ROYAL REPORT
Published in

ROYAL REPORT

Coach Stephen Frank gets Bethel defensive end Hunter Tanem (97) ready before they face off against Saint John’s University in Collegeville. Franklin is a former NFL linebacker and the current defensive line coach for the Bethel Royals football team. | Photo submitted by Carl Schmuland.

Former NFL athlete transitions to coaching for Bethel

Stephen Franklin took a journey through homelessness, the NCAA and the NFL to reach Bethel University as an assistant football coach.

By Clark Frederickson, reporter

Stephen Franklin crouched in his linebacker stance, hands on his bent knees, behind the defensive line. He was still shaking from the last play when the quarterback snapped the ball, quickly spun around and stuck the ball into his older brother Rahn’s gut. Stephen’s eyes were locked on Rahn to see which way he was going.

His way. For a fourth time. Of course.

Stephen’s instincts kicked in as his brother broke past the defensive line again. He was always taught the lower man wins. He lowered his shoulder to his brother’s waist, ready to make the tackle until that hand he’d become so familiar with palmed his facemask and stiff-armed him into the ground. That exact scene had played out four times in a row and the frustration finally turned to tears. He was furious he couldn’t tackle him. He knew he still had a long way to go.

Stephen Franklin, known as Coach Frank around Bethel University, brings his NFL experience to train the Royals’ defensive linemen. He builds trust with players through his hilarious film sessions and drip-check meetings. His former college roommate convinced him to move from Kansas City to be a coach and Bethel’s Athletic Diversity & Inclusion Designee. From being homeless to not getting drafted, making it to the NFL was an uphill battle. Franklin had to learn that he is not solely defined by what he does on the field.

“If I had a bad game, I wasn’t the same person until I had a good game. God really had to work that out of me,” Franklin said. “That’s not a healthy way to live. Who we are is not defined by how we play.”

Franklin grew up in a sports family Franklin but gravitated towards football. Franklin’s main position was running back, like his hero: former Dallas Cowboy Emmit Smith. Franklin was always motivated to be the best, which pushed him to be a key player in whatever sport he played as a kid. He was always encouraged and supported by his father cheering him on at all of his games, his mother working hard behind the scenes and great coaches who did a lot for him in his youth.

In his junior year at North Kansas City High School, his parents separated and his family lost their home of 12 years. His family moved into City Union Mission, the family shelter where his father had worked. His mother had been trying to get her degree, work a job and get the kids to and from school and practices. During that six-month period of homelessness, whenever Franklin’s friends asked him if he needed a ride home, he would always turn them down. He felt too ashamed to tell them his family lived in a room lined with bunk beds, no bigger than his current office in Bethel. The men who stayed in the shelter had to get drug tested regularly. It hurt to see his father’s pride be crippled as his former coworkers tested him and asked him what his family was doing there.

“Man, it was just tough to see my dad, you know, struggle with feelings of failure,” Franklin said. “Because he’s a proud man.”

In high school, Franklin was a goofy and fun person who loved to laugh, he remembers, but he took the sports he played, football and basketball, seriously. When he didn’t play up to his standard, he wouldn't be the same until he got to make it right.

Stephen Franklin is all smiles after helping the University of Southern Illinois Salukis get a win. | Photo submitted by Steven Franklin

It wasn’t until his sophomore year in college that he began to grow his relationship with God and realize that his self worth wasn’t based upon his performance on the field. Franklin decided on Southern Illinois University because he felt a calling from God to go there. Despite getting recruited from big name schools like Clemson University, Franklin decided to be a Saluki. And this is where he met Mike McElroy, now the defensive coordinator for the Royals football team. It was the first weekend of college and everyone had gone out to party. That wasn’t Franklin’s scene and he happened to poke his head out of his dorm at the same time as McElroy, who also stayed in. They hit it off and ended up living together the next year.

By his junior year, Franklin began to question whether the NFL was realistic for him. He still wasn’t in the starting lineup. But he started to see scouts on the sidelines at games. And at practices, he noticed that they would stop at the linebacker drills. His dream to make it to the NFL was still alive.

After playing his last game in his senior season, calls from agents began to flood Franklin’s phone. They told him that they had a first, second, third round grade on him but Franklin knew better. Franklin chose the agent who was realistic with him and told him he had a small chance to be drafted, but a chance. His agent told him that there were two teams that were interested in taking him in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL draft. But the seventh round came and went, and Franklin’s phone never rang.

2011 was the year of an NFL lockout which messed with the normal rules and protocols. Typically, teams would begin to negotiate contracts with undrafted players as soon as the draft ends. But that year, the free agent negotiations didn’t begin for a couple of weeks.

“I wasn’t sure that I was going to get an opportunity,” Franklin said.

Franklin had been living in his mother’s basement when he finally received the phone call from his agent that he was being signed to the Cincinnati Bengals. -He had been hoping to get picked late in the draft, but he didn’t. He then waited for his agent to bring good news. As soon as Franklin got off the phone he began to scream, which alerted his mother. As soon as he told her the news, she began to cry and scream with him. Her boy was going to the NFL.

Franklin quickly realized how difficult the NFL would be when he first got to training camp and heard coaches tell a player to pack up and get ready to go home after he got in his stance incorrectly. In 2011, he bounced from the Bengals practice squad to the Seattle Seahawks practice squad before finally landing a larger role with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The uncertainty of where he would be next month weighed on him. But with the Jaguars, he finally got to play on the big stage.

