Orlando Franklin: Holding the line

Photo: Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports

He’s making millions now protecting Peyton, but Franklin’s most important deal was signed 11 years ago in Toronto

Orlando Franklin is 15 years old and he’s about to sign the most important contract of his life. It’s summer 2002, and he’s sitting at the kitchen table in his family’s two-bedroom home, a community housing unit in the north end of Toronto. Franklin’s mom is the only other person present. He draws up the terms. “I, Orlando Franklin, promise my mother, Sylvia Allen, that I will never get in trouble with the police again.” A day earlier, Franklin’s lanky, six-foot-four frame was locked in a jail cell. He’d spent weeks there. “I promise to dedicate myself to football,” Franklin writes. Then he signs it, “sincerely.”

That piece of paper, now yellowed and sitting somewhere in Sylvia Allen’s kitchen in Montego Bay, doesn’t expire. That its significance outweighs all other binding agreements is a telling admission from a 26-year-old who signed a four-year, $4.35-million deal with the Denver Broncos two years ago. Franklin is now known as “Big O,” and he’s one of the most coveted guards in the NFL, tasked with protecting arguably football’s most valuable asset ever—and certainly the most fretted-over neck in sports—in Peyton Manning. But Big O wouldn’t have his multi-million-dollar deal if he hadn’t drawn up his own terms 11 years ago.

Imagine that: From a rough childhood to the big leagues. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. But Franklin’s is not your typical story of rags to riches, even if he knows both sides. His is not a typical story about how football saved a troubled kid, even if it did.

Franklin was so young when “the crap” started that he doesn’t remember all the details. He grew up poor in Kingston, Jamaica, with his mom and his older brother, Kingsley Levy. Franklin didn’t know his dad when he was little. They met when he was big—really big—at 19. He moved to Toronto when he was four because Sylvia wanted a better life for the family, and she’d found a steady job there, working six days a week at a garage. They rented a two-bedroom basement apartment in the city’s north end with a Canadian man Sylvia married, “so she could get her papers,” Kingsley says. Sylvia worked long hours to make sure there was food on the table. “Nothing came easy,” she says. But life got a lot harder three years later, after she and her husband got into what she calls “an argument.” Franklin, then seven, Kingsley, then 13, and Sylvia packed what little they had into one suitcase and moved to a homeless shelter. “We had nowhere else to go,” she says.

For six weeks, the family lived in a shelter for battered women. Kingsley walked Franklin to school every day. Neither boy remembers much else, but both think they were there closer to six months. It certainly felt like six months.

That same year, Franklin discovered his outlet—and, unbeknownst to him, his way out—when he cried until his mom let him play football. By then, the family lived in community housing, and seven-year-old Franklin wanted to play because he kept seeing a kid in the neighbourhood walking home in his Scarborough Thunder football equipment. Sylvia’s hesitance wasn’t because of the cost; the Thunder never denies a kid for financial reasons. She figured he’d get hurt. “He was skinny, and he always cried and cried,” Sylvia says. “He’s very emotional, Orlando. Did he tell you that?” No, Franklin—who today is six-foot-seven and 320 lb., with massive tattooed arms, a neck that might be thicker than his head, and eyes with off-centre pupils that are terrifying when not accompanied by a smile—didn’t mention it. But yes, he is emotional (“He’s always had a big heart,” is how his childhood coach puts it), and when he got into football, he wasn’t much taller than your average seven-year-old. That same childhood coach, Roberto Allen, known to all in football circles as Coach Bubba, didn’t have the foresight that size and intimidation would come in spades later in Franklin’s life, but he did start his new recruit at offensive and defensive line from day one. Coach Bubba’s reasoning: “He had this crazy determination.”

Football was Franklin’s escape, same as it is for countless kids. In his Victoria Park and Sheppard neighbourhood, stealing cars and breaking into people’s homes was, in his eyes, part of growing up. “I fell into the system,” Franklin says after an afternoon practice, three days before the Broncos won their sixth straight game to start the season. “Growing up where I did, it’s a matter of time, to be honest with you.” With his mom working long hours, Franklin looked up to his older brother and watched him get arrested and go to jail. “Great role model, right?” Kingsley says. Sylvia says when she got on Franklin’s case about staying out of trouble, he didn’t want to hear it, so at age nine he asked to move to a group home. He says he lived there for a year and a half. Franklin had moved back home when police came looking for him for the first time. The charge was robbery. He was 12 and in Grade 7. Sylvia, who describes herself as “no-nonsense” and “fierce,” bailed her son out the next day and gave him yet another talking-to. Franklin got off on the charges, but the trouble persisted. At Timothy Eaton Business and Technical Institute, his high school, Franklin figures he was suspended more than 30 times before they gave up and kicked him out.

