Notre Dame freshman Ja’mion Franklin bolsters father’s recovery from cancer

SHARING THE LONG ROAD BACK

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Ja’mion Franklin stood on the blue turf at Morgan State, finally a state champion.

With chalk still on his neck from his shot put performance, he posed in victory with his father, James. They both held up one finger and put on smiles for the photo. But they had more to celebrate than a shot put title.

Ja'mion Franklin (right) poses with his dad after winning the Maryland Class 2A state championship in shot put.

In September, James Franklin was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. With the help of a stem cell transplant from Ja’mion in January, James had recently received a cancer-free diagnosis from his doctor.

The nearly eight-month long fight with cancer limited the opportunities for James to see his son compete in football, basketball, and track and field. Two days after winning his first state championship, Ja’mion took home another title, in the discus. If not for his father, Ja’mion may have skipped his final throwing season entirely.

"It meant the world to me to have him there," Ja'mion said. "He really wanted me to go out and go get it this year. I didn't know if I felt like throwing. I just wanted to train and really get ready for the next level of football.

"He really encouraged me in finishing off the journey. To have him there with me, right by my side, winning both the titles, meant the world to me."

Each senior sports season at Ridgely (Md.) North Caroline had previously been punctuated by losses for the now-freshman Notre Dame defensive lineman.

The football team won its first 10 games before a defeat to Kent Island brought the season to a halt in a Class 2A regional semifinal. The basketball team came up one win short of a title with a loss to Lake Clifton in the Class 2A state championship.

With heaves of 55 feet, 9 ½ inches in the shot put and 154-4 in discus, Ja’mion was crowned champion of Maryland's Class 2A for public schools.

As for James? He doesn't want this story to be about him.

He'd prefer the focus to be on his son and his promising future at Notre Dame. And Ja'mion's the storyteller of the family anyway.

James declined a phone interview — he said he doesn't even own a cell phone — but did answer questions through direct messages on Twitter. He's been using a tablet Ja'mion gave him while being bedridden in Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital and away from home for more than four months.

His written words speak volumes.

"I know he wanted it bad, and I wanted him to have that memory of him doing it with me there by his side," James wrote of the storybook finish to Ja’mion’s track and field career. "It's something we will always cherish."

Notre Dame freshman defensive tackle Ja'mion Franklin won the MPSSAA Class 2A state championship in shot put with a heave of 55 feet, 9 ½ inches.

Ja'mion Franklin will always associate one of the worst nights of his life with a USC game.

On the night of Sept. 29, 2017, Ja'mion took his father, James, to the hospital. The sickness that his father had been dealing only kept getting worse. So after Ja'mion and his teammates beat Stephen Decatur High, 48-12, earlier that night, Ja'mion accompanied his father in search of answers.

As James went through a number of tests, the two were watching USC play against Washington State on ESPN. The Trojans lost, 30-27. When USC traveled to Notre Dame in October, Ja'mion and James planned to be there. That would soon change.

"We were sitting there like, 'Yeah, ha, screw USC.' " Ja'mion said. "Then the doctor came back in and said, 'I think this might be serious.' From then, it was, 'We think you might have cancer.' We just moved on from there."

Moving on wasn't easy. James had to stay more than 90 minutes away from his family at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The Ridgely community quickly embraced the Franklin family. A "Meal Train" was started to help provide food for Ja'mion, his mother, Latoya, and Ja’mion's 14-year-old sister, Jamyia.

"It was incredible. It's a testament to if you're a good person, then it pays back," Ja'mion said. "I've always been a selfless person. I look out for the community. It just came back to me.

“The people who are in my position, being a big-time football player, sometimes they're jerks to everybody. If they're in that situation, they might not get helped as much I was fortunate to be."

The 6-foot-1, 296-pound Ja'mion didn't miss a single game of his senior football season, and he still visited during the weekend of Notre Dame's 49-14 win over USC on Oct. 21 without his dad.

Back home, Ja'mion continued to show up and play with the high energy from which his reputation was built. As a defensive tackle, Franklin plays relentlessly against opposing offenses. Any frustrations he had only fueled his high motor.

"He handled it like a man, I know that," said North Caroline head coach James McCormick. "Here's your father, the guy that you look up to, and you find out that he's got really bad cancer. And you're not sure how it's going to work out.

"His dad was out of work, and the dad was pretty much the breadwinner for the family. Then you have the issues: Is my dad going to survive? Are we going to be able to pay the bills?

"You had all those things going on, and you have a 17-year-old kid that now, all of a sudden, has to be the man of the family. He has to deal with all this stuff while he's trying to play football his senior year and thinking about Notre Dame and all the other stuff he has going on. He did an incredible job of managing all the different aspects of it and the stress that went with it."

James missed most of Ja'mion's football games, but he was able to make it to Ja'mion's Senior Night on Nov. 3. James walked onto the field with the help of Ja'mion and Latoya. Wearing a surgical mask on his face and a green Notre Dame jacket and hat, James stood with his son on one arm and his wife on the other.