He recalled how surreal it felt having to cover Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. The player whose jersey he saw on each of his friends at some point in his childhood. The player he had been watching catch touchdowns since he was 12.

He once confused the 6 feet, 4 inch and 307 pound Ndamukong Suh for two people as he walked down a hallway.

“He’s a man just like I am. I belong here.” — Stephen Franklin

When playing against these players he would think about how just a few weeks before he was playing with the guy in front of him on Madden. But once he was in the moment, he knew he needed to get past that

“He’s a man just like I am,” Franklin said. “I belong here.”

Franklin made his first tackle on a punt. After he shed a block and brought down the punt returner, it confirmed that he could play there, that he could do it.

Stephen Franklin proudly gives his mom, Hazel Franklin, a kiss on the cheek at a church service. | Photo submitted by Steven Franklin

The last game of the season was coming up and Franklin’s mom still had not been able to make it to a game. Franklin told her that he needed her to be there at his last game of the season. His mother came down to Jacksonville, Florida along with his brother Rahn. Days before his final game, Franklin and his mother went to the beach for the first time in their lives. Franklin and his Jaguars narrowly won against the Indianapolis Colts in front of his brother, who he had never gotten payback for their brutal matchup as kids. And in front of his mother who was repping one of his teal Jaguars jerseys, which fit her like a dress. The name Franklin and the number 58 on her back.

After finishing the second half of the season with the Jaguars, who only won five out of 16 games, Coach Jack Del Rio told Franklin he could potentially get a starting role the next season. But after he tore his achilles while training in a non-NFL facility. And due to new rules made during the lockout, his contract was voided. By the time he was healthy, the coach and much of the staff he had known was replaced, and he wasn’t able to play at an NFL level.

Franklin wasn’t satisfied with his football career ending there. Once he was healthy enough to play again, he began playing arena football. He played for the Sioux City Bandits in Iowa with his brother Rahn (a defensive back) in 2014. After the season ended, Franklin went back to SIU to finish his degree in Exercise Science. He then went to play for the arena football team the Colorado Ice for the second half of the 2015 season. Arena football didn’t pay enough to be so far from home, about $200 a game, so Franklin began his transition away from playing. In between his time playing football, he would coach football as well as do personal training. In 2017 he joined Kansas City’s revamped team, the Phantoms.

“It just wasn’t the same,” Franklin said. “A lot more headaches than what it was worth.”

Franklin went on Plenty of Fish, a dating site, where he met his now wife Lauren Franklin. Their first date was a breakfast that went on for four hours. He’s talked to her everyday since. In March 2020, their daughter Laney was born. Having a daughter has changed Franklin. With her he cried while watching the Lion King, the second one, where Simba has a daughter.

“I’m a softie now,” Franklin said.

Franklin and his family moved to Minnesota in 2021 where Franklin now coaches the defensive line for Bethel’s football team. Coach McElroy had tried to bring his old roommate up before but the timing wasn’t right, until this year. He felt a warm welcome from his fellow coaches. Offensive Coordinator AJ Parnell helped Franklin’s family unload their moving truck when they arrived. Franklin helped to coach the players (who know him as Coach Frank) to an 8–3 season.

“I think I would describe my relationship with my guys as business comedy,” said Franklin.

Franklin used his football experience to elevate his “guys on the yard,” including their style. He says that if you look good, you feel good, and you play good. And at one point, Franklin had to call a drip-check meeting.

“We had a couple of guys out there with no nothing on their arms,” Franklin said. “There is only one guy who can do that and that’s Reggie White, God rest his soul.”

The meeting involved a lengthy slide show which covered everything from cleats and eyeblack to celebrations. It was an in-depth analysis of the dos and don’ts of football style. The meeting ran for about 45 minutes.The defensive linemen loved it.

“It was hilarious,” defensive tackle Reese Pantila said. “And sure enough, the guys on the yard (what we call ourselves) improved themselves and we 100% were the best-looking position group on the field.”

“He also has the most contagious laugh I’ve ever heard.” — Michael Judd, junior

Franklin has already made an impact on the players on and off the field. Defensive lineman Michael Judd talked about how much Franklin means to him. He and Franklin would meet in his office multiple times a week to watch film together and cry from laughing so hard at funny plays. Other coaches would tell them that they could hear them laughing from down the hall.

“No matter what situation or environment we were in I felt like we had a bond,” said Judd. “He also has the most contagious laugh I’ve ever heard.”

It’s important to Franklin to earn the trust of his guys. He knows that he asks a lot of them on and off the field and that they work hard to deliver. Mutual respect is key to him. He is proud that the Royals made it to the playoffs this year, and is looking to go further next season. And during the offseason he will be assisting athletes academically, fulfilling his role as Bethel’s ADID and spending time with his family. His goals for the future are to grow as a coach, pursue his masters and give his girls the best possible version of himself as a husband and father.

Biobox: Franklin’s Favorites

Mom’s lasagna

BBQ-chicken pizza from Cicis

Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, Big K.R.I.T.

John Mayer, Hans Zimmer, 116 Clique

Denver Broncos

--

--

--

Hyperlocal news about Bethel (Minn.) University by journalism students. To contact editors, email royalreport.bethel@gmail.com or Tweet to @Royal_Report.

Recommended from Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Clark Frederickson

Clark Frederickson

More from Medium