So Much More Than Football

So Much More Than Football

By Jonathan Okanes, Cal Bear Blog


BERKELEY - Many football coaches go home at night and design a new play, tinker with a game plan or write a practice script.

Tony Franklin writes books.

Two, to be exact. It turns out that coaching football doesn’t define Cal’s offensive coordinator; it is simply a big part of his life that is full of so much more.  Along with an appreciation for the outdoors, unique people and free thought, Franklin is an author. He has penned two books, the second of which has had a profound effect on thousands of people throughout the South.

In 2005, Franklin wrote Victor’s Victory, the tragic story of 15-year old high school football player Victor Hill, who died of cardiac arrest during a consultation Franklin was giving to Hoover High School’s football team in Birmingham, Ala. The incident had a deep impact on Franklin, and he turned it into a mission to encourage schools to get equipped with Automated External Defibrillators, a device that potentially could have saved Hill’s life.

At the time, Franklin had already authored one book – Fourth Down and Life To Go – which chronicled the inner workings of the Kentucky football program. The genesis of Victor’s Victory really was just a coping mechanism for Franklin after witnessing Hill’s death firsthand.

“When I left, I went home and I wrote a chapter. I wrote it for me,” Franklin said. “I read it to my wife. I read it to my daughters. I thought that was it. But then I started going back to Hoover and helping them that season, and I got to know Victor as a person. I had no idea this 15-year old kid had dramatically changed so many people’s lives. The stories just started coming to me. I felt like I didn’t have a choice. I felt like I had to tell the story. It was a life-changing thing for me.”

Franklin said he spent about a year listening to people tell him stories about Hill. The book not only was a tribute to Hill, but became a vehicle to promote the use of defibrillators in schools and youth organizations everywhere.

After the book was published, Franklin started getting offers to help spread the word. One person in particular who lent a hand was Linda Ramsey, a professor of Health and Human Performance at the University of Tennessee-Martin. Ramsey found a copy of Victor’s Victory in the back of her father’s car and took it home to read it.

Ramsey happened to be on the board of a district of Kiwanis International, a volunteer organization focusing on improving the plight of children and communities. She suggested a project to get defibrillators in every school in her district, which covered Louisiana, Mississippi and West Tennessee.

“The book was tremendous,” said Ramsey, who retired in 2011 after 39 years as a professor. “We now have defibrillators in 400 schools and we’ve saved at least seven lives.”

When Ramsey became governor of her Kiwanis district, she set out to secure Franklin as a keynote speaker for its annual convention. She placed a call to the football office at Louisiana Tech, where Franklin was the offensive coordinator at the time

“Our recruiting secretary said this lady called and wanted to talk to me about my book,” Franklin said. “So I called her and Linda said there are six people walking today because I read that book. She asked me to come speak at a deal for the Kiwanis Club, and I did it. It was very emotional.”

“There was not a dry eye in the house,” Ramsey said. “You could tell how much he cared about the situation. Everybody was very emotional.”    

Franklin brought copies of his book to the convention and sold every one. He donated all the proceeds from those sales to Hill’s mother, Cheryl.

Ramsey said her Kiwanis district is still committed to the defibrillators cause, and has repeatedly delayed other projects to devote more energy to it. Ramsey and Franklin continue to keep in contact.

“He’s a very caring individual,” Ramsey said. “He’s a humble person. It’s not all about him. It’s about what he can do to help people.”

A football coach authoring two books may come as a surprise to some, but not to those who know Franklin. The native of Princeton, Ky., has always had an intellectual side. Before becoming a college football coach, Franklin spent 16 years teaching high school history and political science.

Franklin had spent his entire life in the South, but when he started recruiting in Northern California, it became his destination point. And the more he found out about Berkeley in particular, he had designs at winding up at Cal someday.

“Our ideal plan was to one day live in this area, and ideally it would be here at Cal,” Franklin said. “This is a place that is on the cutting edge of everything in the universe. Every time I came out here, I fell more in love with the place. I always felt like I’m a little weird. Here, I feel normal. It’s a good fit for me.”

Franklin has gone all in with the culture of Berkeley. He and his wife, Laura, bought a place in Downtown Berkeley, close enough to campus that Franklin walks to work every day. Franklin said he and Laura are avid walkers and have hit just about every restaurant on Shattuck Avenue.

“The biggest thing about Berkeley that I love the most is the openness - the openness of people being accepting of everyone,” Franklin said. “It’s the least judgmental community that I’ve ever lived in. People come together in a way that you don’t see in most places.”

Take a walk through campus in the middle of the day and you might find Franklin sitting on a bench reading a book under a tree. And no, it’s not a playbook. Franklin and Laura have also visited Carmel several times and enjoyed the beauty of Point Lobos, a natural reserve situated on the Pacific Ocean.

“It’s a real active community and a vibrant place,” Franklin said. “The campus itself has a feel and energy that my wife once said makes you feel smarter just walking through campus. That’s one of the reasons I walk every day – so I can try to get a little smarter.”

Cal head coach Sonny Dykes has worked with Franklin at Cal, Louisiana Tech and Kentucky. Like Franklin, Dykes’ interests aren’t limited to the football field. Because of that, he easily understands why Berkeley and Franklin are a perfect match.

“He’s a good fit for Berkeley because he’s very open-minded,” Dykes said. “He has a lot of interests outside of football. He loves literature and likes to write and meet interesting people. He’s a unique personality and gravitates to people that are interesting, and there are a lot of interesting characters around here. It’s a great fit from that perspective.”