"It really was special," James wrote. "I never knew people cared so much, but that's how special Ja'mion is here. Everybody loves him and thinks of him as their son, too.

“He has this area so geared up to watch him play, and there will be a lot of them that will travel to see him (at Notre Dame). This community is really special. I'm glad to call it home. The Ridge is awesome."

James (center) and Latoya Franklin (right) were able to attend Ja'mion Franklin's Senior Night in November. More than a month earlier, James Franklin was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.

In order to aggressively treat his cancer, James Franklin needed a stem cell transplant. His son didn't hesitate in volunteering.

When it was determined Ja'mion's blood was a close enough match, the doctors scheduled a transplant for January.

For a week, Ja'mion had to give himself daily injections in his stomach to produce more stems cells in his blood. Then, on Jan. 11, blood was removed from Ja'mion through a catheter in his neck. Once the stem cells were extracted, the blood was pumped back into Ja'mion.

"I was going to do it regardless if it cost me football," Ja'mion said. "I'm sure everybody would understand. That's my best friend in the world. He's much more important to me than playing a game. I love the game, but my father comes before anything. It was an easy decision."

Ja'mion didn't have to risk his future by taking part in the transplant. Even though the procedure was scheduled during the middle of his basketball season, he only missed two weeks on the court. The only pain, Ja'mion said, was a little discomfort in his neck following the transplant.

"I can't really sit around too much," Ja'mion said. "Everybody was like, 'Take more time off.' I was like, 'Dude, I can't.' I was itching to get back out there."

Meanwhile, James took on his third round of chemotherapy. The first two rounds were taken through pills and an IV treatment. Radiation was introduced in the third round in the hopes of killing off the remaining cancerous cells.

Three days after radiation, James received Ja'mion's stem cells through a blood transfusion. The healthy stem cells took hold in James' bone marrow to start the recovery from the latest round of chemotherapy.

"I was getting sick, but once (the stem cells settled) it's been great since then. At first, I didn't want him to (donate), because I didn't want him to go through that," James wrote. "But my wife told me it's what God has planned for me, and that's all I needed to hear. I'm so happy that he didn't have too much pain in his recovery from the procedure."

Four months later, James would receive a cancer-free diagnosis from his doctor following a bone marrow check. He still makes trips to Johns Hopkins every month for blood work and will need to get his bone marrow examined every three months to see if the cancer has stayed in remission.

"It was a long road, but with my family's support and the Lord's help I made it through," James wrote. "Now just praying I stay there."

Will three-star defensive tackle Ja'mion Franklin outplay his recruiting ranking at Notre Dame?

In June, James Franklin accompanied his son as he moved into his dorm room at Notre Dame nearly one year after James first visited campus with Ja'mion.

Ja'mion, who also had scholarship offers from the likes of Virginia Tech, Wisconsin and Virginia, verbally committed to the Irish in June of 2017 and signed in December. His dream of playing college football — one that developed quickly after he took up the sport in seventh grade — had become a reality.

"Once I visited there, I knew that was the place for him," James wrote. "It just felt like home, and I know they will take care of him. Nice people up there."

When James fell ill last fall, he didn't want Ja'mion to waver on his decision.

"I told him it's his life," James wrote, "He has to do what's best for him, and I would do everything I could to beat the cancer and come home, so he could just worry about his career."

If Ja'mion had any doubts, he could have opted to wait until February to sign his national letter-of-intent. Anyone familiar with his situation would have understood a request for patience. But after making his official visit to Notre Dame in December, he signed 10 days later.

"It was a no-brainer the whole way," Franklin said. "I had no thoughts of reconsidering it, because I'm a faith guy. I had all my faith in God that my dad was going to be great. We all decided this is the best decision for me.

"I just knew that Notre Dame was looking out for me and taking care of me, just as much as I was taking care of my dad and looking out for him and my family."

Recovery is expected to be slow for James. In the coming months, he hopes to be able to get back to work to help support his family, even though his previous job as a supervisor at the Hanover Foods facility may be too strenuous.

Feeling healthy enough to travel was another of many significant moments in the last few months for James.

"He says I have super cells or something, but I don't believe all that," Ja'mion said. "He's doing great. It's just good to see my old man getting back to himself."

That means more opportunities to celebrate victories together. But there may be no bigger triumph than a father getting a chance to see what his son becomes.

"When I was young, I was always in trouble until my son was born," James wrote. "From that day till now, he has been not only my son but my best friend in life. When he stepped up to donate for me and saved my life, he became my hero.

"He is truly a gift to me from God. I couldn't ask for a better person to call my son, and I hope all his dreams come true. I'll be with him every step rooting him on."

James Franklin (left) has been declared cancer free after a stem cell transplant from his son, Ja'mion Franklin (right). Photo courtesy of The Star Democrat
Three-star defensive tackle Ja'mion Franklin, a 2018 recruit, signed with Notre Dame in December.

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