third of its five consecutive trophies. The Bruins’ total haul across all sports has since upped to 108, a record that is a loud point of pride for the campus.

In other words, UCLA has won so much it needs an 8,000-square foot Hall of Fame in the center of campus to contain the overwhelming evidence.

And still, there has been little to no buildup surrounding Franklin’s attack on the record books. No flashy, heavily produced videos to promote the upcoming game against Arizona. No mention in athletic director Dan Guerrero’s weekly e-mail newsletter.

Franklin doesn’t mind. When he does break the record – which he could very well do the next time he touches the ball – he likely will give credit in this order: God, his offensive line, his wide receivers, his coaches, God.

A month ago, when a New York Post columnist asked him about being in the Heisman conversation, Franklin said: “I have more important things in my life.”

That he does.

The second nickname is more than a decade younger, conceived in the rooms of Los Angeles City Hall. In January 2011, Franklin started an internship shadowing Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

For a month and a half, Franklin followed the mayor for almost six hours a day. He went along to weekly meetings, interacting with the police department, fire department, community developers and various other employees and citizens.

He once sat in on a Chamber of Commerce meeting with Councilman Herb Wesson. As two dozen odd people tossed around ideas and questions concerning everything from education to homelessness, something clicked. Franklin realized he wanted to help the people of Los Angeles.

So Johnathan Franklin became known as “The Mayor.” He’s serious about the goal, far off as it might be. Before the deadline last week, he reminded teammates to register to vote. He even convinced his suitemates, quarterback Brett Hundley and redshirt sophomore Librado Boracio, to watch one of the three presidential debates with him.

He’s also motivated by his own childhood, spent not far from an area of Los Angeles known as “The Jungle” – originally for its palm trees, but eventually for its chaos. Baldwin Village takes up less than a square mile southeast of La Brea Avenue and Coliseum Street, but it’s notorious as home turf for the Black P. Stones gang. In 2001, it became one of the main settings of “Training Day,” which won Denzel Washington an Oscar for playing a corrupt cop.

Franklin lived outside the truly frightening areas, and his mother tried her best to keep him in the house when he wasn’t going to school or football practice. But he heard the violence.

“Helicopters every night. Police sirens,” he said. “It was to the point where if I heard one of my friends or somebody got shot, it was like `Oh, OK.’ It was something we were used to. It just happened.

“It’s so sad and it’s crazy to hear, but that was everyday life.”

He thinks he can make a difference, and maybe he’s right. Franklin is a natural talker. Through his freshman to junior years, he often frequented slam poetry lounges. As a senior at Dorsey High, he was featured in the BET reality show “Baldwin Hills.”

When he can, he tries to go back to his neighborhood and speak. He has received invitations from churches and children’s groups and embraces the task of being a role model.

“I want to have my voice actually mean something,” he says. “To be able to enforce things.”

“Nothing in this world is impossible,” Franklin continues. “If you put in the right effort and the time and have patience, things will get changed and things will get done.”

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  • Bruinriceball

    Nice article. Not to nitpick but: “The second nickname is more than a decade younger”–Do you mean when Franklin was a decade younger or that the nickname precedes “Jetski” by a decade making the nickname a decade older?

    • http://twitter.com/thejackwang Jack Wang

      The latter. Should have written that more clearly.

  • William Miller

    Sometimes we tend to forget that there are good people trying to make the world a better place with motives beyond self service.

  • g.granillo

    Nice article! Franklin is a great Bruin, and an even better person! Good job Jack!

    • maze949

      Go back to BN, you little puke. You bad-mouth players ALL the time over there. Scumbag…

      • gregg granillo

        Well, even though i’m always on BN, can you tell me when I have ever bad mouthed a player?….I haven’t. I’m at every game…cheering my ass of when others are booing our sitting! I’ll tell you what I sit in sec 3L, row 5…. Stop by and talk tough then. See what a “little puke” I am, if you have the balls.

  • Corry

    Great article!

  • EncinitasBruin

    Nice article, Jack. Franklin is a class act, and makes me proud to be a UCLA alum.