Zaire Franklin will never quit
He's severely underrated. And the Colts linebacker has forever possessed a rare life perspective, Philly to Syracuse to Indy. Now? He's hoping to spearhead a turnaround.
The Indianapolis Colts are a team in long-overdue transition.
Finally, they’re prepared to break in a rookie quarterback.
And as Shane Steichen takes over at head coach, he’ll be leaning on rugged, calloused, talented vets like Zaire Franklin. The team’s starting strong-side linebacker was a glimmer of optimism throughout last season’s 4-12-1 slog. In reality? Franklin is one of the best players nobody talks about in the NFL. His 167 tackles (102 solo) ranked fourth in the entire league. He’s a playmaker, too, racking up 12 TFLs, six QB hits, three sacks, two forced fumbles and six passes defensed.
No. 44 is a source of hope in America’s heartland.
Nothing in Franklin’s life is by accident, either. He’s a direct product of his mother and grandmother, both of whom died before he even went to college. After years of pain from a recurring tumor on the occipital nerve at the base of her brain, Mom (Shelice Highsmith) passed from heart failure in 2013. Two months later, his grandmother (Juanita Highsmith-Bailey) passed due to kidney failure. Their impact remains profound.
Franklin is entering his sixth pro season. In this conversation with Go Long, he opens up on everything:
How both women made him the person he is today.
The moment he nearly quit football, and why that day in seventh grade set the course for his life.
All of the losing at Syracuse. It was not easy. It served a purpose.
That surreal 2022 season with the Jeff Saturday-led Colts.
What Franklin wants to see out of the Colts’ next starting quarterback.
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Z? Zaire? Is there another nickname we’re missing?
Franklin: You can call me Zaire, “Z.” “Z-4” is what they called me in college. My family calls me “Ziggy.” That’s why they say, “Get Ziggy with it.”
Can you go by Ziggy at any age? I’m picturing you as a 60-, 70-year-old. It’s hard to call someone “Ziggy” at that age.
Franklin: That was a childhood thing. I don’t pee in the bed anymore. So I don’t know if I should be called Ziggy.
You’re a Syracuse kid. So we know you come from a good place. But where does it start for you — Philly, right? Your mother and grandmother raised you and taught you so much. When you’re figuring out how you got to this point, as one of the NFL’s best defensive players, where does it start?
Franklin: It starts in North Philly, being raised by a group of strong women who always had a plan for me. As they moved on and I had to grow up basically on my own since I was 16, it was constantly trying to make them proud. From Philly to Syracuse to, now, Indy. I definitely went through some different hurdles. You could say it’s the underdog story who stayed down until he came up really.
What did you go through at a young age? Losing both of your loved ones, I can’t imagine.
Franklin: It was different. I lost my mother when I was 16. But she had recurring brain tumors since I was in fifth grade. Her being sick, and me having to take care of her, was something that was consistent throughout my childhood. Me helping out with her. My grandmother raised me. That’s the person I really leaned on who taught me pretty much everything. Losing both of them within two months of each other shaped me into who I was. I had to grow up a lot earlier. That’s why I always felt I’m more mature than my years. For me, it set the stage for a lot of attributes and characteristics I ended up having.
I didn’t realize the brain tumors were on and off. So you’re in fifth grade through 11th grade?
Franklin: It was a crazy situation. After the first time she had it — the first surgery they did — they made a mistake and cut something they weren’t supposed to. She was disabled afterward. She couldn’t really take care of herself. It pretty much changed her whole personality.
Did they cut part of her brain?
Franklin: Yeah, there was something they were trying to clip out. I think they might’ve made some type of mistake. It altered a lot of things. Who she was.
How did that affect you at a really delicate age?
Franklin: For me, it’s always hard to see your parents go through something so tough. It’s your Mom. She’s the one you always run to. That’s supposed to be your protector. And here you are protecting her. Looking after her. That set the stage for being selfless, serving somebody else. The whole time, she still was my Mom. She still was getting on me about homework and when I messed up in school. She still came to my games when she could But it was that dynamic. Every time I tell somebody, “My Mom passed when I was in 11th grade,” they say, “I’m sorry to hear that.” But for me personally, I was watching my Mom in pain for a number of years. Anyone who’s ever had to take care of a sicked loved one — or someone who’s gone through something similar — they’ll tell you as much as you want them to see the highs and lows of your life, now I have a son and I’d love for her to meet her grandson, once she passed I was happy she wasn’t in pain anymore. I was happy the struggle and the fight she was going through every day — just to put her shoes on, just to get up every day and take care of herself — that struggle wasn’t there anymore. It’s almost a relief. It really teaches you what strength really means. In sports, we play through injuries. But when you’re put in those real-world situations and you’re able to see someone you love go through those types of scenarios, I think it puts a whole lot of things in perspective.
What was your Mom struggling with? Was it memory? Communicating?
Franklin: She was an extreme diabetic afterward. A number of health problems and stuff going on with her diet. You also have to understand that I grew up on welfare. We didn’t have much. I have the best healthcare in the world right now. If my kid needs something, if we need something, we get whatever we need. The neighborhood I grew up in wasn’t like that. When you grow up in neighborhoods like that, the food that’s available to you, there’s no “organic.” I didn’t know what organic was until I got to the NFL. She’s struggling. If we were better off financially, maybe things could’ve been different.
