He gave the perfect description.
“My coaches here was mouth-dropped,” John Franklin said. “They was shocked. There was like, ‘Is he serious?’ They couldn’t believe what I was doing.”
It happened late last summer when Central State opened its preseason football camp with four days of drills and brotherhood at the Scioto Hills Christian Camp outside Wheelersburg in southern Ohio.
“The guys live in cabins,” CSU coach Cedric Pearl said. “There’s no TV, no Internet, but there’s a lot of bonding. One way is with the newcomers and rookie talent show we have every year. Most of the kids sing or dance or maybe imitate the coaching staff. It’s pretty much the typical things football players do.”
Franklin recalls some of the guys last summer “goofing around, dancing, singing things like The Temptations’ ‘Just My Imagination’ and beatboxing.”
Then it was his turn.
Most of the other players and the coaches knew little about him. He was a senior transfer from Stillman College, the historically black school (HBCU) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had played three years before the Tigers dropped their football program for financial reasons.
Although Franklin was an undersized defensive end — 6-foot-1, 235 pounds — he quickly proved he had oversized talent.
With his deep, rich voice, he sang “Lasciatemi morire” from the 1608 Italian opera L’Arianna by Claudio Monteverdi.
“It was just like one of those ‘awe’ moments on The Voice,” said Pearl. “You know how on that show you see these people come out from the back and their voice doesn’t match what you see?
“Well, that’s what happened with John. When somebody tells you they’re gonna sing, you don’t expect it to be operatic or in another language. Nothing like that.
“He drew a crowd. The staff came over, the workers from the back came out. Everybody just sat down and listened. Nobody could believe what they were hearing. It was amazing!”
Franklin remembers “the players started laughing at first, but about two seconds into the song everybody got silent and they were like ‘Man, this guy really can sing!’ ”
Since then he has sung some R&B and gospel songs for them, too.
And along with it, he’s offered a message:
“I try to give a lesson with it. I’m like. ‘You can laugh at me or look at me differently, I don’t care. One day I could sing opera and make a million dollars a year.’
“I want them to understand that whatever talent you have, never hide it.”
And Franklin has plenty of talent, some of which the past few years he’s shown off at some fabled places — be it football at Chicago’s Soldier Field or singing at Carnegie Hall in midtown Manhattan.
This school year he not only led the Marauders football team in quarterback sacks and tackles for a loss, but he has been part of the internationally-acclaimed Central State Choir, which, over the years, has been nominated for a Grammy, toured Europe, been to South America, sung across the United States, been the guest of First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House and been featured at Ohio Governor John Kasich’s inauguration.
The 45-member choir is also a frequent headliner around the Miami Valley and next Sunday it will put on a show at the Phillip’s Temple CME Church (3620 Shiloh Springs Road) in Trotwood.
CSU choir director Jeremy Winston said he hopes to have an orchestra there as his group does excerpts from Felix Mendelssohn’s great oratorio “Elijah,” as well as familiar gospel songs and spirituals, other classical music and some tunes from movies.
Winston said while he’s had a few other athletes over the years try out for choir, they usually have found they “have to make a choice” because of the demands and conflicting schedules of the two time-consuming ventures.
“John is the first athlete who has been fairly consistent in being able to do both,” Winston said.
Then again, he’s done it before.
At Stillman he also played football and sang in the choir.
As a high school student back home in Tampa, he did the same at the Howard W. Blake School for the Arts.
“He’s a full baritone and those aren’t easy to come by,” Winston said. “He’s not somebody who just sings R&B, he sings classical. I was a little surprised at the quality of his voice. He’s got a great voice. He’s clearly had some training and knows what he’s doing.”
‘A troubled kid’
That wasn’t always the case when he was growing up, Franklin said.
He was raised “in the projects” by his mom, Chassey Graham, a hard-working woman who still handles two jobs, as a Hillsborough County Public Schools bus driver and a city bus driver in Tampa.
Franklin said his dad was not around: “Truthfully, my dad had been a dope boy who came out of New York. I love him to death, but we’ve barely talked over the years.”
During elementary school and in middle school Franklin described himself as “a troubled kid.”
His mom agreed:
“He was spoiled and wanted attention,” she said by phone the other morning from her parked bus in Tampa. “He went to school and wanted to be the class clown. It was the same in middle school and then he began fighting.”
As Franklin explained: “People used to pick on me, so I was like, ‘OK, I might as well be with the ‘hood.’ I decided to do like those guys in the street.”
