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How Duke DT Ja’Mion Franklin saved father’s life and is now supporting sick mother

Charlotte Observer - 11/1/2022

His mind and body having already been through so much, Ja’Mion Franklin asked even more of himself last spring.

Franklin, a starting defensive tackle for Duke football, needed to improve his strength and conditioning to be a factor in what he hoped would be a turnaround season for the Blue Devils.

While he put in the work to accomplish that, he also traveled home to Maryland’s Eastern Shore for two extended visits after his mother, Latoya, was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.

He accompanied her to medical appointments. He helped her move safely around the house. He made sure she ate — not an easy thing while going through chemotherapy. He held her hand as they watched TV on the sofa.

“I just had to be a good son,” Franklin said.

This wasn’t Franklin’s first time caring for a sick parent. While this year’s effort included mostly time, energy and emotional support, four years ago, his method of care was much more tangible.

As a high school senior, Franklin donated stem cells that helped push his father’s acute myeloid leukemia into remission.

“He will always be my hero for saving my life,” James Franklin said. “Forever. I always tease him and say, ‘You’re my dad now ‘cause I am reborn with your stem cells.’”

‘Everything just kind of piled up’

The eldest child in a working-class family, Ja’Mion Franklin grew up fast — maybe too fast.

In high school, he was a football standout headed to Notre Dame on a scholarship, but he continued to work extra shifts at his part-time job at Walmart so his mother, a nursing home dietary aide, could be off work to take care of his father. He made sure his younger sister, Jamiya, got to school.

And he missed part of his senior basketball season due to the stem cell donation procedures, a three-month process that included giving himself injections into his stomach.

“I hate needles,” he said, adding, “I’ll just man up and do it myself.”

The stress of the treatments, and all they entailed, manifested itself when he moved to Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., in 2018. Franklin suffered through an injury-plagued freshman season with the Fighting Irish that led to little playing time as a sophomore. He remained concerned about his father’s health.

“Everything just kind of piled up on me and being 11 hours away from home, that’s still in the front of my mind,” Franklin said. “And then finally, you know, getting hurt, my mental health just started to kind of deteriorate.”

After a bout with COVID-19 impacted his 2020 season at Notre Dame, Franklin knew he needed help. He released a statement saying he’d “lost control of my mental capacity” and he “needed to regain control of my life.”

Franklin entered the NCAA transfer portal, received treatment from a sports psychologist, and landed closer to home at Duke.

When his mother’s illness hit last spring, he was better prepared mentally, emotionally and physically. He kept Duke coach Mike Elko and the team’s executive director of athletic medicine, Hap Zarzour, informed as he navigated not only his conditioning and school work, but his family situation.

“Unfortunately, but fortunately, being through it before,” Franklin said, “I knew what to do and what not to do, as far as reaching out when I was feeling a certain kind of way and communicating my feelings and keeping Hap and coach Elko involved on where I was at mentally. It really all played into it.”

‘You look like an NFL defensive lineman’

This year, Franklin worked closely with David Feeley — who took over as Duke football’s strength and conditioning coach when Elko was hired last December — to improve his body. Franklin added strength and cut 10-15 pounds, so he’s now playing between 300 and 305 pounds.

After Duke’s spring practice, Elko noticed Franklin’s improved play, telling him, “You are 300 pounds and you’re moving around, playing the way that I know you’re capable of. You look like an NFL defensive lineman, but when you’re heavier and you’re not making the plays, you just look like any other other average guy.”

Franklin appreciated that frank assessment from Elko, who was Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator when Franklin committed to play for the Irish.

His mother’s illness continued to weigh on him, though. The family set up a GoFundMe page to help with medical expenses since James Franklin’s illness had drained most of their resources.

Ja’Mion Franklin found a way to return home and maintain his improved conditioning. He also managed the stress better so as not to overwhelm him emotionally.

“When any kind of emotions or feelings started creeping in and pushing me back into that hole that I climbed out of, I knew that I needed to get some help,” Ja’Mion Franklin said. “Being 22 and having all that experience now is definitely a lot different than when I was 17 dealing with everything.”

‘Day to day’

Duke’s season started with a 30-0 win over Temple, and the defense pitched its first shutout against an FBS opponent since 1989. From that night forward, Ja’Mion Franklin has been one of the Blue Devils’ starting defensive tackles, playing a major role in Duke’s success.

“I knew he was talented from high school,” Elko said. “I recruited him and signed him to Notre Dame. We always believed he was a talented player. I think we just kind of got back the best version of him.”

James and Latoya Franklin long to see their son play in person. Through all their health concerns, they only got to see him play once in college, and that was when he played for Notre Dame and was injured in a game at Wake Forest.

The family is working on attending Duke’s home game with Wake Forest on Nov. 26, the team’s final home game, and senior night.

But there’s no guarantee they can make it happen. After surgery to remove her tumors in July, Latoya Franklin started a six-week radiation regimen on Oct. 3.

“Me and Latoya are doing the best we can,” James Franklin said. “It’s been rough but we just live day to day, thanking the Lord that we are still here. We will, God willing, be at Ja’Mion’s senior night with other family and can’t wait to see him play in person.”

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