September 23, 2017
Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks is a country boy trying to make it big with the Gators. He was raised to handle the expectations back home in Wakulla County.
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Ginger and Don Franks are sitting this one out. They plan to hang around their five-acre spread in rural Wakulla County, located about 30 minutes south of Tallahassee.
The parents of Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks have two important games on their schedule Saturday. Their oldest son, Jordan, is a tight end for UCF. The Knights play at Maryland in the afternoon. And on Saturday night, they will watch Feleipe make his first career Southeastern Conference road start when the Gators play at Kentucky.
A week ago, they were all at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium when Feleipe earned a place in Gators football lore forever with a game-winning 63-yard Hail Mary to receiver Tyrie Cleveland on the final play of regulation, lifting the Gators to a 26-20 victory over Tennessee that electrified ‘The Swamp’ and sent fans into the streets in a frenzy.
“I’m still hoarse,” Don Franks said Friday. “When I saw him plant, I knew he was going deep.”
The Franks family arrived at the game at different times, so they were not sitting together when Feleipe showed off his strong right arm and arched a ball 70 yards in the air that Cleveland ran under and caught in the end zone.
Feleipe Franks, left, and older brother Jordan as young boys. (Photos courtesy of Ginger Franks)
Don was in the stands behind the Tennessee bench. He saw the throw but not the catch.
“I could hear it,” he said.
Meanwhile, UCF’s game last weekend at home against Georgia Tech was cancelled after Hurricane Irma rumbled through town, allowing Jordan Franks and a teammate to make the drive up from Orlando. It was the first time that Jordan, two years older than Feleipe, saw his brother play in person since they were teammates at Wakulla High in 2012 and ’13.
The trip was worth it.
“First time seeing him and he does that,” Jordan said.
Ginger Franks suspected it might rain during the game and grabbed a seat near Florida offensive lineman Brett Heggie‘s mom underneath the overhang in the seats behind the south end zone. She nervously awaited as the final nine seconds played out on the field.
Her reaction was much different than those around her after the thrilling finish. Her motherly instincts outweighed her fandom.
“I just stood there and watched him,” Ginger said. “I just wanted to watch him take it all in. I stood up there for the longest time. It was like a relief, ‘OK, he can do this now.’ He’s been doing that forever.”
In a matter of nine ticks off the clock, Franks and Cleveland teamed for what is now considered one of the greatest plays in school history. An instant classic. A pass-and-catch that has been watched millions of time on social media, television and the internet the past seven days.
Publicly, Franks has revealed a steady and easy-going demeanor in his 20 months at UF, the country kid who grew up taking care of horses and playing in the pasture with his older brother. Sometimes, because of circumstances out of his control, it’s easy to forget the 6-foot-5, 227-pound Franks is the most highly-recruited quarterback on the roster and one who arrived at UF with great promise.
Franks made a similar play his sophomore season at Wakulla High in 2013 when he threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Keith Gavin, now a sophomore receiver at Florida State, to defeat rival Navarre with 4.9 seconds left.
“Feleipe has never played any position other than quarterback,” Don said. “He always had that strong arm.”
We finally saw Franks rewarded for his patience and behind-the-scenes work to be prepared for a moment like Saturday’s. He certainly seemed to enjoy it as he ran around the field celebrating with teammates, high-fiving fans along the sideline and flashing the big smile his family is used to.
“Seeing the upside is really exciting for the guys,” Franks said. “I feel a ton more comfortable in the offense. Every single day it’s getting better and better. We never gave up, that’s what the main thing was. We had a bunch of fight in us.”
Ginger was never much of a football fan growing up in Melbourne, Fla., but after she met Don while he was stationed at Patrick Air Force Base, she had no choice.
Don played baseball at McNeese State in the early 1980s and his younger brother, Kerry Franks, was a running back at Oklahoma State from 1980-82. Don and Kerry grew up in Orange, Texas, and over the years as Don and Ginger raised their family in Florida, Kerry and his wife, Natasha, did the same in Texas.
Kerry’s sons served as role models for Jordan and Feleipe. Kerry Franks Jr. was a solid receiver and kick returner at Texas A&M from 2004-07. Middle son Jacoby Franks had more than 80 career catches at Texas Tech from 2008-11, and Trey Franks, the youngest, played running back/defensive back at Oklahoma from 2010-13.
Feleipe never strayed far from family, nor did he want to.
“I was a big family guy,” he said. “We would always be just at the house. We were always outside. We hung out together and that was our life.”
Franks received his first scholarship offer from Clemson as a freshman. The offers soon began to pour in as Franks’ stature grew by leading Wakulla to new heights. He originally committed to LSU but changed to Florida after developing a relationship with head coach Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier when McElwain was hired in December 2014.
