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Johnathan Franklin savors a happy return

UCLA FOOTBALL

UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin was ready to leave for the NFL after his junior season. But he had a change of heart, and he's enjoyed a record-setting season and a resurgence of Bruins football.

December 21, 2012|By Chris Foster
  • UCLA tailback Jonathan Franklin breaks through the tackle attempt of Washington State linebacker Cyrus Coen on Nov. 10.
UCLA tailback Jonathan Franklin breaks through the tackle attempt of Washington… (Dean Hare / Associated Press )

There is a tremendous view from Johnathan Franklin's office.

A throng of people pass by along Bruin Walk, that ribbon of concrete that separates the Morgan Center and Wooden Center on the UCLA campus. Franklin, the Bruins' senior running back, sits on the steps outside Wooden Center enjoying the scene.

A student calls out to him. A few others give him a "hi-there" wave. A teammate, joking, asks that he pose for a photo. The sun is shining. It's a beautiful day.

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This is where Franklin conducts business when not running through opposing defenses or visiting the Mattel Children's Hospital or finishing the final class to get his degree. He doesn't seek the spotlight, but it has certainly focused on him this season.

"I love hanging out right here," says Franklin, who has claimed that spot since he came to UCLA. "It's cool to get to know as many students as you can."

One stops, shouts "hello," and takes a photo. The meet-and-greet comes naturally to a political science major who says he plans on someday being mayor of Los Angeles.

A UCLA season that almost didn't happen became one that gets Franklin recognized in restaurants. He was ready in January to declare for the NFL draft, but some soul-searching kept him in Westwood.

Few career moves work out this well.

Franklin has broken the UCLA career and single-season rushing records. His 1,700 yards are fifth-most in the nation this season. He was named second-team All-American by the Associated Press and was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award.

More important to him, the Bruins beat USC, reached the Pac-12 championship game and came oh-so-close to their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1999. It has made sitting on those campus steps anything but a mundane day at the office.

"People come by and say, 'Great job, we've been waiting for this,'" Franklin said. "The morale on campus is unbelievable. Everyone is happy. Everyone is smiling."

Franklin beams most of all. After sweating in a program that lacked direction the previous four years, he has relished a season in which the Bruins are 9-4 and won the Pac-12 South.

Franklin has deep religious convictions, insists that his success comes from God's "blessings" and is rooted in his teammates' gritty work.

Remaining out of the spotlight is impossible at this point.

Franklin and roommate Librado Barocio walked into the cafeteria at their dormitory days after beating Utah. The other students stopped eating and broke into an "eight clap," the UCLA cheer.

"They started a 'Johnathan' chant right after that," said Barocio, a defensive back. "Johnathan would never admit that. He's too humble."

Franklin was more humbled a year ago. He felt he had reached the end after the Bruins lost to Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

He had 1,127 yards rushing as a sophomore and 976 as a junior last season. From his redshirt season through his junior year, UCLA had a 21-30 record, including four losses to rival USC.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do," Franklin said. "We had been through so much adversity here. The coaching was up and down. Guys' attitudes weren't there."

Franklin saw Rahim Moore, a friend since childhood and former UCLA teammate, having success in the NFL with the Denver Broncos. Moore made the jump after his junior year in 2010.

"I thought I wanted to leave," Franklin said.

First, though, he met with Jim Mora, the Bruins' newly hired coach.

"We talked for about a half-hour," Mora said. "I learned what a special human being he is. That decision was hard for him."

Franklin talked with his mother, teammates and prayed. He came back a few days later and told Mora he was staying.

"I really didn't feel peace about leaving," Franklin said.

What happened can be argued was the most productive season a UCLA running back has ever had, highlighted by a 171-yard performance in a 38-28 victory over USC.

"I go back to the neighborhood where I grew up and people are wearing UCLA T-shirts," said Franklin, who played at Los Angeles Dorsey High School.

Quarterback Brett Hundley, Franklin's other roommate, said, "He can't walk across campus without drawing attention. It's amazing what can change in a couple of months."

Franklin gained 214 yards rushing against Rice in the season opener. A week later, he had 217 yards in a 36-30 victory over Nebraska, the sixth-most by a running back against the Cornhuskers.

He walked into a restaurant days later and was stunned to be greeted by so many strangers who recognized him.

"I was like, 'Wow, it is such a blessing,' to know where I was last year and how everything is right now," Franklin said. He also knew, "There's a responsibility that comes with that. You have to keep your life in order."

Guard Jeff Baca got Franklin involved with the children's hospital last year. He has been a regular visitor since. Franklin and Hundley dropped by last week.

"He is just a softhearted man," Hundley said. "You see him wanting to help those kids who have not had the privileges he has had, it humbles you."

Franklin simply said: "It makes you appreciate everything you got."

What Franklin has right now is a future in the NFL. Beyond that? Well, "mayor" has a nice ring.

For now, sitting on the steps watching the UCLA world meander by on Bruin Walk is enough.

"You can see that there is a big difference from past years," Franklin said. "Bruins Nation is coming back. It makes me mindful of the choices I make."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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