The low point for Franklin spurred the high point. At 15, he was arrested for breaking and entering, possession of a stolen vehicle and robbery. Police came to the family home again looking for him. When Kingsley heard the charges, he punched his brother in the face, right in front of the cops. (He’s still surprised they didn’t react.) “I was disappointed in him,” Kingsley says from Calgary, where he now works in construction. “I had my own struggles, but I knew: You don’t get into trouble. And I told him, “We can’t have both of us going down this path. Make a decision.” This time, his mom refused to bail him out. “That’s where you want to be?” Sylvia said during one of their daily phone calls. “You’ll live there.” Kingsley tried to convince his mom to go get his brother, but for six weeks, Franklin sat in a young offenders cell (he remembers it being two weeks). And while he was there, he actually thought about his future. He thought about football. He says that stint in the kids’ big house taught him the most valuable lesson he ever learned. “It was hard, knowing your mom won’t come get you, but I thank her,” Franklin says. “When I had opportunities after that to get myself in trouble, I was like, dang, my mom left me in there for weeks. How long is she going to leave me in there if I get myself into trouble again?”

The day after his release, Sylvia asked her son where he saw himself in two years. She knew the answer, she had seen the difference in him on the field, the way he “played from the inside, with his heart.” Not to mention his skill. Franklin’s matchups on the O- and D-line were often downright unfair, even before he was a teenager. “He was wearing my size-12 shoes when he was 12, and he was my height, six-foot-one, when I was 18,” Kingsley says. He remembers his brother’s growth spurts better than anybody—they often had to share a bed. “Then he kept growing, he got out of control. I’m like, whoa, shoot—this kid is bigger than me now!” But what set Franklin apart from other massive kids on the field is that he wasn’t just taking up space. He was quick and athletic, and he could outrun smaller players, says Coach Bubba. By the time Franklin hit peewee—ages 15 and 16—he started to fill out. “He’d destroy kids,” the coach says. “It was pretty scary.” Adds Kingsley: “Pancakes all day, baby!”

Franklin recognized he could go somewhere with the game and get a college education. His plan, where he saw his future, was on the football field. For his senior year, his mom agreed to move with him to Florida to increase his chance of a scholarship and get more exposure to Div. I schools—but only after he promised to stay out of trouble, and put it in writing. Put it in a contract. “I’d been through so much, and I let him know, ‘I’m doing this for you,’” Sylvia says. “I left my whole life behind.” At 16, Franklin moved to Delray Beach. “My mom made the ultimate sacrifice,” Franklin says. “She never gave up on me.”

As a senior at Atlantic High School, the Canadian impressed. Coaches there had never seen an O-lineman block the D-linemen then take on the linebackers at level two, run downfield and protect the running backs at level three. He drew full scholarship offers from more than 70 Div. I schools. And Franklin steered clear of trouble. “I saw that everything could be a reality,” he says. “I knew the poor side of life, and I didn’t want to go back to that. I knew I would get an opportunity to go to college for free, and I took that very seriously.”

Franklin chose the University of Miami, a short drive for his mom. He starred on the field with a coveted combination of size, quickness and a long reach. Big O became the first freshman player in the school’s history to start every game, a fact he points out. “I don’t want to toot my own horn, but…” In his senior year, Franklin was a second-team all-ACC selection and led “The U” with 61 of those pancake blocks.

Since Franklin broke into the NFL in 2011 and started all 16 games as a rookie, he has been tasked with protecting two of the most talked about quarterbacks in history. First, Tim Tebow, and now, Archie’s 37-year-old son with the four-times surgically repaired neck. This season, Franklin’s playing a pivotal role on a high-scoring Broncos team that’s chasing history and has potential to go down as one of the greatest offences, if not teams, ever. It’s Super Bowl or bust in Denver, one of the last chances Manning has at title No. 2. And for the linemen who protect him, the job is only getting harder. They’re banged up. Three starters, including Franklin, were out of the lineup in week seven when the Broncos suffered their first loss. They’ve also got two division games remaining against a Kansas City Chiefs team that boasts the NFL’s best pass rush and is flirting with the all-time sack record. Big O returned to the lineup in week eight, and he’s again charged with the thankless task of keeping Manning healthy and on his feet, a job that only earns him notice when he screws up. But he’s having a hell of a time doing it. Franklin didn’t have tears in his eyes on the bench while trainers looked at his sprained left ankle a couple weeks ago because it hurt. Like his mom says, he’s emotional.

And when it’s all over, in the off-season, Franklin returns to Toronto for five months. He has a condo there, even though his family is long gone. He comes back to hang out with old friends. Most NFL GMs fret when players return to their old neighbourhoods, because a lot can happen. But Franklin visits schools and group homes in Toronto to talk to kids, so they don’t repeat his mistakes. “All my life, people told me I wasn’t even going to graduate high school,” Franklin says. He points out he has a degree in psychology from the University of Miami.

On Canada Day, Franklin brought fireworks to his old stomping ground at Victoria Park and Sheppard and set them off for kids and families in the neighbourhood. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. He never saw fireworks when he was little.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.