Feleipe Franks noticed the little boy before the little boy noticed him.
The child couldn’t have been more than seven, eight at most. He was standing on the edge of Steve Spurrier Florida Field with his family following the Florida Gators win over Vanderbilt, tossing a blue nerf football absentmindedly. Franks, still on crutches and in a boot from his season ending ankle injury, stepped over to the boy.
“Hey man, wanna toss the ball around,” he asked.
It took the kid a few seconds to realize who was talking to him and when he did there was a sense of awe as he timidly tossed the ball to Florida’s former starting quarterback. Feleipe threw back his crutches and walked the boy into the south endzone, where he had already made so many memories, and helped to give the kid one of his own.
One couldn’t ignore the coincidence that this was all happening in the same spot that Franks had stood one day shy of exactly a year earlier and shushed his home crowd during a comeback win over South Carolina. As such, while there are a lot of Feleipe Franks moments that will last long after his time at Florida has come to an end, this was one of the best. It was a moment made of everything that Franks embodies; unassuming in a world that expects him to be outlandish, selfless in a position that would allow him to be selfish, working to make others smile during a time he could easily pout alone…and the man that Florida needed, grown from the boy that arrived.
In that way, Franks and Florida have matured together, mirroring each other’s ascension while becoming inexplicably intertwined.
At some point it becomes cruel to force a man to live within his worse time, so we won’t continue to recap the lows that Florida and Franks experienced in 2017. They’ve all been well documented. We’ll say only this…at a time when both were supposed to be flourishing, Franks and his program were searching, falling and flailing to find some sort of sense of who they were. The 18-year old who had perpetually been lighthearted and easygoing began to buckle under the weight of the world that was unjustly dropped on his shoulders.
The arrival of Dan Mullen and thus a clean slate allowed Franks to start over. He did so by returning to who he had once been; the kid who entertains teammates with magic tricks, makes each act into a fun competition and unabashedly wears his heart on his sleeve. He healed and helped his beloved Gators heal in the process. There are many examples that can be given as favorite Franks moments at Florida, but here are the ones that made the biggest impact.
The “Heave to Cleave”
If Feleipe Franks had nothing else, he’d have the 63-yard bomb to Tyrie Cleveland to defeat Tennessee as time expired. As a redshirt freshman with an opportunity to cement his place in Florida history, Franks scampered out of the pocket. He was supposed to get the team in field goal range. But the risk taker with a howitzer for an arm saw an opportunity and took it. He arced one to Cleveland in the endzone for the score that sent Ben Hill Griffin Stadium into “an insane asylum” and forever linked Franks and Cleveland to one of the greatest moments in Florida football history.
The throwback pass vs LSU
Franks was originally committed to LSU so there was an additive to beating them for the Wakulla native. The first big signature win of the Dan Mullen era at Florida will largely be remembered by the Brad Stewart Pick-6 of Joe Burrow in the waning minutes that sealed a Gator victory. But it was a trick play with Franks and tight end Lucas Krull that made it all possible. With nine minutes to go in the game and No. 22 Florida trailing No. 5 LSU 19-14, Franks gave the handoff to Krull on what looked like a sweep, employed some acting chops to hold for one second then took off towards the first down marker down the right side. The left-handed Krull turned back and tossed a perfect pass to Franks who muscled his way down to the 2-yard line. The next play, Lamical Perine pushed in for the go-ahead score.
The 2018 Georgia loss
Leading into the Georgia game, the Gators began to tentatively talk playoffs. A hard loss to their biggest rival ended those dreams quickly and the entire team took it hard. None more so than Feleipe Franks. But still the quarterback, with tears streaming down his face, walked his team over to the Florida band after the game to sing the alma mater. It was a humbling moment for Franks that saw the beginning of his shift towards emotional leader for his team. It was the biggest difference he helped wrought within the program.
South Carolina game and shushing
As Florida continues to find success, it could be justifiably argued that Franks heel turn was one of the defining reasons. Social media has created a world where athletes are bombarded ten-fold and in ways most can’t even fathom. For so long, Franks internalized every bit of that unsolicited criticism, harboring each word. Knowing that fans wanted Kyle Trask to start following the Missouri loss and knowing he received a second chance following Trask’s subsequent injury, Franks went out and played for his coaches, his teammates and himself. When he shushed his home crowd following a touchdown, it signaled essentially the end of his focus on everything outside the program and focused on building within. And strange as it may seem to say this about a quarterback telling off his own fanbase, it ended the mindset set in by the previous regime of “us against the world, even our own fans” because it finally meant any outside noise was being ignored, not fought. He said “be quiet, I’ve got this”, and the fanbase listened. He delivered on his promise. A year later, Trask shushed the South Carolina crowd during the 2019 win and said after the game, “yea I had to get that one in for Franks.”
Peach Bowl MVP Presentation
That South Carolina win in 2018 set of a streak of 10 straight wins for the Gators. The Peach Bowl win against No. 7 Michigan capped the Cinderella season for Franks and Florida. By that point, Franks had realized if he led this team as himself and not who others wanted him to be, they could find more success. It’s why, again with tears but this time of the joyful variety, Franks was able to stand on a stage and accept the offensive MVP trophy following the New Year’s Six win. It was the biggest bowl victory for the Gators since the 2009 Sugar Bowl win over Cincinnati. It featured two Franks touchdowns and a well-earned tip of the cap from Gator nation.
The summer of 2019
The summer preceding Franks redshirt junior year saw him put his shoulders back and ask for the responsibilities that come with being the Florida quarterback. He arranged player only practices, took on SEC Media Days without shying from any questions, he stopped to meet fans when out and about and he introduced his family, like niece Jade, to the world. In short, he opened up to the fan base and willingly put himself out there, completely, for the first time since arriving in Gainesville. In turn, he helped reintroduce the Florida Gators to the national college football landscape and boldly proclaim their return to prominence.
The speech after 2019 Kentucky
Unfortunately for Feleipe Franks, the season that was supposed to be his magical year didn’t last long. In the third game, facing Kentucky, he went down with a season ending ankle injury. After being carted off the field, Franks was offered an early return back to Gainesville from Lexington. He asked instead to stay. He watched the rest of the game from the locker room with Dan Mullen’s wife, Megan, ignoring pain medication and extended treatment, just so he could be there for his team. And after the Gators came back from a 19-point deficit to win, Franks went on crutches to his teammates, told them how proud he was of them and made them promise to play every play like it was their last. Knowing that Kyle Trask was taking over the starting role, Franks elected to stick around because was this team’s leader, even if he couldn’t be on the field with them.
The timing of his departure announcement
By the time the 2019 regular season was coming to a close, Franks knew what his decision would be moving forward. This is Kyle Trask’s team now, Franks saw that it would be in good hands and he didn’t want to cause any uncertainty. But still he waited. Announcing his decision to leave the team before the FSU game would divert attention away from what the Top 10 Gators were doing on the field. So he quietly watched as Florida defeated FSU in the Swamp for the first time in a decade, a somber look on his face as he stood at the back of the crowd while the team sang the alma mater and then he walked off the field for what he knew would be the last time. The following morning, he returned and meandered through the facility as he said goodbye to the place that had shaped him. Then he made his announcement, the timing giving the coaching staff time to address the extra scholarship before early signing day.
Feleipe Franks will be leaving Gainesville now, electing to either transfer or test the NFL Draft, but there is no bad blood, there should be no ill will and there will always be a door open to the guy who poured his heart, body and soul into the rebirth of a program.