Eventually he was sent to an alternative school and that’s when his mom laid down the law:
“I told him, ‘This is where you need to change it. You need to turn your life back around.’ ”
That happened, mother and son both say, when John got to high school and, for the first time, signed up to play football.
“Everything changed for me,” he said. “Mentors came out of everywhere and they really guided me the right way.”
The first, he said, was the school’s choir teacher who invited him to a tryout, was impressed by his rendition of the gospel song “Father Can You Hear Me?” and ended up teaching him lessons of music and life.
“I started to believe, ‘Man, I really can sing,’ ” Franklin said. “It gave me confidence in myself.”
As a junior, he said he got a solo superior singing at state competition in Florida and the following year he was named a Hillsborough County All-Star in football. Although he had a presidential scholarship to Florida A&M University, he instead accepted a football offer from Stillman College and, two days later, he said he got a call from the school’s choir director.
“He said, ‘Mr. Franklin, I understand you can sing,’ ” Franklin grinned. “He had me audition right there on the phone. I sang opera and when I finished, he was like, ‘I can’t believe you sound as pure on the phone!’ Right there, he asked me to join the choir.”
Although Franklin said he did have to bypass certain choir trips because of his football commitments, he said he did tour parts of the country with the vocal group and did sing at Carnegie Hall.
“I loved it at Stillman,” he said.
That’s why, his mom said, “He was very depressed when they decided to end football after his junior year. I told him, ‘Baby, go ahead and finish your degree there.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I know Mom, but what if somebody grabbed me and said I could come play football for them?’ I’m not done with it yet. I want to o see what I can do.’ ”
Central State ended up getting Franklin and former Stillman quarterback Mikiel Clemons, and because their former school had disbanded its football program, the pair could play immediately last season.
“John did everything we asked of him,” Pearl said. “He’s undersized, so he plays with a chip on his shoulder. He’s mild-mannered until he gets on the field and then he has a real mean streak.”
Franklin said his football mindset was nurtured by a high school line coach that had played in the NFL:
“He instilled in me, ‘You’re a shark. A shark don’t care what color you are. What race you are. He’s gonna eat you alive.’ And that’s how I feel on the field. Attack. Attack. I want to be like a shark going after the quarterback. I want to eat ‘em alive.”
Career in opera?
As he sat in the Hall of Fame room at CSU’s Beacom/Lewis Gym, Franklin decided to rattle the gleaming trophies with his golden pipes.
“I actually want to sing a little bit so you can gear,” he said quietly.
And after clearing his throat, he filled the room with his deep-voiced operatic lament from L’Arianna. Then, after a moment of silence to regroup and switch genres, he warbled John Legend’s “Ordinary People.”
Just as Pearl had said, it was another “awe” moment and this time it drew some fellow students to the Hall of Fame door.
Franklin’s been a focal point on the CSU campus almost since he arrived. Along with playing football, being an Alpha Phi Alpha member and mentoring other students, he’s known for wearing a suit and tie to class.
And when he sang at the school’s talent show this year, he made everybody take notice.
Back home it’s been no different, especially for his mom, to whom he gave a surprise concert on her 40th birthday two years ago.
“He sang some R&B and Happy Birthday, too, and he had me crying like a baby,” she said.
Franklin holds his mother on a pedestal: “She is everything to me. She’s done everything in her power to keep me and my younger sisters and brother afloat. She worked two or more jobs so we never wanted for anything. I call her my Mama Queen.”
Chassey said she’s told her daughters, Franita and Tatyana, and son Khalil to use their bother as a role model: “I said follow what he’s done. Go to college. Make something of yourselves. I’ve always struggled and gone through multiple jobs. Be better than me. Do like your brother.”
Franklin hopes for a chance to make the Canadian Football League and possibly forge a career in opera, as well.
“And even if those careers don’t work out for me, I’ll have my psychology degree and I feel I can help others pursue their career,” he said. “I had mentors who helped me and now I can be a mentor to someone else. I’ll tell them what I know. I’ll let them know you can be lost-minded. You got to have something special going for you. You need some tricks of the trade.”
He has a few and that prompted one final question:
So what does he like doing better? Hitting an elusive quarterback or hitting a difficult-to-reach note?
He thought just a second and laughed:
“Oh hittin’ the quarterback, for sure. Like I said, be a shark…Attack…Hit ‘em hard…Real hard.”
And sometimes, if he hits them hard enough, he gets the quarterback to hit the high note for him.
And that, too, can leave the coaches mouth-dropped.