Molded by Adversity, Ja’Mion Franklin Strives for Greatness

Molded by more adversity than most people face in a lifetime, Duke defensive lineman Ja'Mion Franklin is striving for greatness in all areas of life.

Two days after the Duke Blue Devils travel to Chapel Hill to take on North Carolina in a crucial ACC clash, defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin will celebrate his 24th birthday. Within those years, the Maryland native has seen more adversity than most will experience in a lifetime. Those experiences have shaped a man who is striving for greatness in every single aspect of his life.

Ja’Mion Franklin is Molded by Adversity

For the majority of his football career, Franklin has worn the number 55. As a standout high school player at North Caroline, at Notre Dame, and for the last two seasons at Duke, he’s been 55. For a brief moment in South Bend, he was number 98. For the 2023 college football season, he’ll wear No. 5.

But there’s a number that’s more important in understanding who Franklin is.

Six. As in, the ACC’s Top Six for Service. Every year, the accolade is awarded to members of the athletics community who demonstrate outstanding dedication to local service and outreach programs. It is an award that goes beyond the uniform, beyond sporting prowess or academic achievement and recognizes efforts of pure humanitarian greatness.

“I don’t expect to be recognized for the work that I do,” Franklin says of receiving the accolade ahead of the 2023 college football season.

The 6’2″, 307-pound nose tackle is primed to be a key component of a Duke team with high outside expectations this fall, but we’re not here to talk about his football journey.

“It’s something that I care deeply about, it means a lot for me to give back. Especially to some organizations that I utilized in my childhood. Ultimately, it’s always great to be recognized for the hard work that you put in. But, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter to me if I’m acknowledged or rewarded. It’s the right thing to do, and something that I enjoy doing.”

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Since joining the Duke football program, Franklin has established himself as a presence on Saturdays, but it’s his pursuit of greatness away from the field that speaks volumes about the man behind the number.

Franklin’s work with the Durham Food Pantry and the Durham Rescue Mission is relentless and understated, but holds particular importance in understanding who he is, where he’s come from, and what he’s had to overcome to get there.

“I go there every week, at least one day a week,” Franklin says of his work with the two organizations. “It’s something that, as a child, I used a lot — especially the food pantry. There was a lot of times that my family wasn’t as financially capable or stable as they are now. The food pantry was something that we called on a lot.”

“To get behind the scenes and help prepare the boxes and help lift heavy boxes that the people volunteering couldn’t, it meant the world to me to be finally on the other side and give back. I thought of me as a child, and that child could potentially be getting a meal from me helping get that food to their table. That was really important to me. It means the world.”

Franklin is Shaped by his Upbringing

Rewind the clock about 20 years from his current standing within the community, and Franklin was the child on the receiving end of similar organizations to the Durham Food Pantry and Durham Rescue Mission as he grew up in the Baltimore area.

James and Latoya Franklin had Ja’Mion and his sister when they were young. As he explains to me, the family spent a large part of his childhood on the “poverty line.”

While doing all they could to provide for the family, if it hadn’t been for Section 8 housing—an initiative to provide financially viable housing options for low-income families—the Franklins could have been homeless.

“It was tough,” Franklin reflects on his early years. “Without Section 8 the chances of us being homeless were very high. Each of my parents only graduated high school, they weren’t fortunate enough to go to college. It was definitely tough in the earlier times, but Section 8 helped me not to be homeless and I’m definitely grateful for that.”

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That early experience of adversity has, in many respects, helped mold Franklin into the man that he has become today. His community efforts are a reminder of where he’s come from, allowing him to make an impact in the present while helping shape future generations to follow in his footsteps.

Meanwhile, as Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) have allowed student athletes to drive expensive cars, wear expensive watches, and live a more extravagant life than your average student, the ability to monetize his football persona has helped the Duke defensive tackle overcome some of his early financial disadvantages.

“I think that Name, Image, and Likeness, are huge,” Franklin explains. “For me personally, if I didn’t get a full scholarship to play football I wouldn’t have attended college. My parents couldn’t afford it, I couldn’t afford to take out loans. Being able to benefit from NIL is huge, I’m able to help my family out.”

“They’re the reason that I’m here. They’re the reason that I graduated from Duke University. I think NIL is huge in that aspect that you can give back to your family, help out in your community. Overall, I think the good outweighs the bad.”

Something Bigger than Sport

Tough times don’t last; tough people do.