Mentally, was she OK?
Franklin: She was. There would be some memory loss. There was a myriad of health issues that were consistent.
Putting her shoes on in the morning. Helping her get dressed. Helping her get around the house. Cook. This is a life that not many fifth-, sixth-, seventh-graders are living.
Franklin: My grandmother shouldered a lot of the load. That was a lot on her as well. They had an extremely close relationship. So I know that was tough on her to watch her youngest daughter go through that. We were supporting her together. We obviously had family support. People were around. It wasn’t just a “me” thing. I’d never take that. It was tough watching your Mom go through that.
What was your neighborhood like in North Philly?
Franklin: I moved uptown once I got to fifth grade. The way Philly’s set up is different. Most cities I’ve traveled to, like Chicago, everybody knows: “South Side Chicago, don’t go to this part.” The way Philly’s set up, every neighborhood has trouble. But some places, you’re more likely to find trouble. Where I grew up, it wasn’t the worst but there was stuff going on. My grandmother used to tell me: “You’re going to college or else.” She’d tell me that since I was a little kid. Going to college and getting my degree was always super important to her. I think that’s why it was so important for me to finish my degree at Syracuse.
It sounds like your Mom and your grandmother instilled different qualities in you. Your grandma was more hardnosed, get into football, take people out. Your mom had more delicacies and sensitivities. What did you pick up from both of them?
Franklin: You hit it. My grandmother was crazy, man. She used to sit on the sideline and yell, “Be a hitter, not a looker!” She’d yell it. Everybody loved her on the sideline. I wish she could come to our games today. Oh my God. It would be so lit. She was that energy. She was that fire. She gave me that passion and that love and that hunger. My Mom always believed in me. She used to tell my aunt, her sister: “He’s going to be a star. He’s going to be special.” She’d always speak that over me. For her, she always wanted to push me past whatever I could see in the moment. Push me past just being an athlete. Push me past just doing good enough. She’d say, “Go sit down and read the newspaper. Bring me back four words you don’t understand.” And I’m taking the sports section. She’d say, “You can’t take the sports section. You’ve got to read about real estate.” She was the dreamer I needed. I think the balance of both of them added to who I am.
When I lived in Philly… you could see the passion in fans. It really was as authentic as it gets. I’ll take that over these contrived markets, like a Los Angeles.
Franklin: I tell people all the time. And my teammates look at me like I’m crazy. Growing up in Philly gave me a certain appreciation for passion — as a fan. I want fans to be just as bought in. It makes the game fun. It makes the city fun. Because you’re all riding the highs and lows together. Buffalo has some wild, passionate fans, too. When those fans love you, when they really care, it means so much more. We were playing the Giants this past season. We were pulling in and a little six-year-old girl sees us driving by and flips the middle finger. I turn around and say, “You all see that? That’s a real fan right there.”
Mom and Dad were right there encouraging her to do it. That made me feel at home. I was like, “I can play here.” That’s the type of energy I want.
The defining moment
How did you become a bonafide prospect? Way back, your Mom got you into karate. And you have grandma teaching you how to hit. When did you become this mean machine in the middle of a defense?
Franklin: I always had a natural knack for the basics it took to be great at the game. For me, the biggest moment I can think of in my football career, I was in seventh grade. I played Pop Warner where you have to weigh in and every year I was overweight for the first couple games. It was always hard for me to weigh in at a certain amount. Honestly, when I was in seventh grade, I was tired of it. I was tired of trying to lose weight. I was tired of dieting — I still hate dieting to this day. I was tired of not eating school lunch. I had to bring my own lunch and drink my own drinks. I was tired of it. I told my grandmother I wanted to quit football. She said, “OK.” She let me stay home for a day. I didn’t go to practice. I went to the kitchen and ate three honey buns because I couldn’t wait to eat what I wanted to eat. That was my rebellion. And then the next day she said, “If you want to quit, I’ll let you quit. But you have to tell every single coach that you played for that you’re quitting and why you’re quitting.” I didn’t even make it past the first coach. That moment taught me how to see something through. Now, I feel like I can’t quit anything. And it really taught me dedication. Pushing through things that are hard. Even going through something you don’t want to, push through it. See a vision. That wasn’t even one of my favorite years of football. It wasn’t like I came back, we won a championship, I was MVP and that changed everything. It wasn’t. But that small lesson taught me, “No. Keep going.” Through all the highs and lows I had — through college, through the league — I always felt I could lean on that moment right there. That’s something that changed my life.
Why couldn’t you get through that first conversation? Did the coach talk you out of it? Or hard enough for you to verbalize?