Besides playing football, Franks grew up playing baseball and basketball. He stopped playing basketball after his sophomore season of high school but continued as a pitcher/right fielder in baseball, showcasing his right arm with 92-mph fastballs.
Franks initially considered trying to play baseball at UF as well and had preliminary talks with head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, but understanding the demands of playing quarterback at the FBS level, he focused on developing as a quarterback.
The calmness he showed on the final play against the Vols is indicative of his comfort zone expanding.
“He’s got confidence in himself, he’s got confidence in the guys around him,” McElwain said. “I think him growing up playing all the different sports and being the guy that had the ball on the mound, being the quarterback playing in championships I think that has a lot to do with it.”
Ginger Franks has no doubts her youngest son is putting in the time. When Feleipe first left home and joined the Gators in the spring of 2016, she noticed the charges on the data plan she had for her cell phone were out of control.
She soon discovered why.
“We would be out to dinner and he’s looking at film on his phone while we’re eating,” Ginger said. “I had to switch it to unlimited.”
Nothing has changed.
Ginger came to Gainesville to stay with Feleipe and his girlfriend while Hurricane Irma passed through town two weekends ago. Fortunately, they had power throughout the storm.
The hours slowly moved along as they waited for Irma to pass, stuck inside as night turned to day. Feleipe used the time wisely, dissecting film from his first career start against Michigan and practice film.
“He doesn’t like to be inside. It’s very hard to get him to sit and watch TV unless it’s film,” Ginger said. “That’s all he was doing. Finally, I said, ‘can we watch something else other than film?’ I was done.”
The next step for Franks is to prove he is not a one-hit wonder. The Gators’ quarterback woes have harassed the program for the better part of a decade.
The story feels as old as Albert.
Franks has the size, arm strength and mobility to succeed at the position and re-establish it as a strength of the program. The primary knock on him has been he is slow to read through his progressions. But signs of improvement are there. He finished 18 of 28 for 212 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against Tennessee.
While most of his passes were short throws, he said he was about to take off running on the final play when he spotted Cleveland behind a defender.
“I feel like this past summer he took a big part in just learning the offense and building chemistry with his teammates and working hard not letting anything get into his mind and letting the outside people bring him down,” Cleveland said. “I feel like his confidence is very high right now.”
The No. 20-ranked Gators (1-1, 1-0) face an undefeated Kentucky team (3-0, 1-0) on Saturday in quest of its first win in the series since 1986. The Wildcats would like nothing more than to spoil Franks’ first SEC road start and stop any momentum the Gators gathered from last week’s jolt of energy.
Feleipe Franks, left, with mom Ginger and brother Jordan. After watching film of the Tennessee win, McElwain pointed out six plays where Franks could have made a better decision by just taking what the defense gives you. Still, he knows for the Gators to crank up the offense, Franks needs a longer leash to be able to make plays downfield with that rocket arm.
It’s not all missed opportunities on film. Franks has come a long way since exiting spring atop the depth chart and then having to battle newcomer Malik Zaire and incumbent Luke Del Rio for the job in fall camp.
“It’s just kind of a complete maturation and body of work from the time he was here as an early enrollee. He’s done a good job of getting better, especially with his feet,” McElwain said. “You know he’s got to make three of those six [missed plays]. Then he’s got to make four of those six and then five of those six and then he’s got to be six-for-six. When you start to do that you’re going to have a pretty good deal going.”
Sophomore offensive lineman Jawaan Taylor is a believer. Taylor liked Franks’ presence in the huddle before the Hail Mary. More than that, Taylor is buoyed by the way Franks is being more expressive and confident around his teammates.
Franks was beginning to show those traits after he was named the starter the week of the Michigan game, and with the added dose of confidence from the Tennessee win, Taylor hopes to see more of that Franks.
“[His confidence] has grown tremendously since he first got here. He’s got a lot better with his confidence, even in practice he’s way more confidence,” Taylor said. “Being a more vocal leader, that’s all it is, just talking to the receivers, talking to the offensive line, just making sure we’re staying up, just being more vocal.”
Back in Wakulla County on Saturday, Ginger and Don Franks will have to feed the horses and take out the garbage and the other chores Jordan and Feleipe did all those years. At some point, they will take time to watch the games on TV and perhaps reflect for a moment as they look out the window at that pasture where the boys spent so much time playing football together.
“It was basically just Feleipe and his brother,” Don said. “They had a kid down the dirt road they played with some.”
Feleipe’s moment in the spotlight fades into another start and new opportunity to make his mark as the Gators’ starting quarterback on Saturday night. Ginger Franks recalled this week a conversation she had with Feleipe the sixth-grader.
She asked him if he wanted to play only quarterback. He answered yes. She then delivered her sermon on the position, one that has served him well.
“You are held at a different standard than everyone else,” she told him. “You will start understanding that now. That’s how we went forward with it.”
The journey continues in the wake of an unforgettable moment.