As time went on, Ja’Mion and the rest of the Franklin family emerged from their early tightrope along the poverty line to find a more stable footing. Franklin excelled as a high school player at North Caroline in Ridgely, Maryland, earning significant accolades and national recognition as a three-star recruit in the 2018 class.

Committed to Notre Dame, he was akin to a superhero in the local community, embraced as their sporting star. Yet, for the Franklins, there would be another setback that reminded them that they were fallible, vulnerable, and that the pursuit of greatness in life was far more important than the accolades and recognition of football success.

“It was a challenging time, and there’s not a moment that I don’t think about it,” Franklin begins to tell the story of his father’s diagnosis with cancer. “All the adversity that has come my way has folded me into the mature individual that I am today.”

“It was rough,” Franklin continues. “I had just committed to Notre Dame in the summer. You feel like you’re on top of the world going into your last season and out of the blue the strongest person you know gets diagnosed with cancer. It was rough, it was a humbling experience for sure.”

“Being the big shot in your school, being committed to a big-time university, everyone knows your name, everyone wants to watch you play. There’s not a place that you go where people don’t recognize you. It makes you feel like you’re on top of the world for sure, and it might make you seem like you’re not vulnerable, like you’re invincible.”

“That was a humbling experience to show that I am human, I can be impacted by other events just like anyone else — regardless of if I’m a big-time football player or not.”

The family rallied around James as a close-knit support unit, their adversity bonding them rather than breaking them.

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That experience and the role that Franklin would play in his father’s return to health are reflected in the work he does now with the “Be The Match” organization—a global leader in bone marrow transplantation and blood stem cell donation.

Being biologically father and son doesn’t always guarantee a bone marrow match, but in the case of Ja’Mion and James, the Franklin family found a perfect match for a much-needed transplant within their own home. James was initially tentative, not wanting to impact his son’s ability to play his senior season of basketball—Ja’Mion was a two-sport star at North Caroline.

But for Ja’Mion, it was—and will always be—bigger than sport.

“The first thing that he thought about was “is this going to impact you physically to where you can’t play?” Because at this point it was basketball season. At the end of the day,” Franklin told his father, “I want you in in my life. It’s important to have you here. I don’t want to play for anyone else to watch if I don’t have you, my sister, and my mum to watch me.”

“It was a no brainer,” Franklin reflects on the decision to be a donor for his father. “I’m grateful that we have the technology that I was fortunate enough to be able to do that, because there are many people who don’t have that opportunity, who can’t help their parents out and that makes you feel really helpless and hopeless.”

Despite James’ concerns, the surgery didn’t slow down Franklin’s athletic career, and he spent three years at Notre Dame before transferring to Duke ahead of the 2021 season. However, he had only been in Durham for one year when more adversity struck. Latoya, his mom, was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer.

“Fortunately, but unfortunately, I’d been through the situation before with my Dad,” Franklin talks me through how you begin to cope with the amount of adversity the family has seen in his short lifetime.

“So, I had some prior experience and I was more prepared to deal with the situation with my mum. It sucks to go through that with both parents, but I can definitely say that being in college –and being a young man — has put me in a better spot to assist my family and to be stronger for them.”

Everything Happens for a Reason

As he has grown through his college journey, Franklin has been forced to battle both personal and professional adversity, with on and off-field problems intertwining. His three-year stint at Notre Dame was marred by injury, while his battles weren’t always visible.

The Duke defensive lineman and philanthropist is now a walking, talking advertisement for how we can broach the subject of male mental health.

“I think that something that many men are scared to talk about is their mental health,” Franklin opens up about his battles with non-visible adversity. “That was a stint that I went through at one time at Notre Dame that really shed some light for me that I had a lot of room to grow and a lot of learning to do.”

“It was very important for me to bounce back the way that I did. I was on top of the world. In my community I’m still viewed as a very highly regarded person. So, again, to show that I’m not invincible, I’m human, I can be impacted by the little things that other people can be. I was able to bounce back. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

From humble beginnings on the poverty line in Maryland, through helping both parents battle cancer, and his personal battles with injury and mental health, Franklin has experienced and overcome more adversity than most people will face in their entire lifetime.

Far from disheartening and disenfranchising him, the adversity has strengthened and empowered him. Franklin has been molded, not folded, by the hand that he’s been dealt.

“Everything that’s happened to me, I think everything happens for a reason. I’m a firm believer in that. I think every chink in the armor has definitely made me the great person that I strive to be today. I’m happy that things played out the way they did, because everything has molded me into the person that I am.”