A mother’s influence
James Franklin’s first sports love was baseball, and his mother, Jocelyn, known as Josie to her friends, could be found regularly at his games in Langhorne, working at the concession stand or serving a team mom when she wasn’t cheering on her son.
Franklin’s football career, though, started off with a wardrobe malfunction, courtesy of Mom.
“They gave us the equipment. Back in those days, you put all your equipment on when you were playing little league football. You drove with all your equipment on in the car and just ran out onto the field,” Franklin said earlier this week in an interview before departing on the Penn State Caravan. “There’s that little spine pad that you have in your girdle. My mom was like, ‘That makes sense. I know where that goes.’ So she had that down the front.
“And they said bring a cup. So I came with a cup in my hand. She thought the cup was for drinking water. So I had a cup to drink water and the girdle on backwards because that made sense to her.”
Although Franklin might not have been dressed for success that first game, things couldn’t have turned out much better. After establishing himself as one of the brightest young coaches in the game during several college and one NFL stop, including bringing unprecedented success as the head man at Vanderbilt from 2011-13, Franklin has returned to his home state to take the reins of the Penn State football program.
And he will tell you it wouldn’t have been possible if not for Mom.
Josie Franklin, who passed away in 2007, had a profound effect on the Nittany Lions’ new coach. In fact, much of the James Franklin we see today is a direct result of the values and qualities his mother, an immigrant from Manchester, England, instilled in him.
“Mom basically raised me and my sister,” Franklin said. “Her work ethic and her sense of pride in our family and what we stood for and the work ethic, that was important to me. It still is. To this day, I’m still trying to make her proud of the foundation she laid in me and my sister.”
“Josie was a survivor. She worked. Her life was taking care of those two kids and maintaining what she had to do. I don’t know a lot of women that could have done that. She overcame some major obstacles,” said Gary Bowman, a neighbor and close family friend since they arrived in Langhorne when James was 5 years old. “She allowed James the freedom to become his own man through some guiding principles that she lived with. James overcame some real, real obstacles in his life. She helped him become what I call a self-made man. She provided that platform or that launch pad to become a self-made man.
“You talk about unsung heroes, she was truly one of those people who went about doing what she felt was good and right for her kids.”
Bowman, his wife, Joan, and his son, Jason, remember Josie Franklin as almost always attending her son’s games, not only while he was growing up, but even when he played college ball at East Stroudsburg and then coached at places like Maryland, Green Bay and Kansas State.
“The best way to describe her in the neighborhood or at an event was if you heard something it was Josie,” Gary Bowman said. “She was always the most vocal, the most supportive person you could find, be it in the stadium or on the field. That was her.
“His mom was a character and a very, very strong, strong woman,” said Jason Bowman, best friends with Franklin since he came around their house riding what they called “The Green Machine” – Franklin is the godfather to one of his children. “My recollection is that his mom did almost all the parenting from an early age on.”
And the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in some ways.
“My mom was kind of a psycho like I am,” the energetic and enthusiastic Franklin said. “I remember running down the field scoring a touchdown, and my mom was running on the sideline with me and tripped over a trash can, and you’re kind of like embarrassed as you run into the end zone. But’s she’s always very passionate, was always very, very supportive.”
Josie Franklin met James Franklin’s father when he was in the Air Force stationed near Manchester. They eloped to Ireland before coming back to live with his mother in Pittsburgh and then moving to Trenton, N.J. when he got a job there with General Motors.
However, after having two kids – James’ sister, Debbie, is 5 years older – the Franklins’ marriage hit the rocks. James Sr. was in and out of the picture until James was in 11th grade, when he completely faded from the scene. James Franklin Sr. passed away in 1997.
“Think about this. My mom came to this country, and she knows nobody. No friends. No family. No nothing. And things don’t go well with my mom and my dad, and she’s got nobody. A lot of times, you’ve at least got family or someone to turn to or lean on. She’s got nobody,” Franklin said. “So she really kind of invested and poured everything into us.”
To spend some extra time with her children while providing for them, Josie took a job as a hall aide at Neshaminy High School. Gary Bowman, who was the school superintendent, still remembers occasions when her British accent would come out.
“She and another gal ran those halls, and [the kids] didn’t mess with those two. They knew every kid. They knew the kids to look out for. They knew the kids to take care of. The ones that were on the edge of things. They just had that insight,” Bowman said. “As a mom, there was never anything false about her. What you saw was what you get. You might not like to hear what you got, but she was there.”
Bowman thinks Josie set a great example for her son.
“I never heard her complain on whatever burden she had to carry, on whatever she had to do. She never, ever complained. That goes a long way,” Bowman said. “She never whined. What you saw was what you get.”
Jason Bowman remembered Josie as a stern presence but one that also gave the young Franklin the freedom to pursue his own dreams, whatever they might be.
However, there was another side to Josie Franklin, one that would have her invite people into her home and do anything for them.
“She was very big on relationships as well, and I think much of James’ success is built on his ability to build relationships with people,” Jason Bowman said. “From his recruiting days – his early recruiting days at Maryland is where he really made a name for himself, recruiting top-notch players into Maryland’s program – that’s all based on him building relationships, and I think a lot of that comes from his mother and other people around him.”
Most of those people were women. All of his parents’ siblings had died by the time he was born – his mother’s brothers were lost to polio and a bus accident, his father’s brother to cancer. What Franklin came to call his cousins actually were his dad’s cousins. And many of his “aunts” were his father’s divorced relatives who remained friends with Josie.
“I was raised by all women. When I would go to Thanksgiving, it was all women and me and a couple of my other cousins,” Franklin said. “I’d go to Thanksgiving or Christmas or summers in Pittsburgh, and it would be my Aunt Lawanda, my Aunt Romaine, my Aunt Belvadene, and my mom, and sometimes my grandmom, Leota, and my Aunt Donna. So all women, and me, my sister, my cousin, Karen.”
Franklin believes that strong female presence definitely has made him more relationship conscious, but also because it lacked the male role model.
“I think the other thing is, as bad as families may be, and situations may be, I think boys always have a yearning to have a relationship with their father, no matter how things have played out. You always kind of want that,” Franklin said. “When I got into coaching, you end up recruiting a bunch of kids that come from single-parent homes. Maybe the coach is the first male role model or male person in their life. You realize that’s really important. It carries a lot of substance, that relationship. It’s probably been magnified for me, because I want to provide that type of relationship and stability for my players. That’s very important to me.
“A lot of kids have both Mom and Dad. But, what happens is they’re going away from home for the first time, and I know how challenging and difficult that is. Then you have others that haven’t had a father at home, and I know the challenges that are a part of that as well.”
Coaches helped provide some of that male role model in Franklin’s life growing up, as did Gary Bowman. Bowman, who spent three years in a foster home in his formative years, felt a special kinship with the young, polite, bright and magnetic young Franklin that went beyond the neighborhood kid who so often was at his home playing with his youngest son.
Franklin’s relationship with the Bowmans goes beyond just neighbors, too. When they came to the Blue-White Game, he introduced them as his parents at the postgame picnic.
“It brings tears to my eyes when I think about him. That made me cry. That made him cry, too,” Joan Bowman said. “He looked over at us and said ‘My parents are here.’ It made me feel so good.”
Franklin also has credited his sister, Debbie, with playing a big role in his development. Now Debra Sharpe, she would often attend her brother’s games with her mother. She lives near the family’s childhood home and has kids of her own who James is more than happy to outfit with Penn State gear.
“It’s been great. I know my sister appreciates us being closer to home,” Franklin said. “Now my kids get a chance to really develop a relationship with her kids as well.”
“She was more of a friend and a confidante to him than a parent,” Jason Bowman said. “It was more ‘let me give this kid some guidance, let me be a friend, let me be a confidante. We have a very strong mother who can be a mother.’ They were very close growing up and stay close to this day.”
That family tie became all the more important when Josie Franklin died after a bout with cancer on Oct. 13, 2007. James was the offensive coordinator at Kansas State at the time.
“I felt guilty about not being there and then having to leave the team during the season and fly back. I still have a lot of guilt associated with that, to be honest with you,” Franklin said.
“He’s putting in an obscene amount of hours [at work]. Yet he was taking time to make sure she was being taken care of and that he was there. It was a difficult time for him. I know he was struggling,” Jason Bowman said. “He and I would have those conversations, ‘Hey, you’ve got to come in to see her.’ And he would pop in for a couple of days and he’s got to go.”
Now Franklin has a family of his own. He and his wife, Fumi, have two young daughters, Shola and Addy, and Franklin said his own life experiences have driven him to provide for them so they have an easier time growing up than he, his mother and sister had.
“Women have had a huge impact on me. Now I’ve got one at home that’s calling all the shots as well – my wife – and my two daughters,” Franklin said. “So I’m surrounded by women again.
“The impact that moms have in this country, I don’t think you can put it into words, the difference that they’re making, whether they’re moms that are raising children in a traditional family or whether it’s single parents. I know for myself and a lot of the players and people I come in contact with, you can’t measure the importance that moms have on families and that moms have on a lot of our players.”
Maybe it can’t be measured, but Franklin can appreciate it.
“I saw how hard my mom worked and how much she sacrificed for us. There were a lot of people out there that had it a lot worse that we did, and I wanted to work really hard to take care of my mom and make sure that my family didn’t have to go through some of the experiences that we went through as a kid,” Franklin said. “I wanted to make her proud. I still, to this day, want to make her proud.”
Gary Bowman thinks Franklin has done that.
“I know today she’s just looking down on James,” Bowman said, “and she’s probably having the biggest smile for Mother’s Day that you could ever have.”