Franklin: You get embarrassed. I read a lot of books about leadership. They’re always referencing the military. In Marines and SEALs training, they always have that bell when they’re training on the beach. A part of it is when you’re going to quit something, there’s accountability. You’re quitting on the guys you’re going through it with. You have to ring that bell in front of everybody else. That weighs heavier on you. A lot of guys, especially now with the transfer portal and all kinds of nonsense, it’s so easy for guys to change sides and switch teams and not work through things that are tough. A lot of times, they’re not taught to have a conversation about what’s actually going on. I’ve had college coaches tell me that kids are transferring because they’re not playing and they never even talked to them about it. As adults, you’re like, “That doesn’t make sense.” That’s where the new generation has been heading.
For me, that’s something that was instilled in me early. It was that level of accountability. If you want to quit, if you don’t want to do this anymore, go be a man and go tell the people you gave your word to, your commitment to that you’re not going to do it anymore. Not to say that if you have a justified reason, you can’t stop. For me, that weeds out a lot of the bullshit.
There’s such a value in going through hard times. Tony Gonzalez said the same thing. He knows his kids can get whatever they want whenever they want it, but that they’ve got to go through “shit.” To grow as a human being, you need hard times. He wants them to avoid the traumatic stuff he went through, as I’m sure you do. But you don’t want to be a snowplow parent and remove all obstacles because what does that do for you?
Franklin: Even now, as a man of faith, I’ve come to the point where I appreciate hard times. I appreciate adversity because it makes you stronger. I don’t remember the exact verse. But in the Bible, there’s a verse that says when adversity comes, they thank God because they know he’s taking weakness from them. He’s training them and sharpening them for a stronger battle to come in the future. That’s really how I feel. When I was at Syracuse, we won a total of 12 games my entire career. I started four years and we won a total of 12 games. It was tough. My sophomore year, we started 3-0 and lost nine straight. It was ridiculous. But I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about leadership. I learned what it meant to be a good teammate. I learned a lot about how people respond in those type of situations. No, I don’t want to go through that. No, I don’t wish that on anybody. To be honest, that prepared me for the trials we went through this year. Losing a coach, going through adversity. … I tell people all the time. I learned the most about leadership at Syracuse.
Going there (a few years before you), I can remember some games in the Greg Robinson Era and even the start of Doug Marrone, you’d look in that crowd and there weren’t many people in those stands. If you’re a student, and if you’re not a freshman, you’re probably not going to a Syracuse football game. You’re losing. It’s going south. You’re trying to find a reason to get up in the morning and lift weights. How brutal is it? You’re at a big-time school, not winning, and very few people even care as you need to punch in, punch out.
Franklin: This year for example. We’re playing. We’re out of playoff contention. We have an interim head coach. Everybody’s playing for their jobs next year. I just re-signed so I know I’ll probably be OK. It’s a lot of, “What are you playing for? What’s getting you excited?” I love to compete. I love the opportunity. I love the game. For me, yes, it’s hard. It’s tough dealing with politics as you’re going through a downturn as a program or as an organization. You tell me we get to play against first-rounders and I’m going to go play. Tell me I get to compete against Dalvin (Cook) or Justin Herbert or any of these great players and that’s a chance to measure myself against the league’s best and prove who I am. Even in college, I felt the same way. In my division, we had Lamar Jackson at Louisville. We had D-Watson at Clemson. Florida State was just coming off their run. They still had Derwin and their guys. There were superstars abound. I prided myself on, every time we played, I wanted to be the best guy on the field.
And you turned yourself into an NFL prospect. What was the turning point there to get on the map? A play? A moment?
Franklin: The play where I really knew I could play in the league happened my junior year. We were playing against Notre Dame. He’s probably tired of me telling the story. Going into the game, I knew they had Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. All week, they were talking about, “This is the most pro-ready offensive line you’ll play in your career.” So in my mind, I’m like, “OK, I’m playing against an NFL offensive line this week.” I finished the game with 10 tackles, a sack and an interception. After the game, I felt like, “If this is considered the best in college, not only did I have a great game — I could’ve played better. I can compete at the highest level.” That was the turning point. Coming out for the draft, no Combine invite. No Senior Bowl invite. I didn’t get an invite to any of those all-star games. I think it was my pro day that really got it done. Once I got in the door in Indianapolis, they weren’t going to close it.
You’re a seventh-round pick. You have a lot of studs on that defense — “The Maniac” right by you. Darius Leonard is wired different. How did you become what you are today as a guy who easily could’ve been cut your first training camp?
Franklin: Ray Allen talked to our team a couple years ago during Covid and he said something that really hit me: “Be a superstar in your role. Whatever that role may be.” When I look back on it — my first year when I was starting a little bit, rotating on defense, to the next two years when I was mainly special teams, to the last two years as I’ve built a name for myself as a defensive player — whatever role I had I was trying to be the best at it to help the team win. I was willing to be whoever I had to be to keep it going. I always believed in myself. I always believed in the back of my mind, even when I was only playing special teams and even when half the bus would have to get in a car accident and then the coach would have to be in a good mood for me to play defense that day. Even when that was the situation, I still believed in my mind: “When I play, when I get my opportunity, I’m going to be one of the best linebackers in the league. I know who I am. I’m an every-down linebacker.” Watching Darius make so many plays and Kenny (Moore), it motivated me. It made me believe in myself because I understood that, at some point, people viewed them as not good enough to do what they’re doing today. Even though my journey is a little later than theirs, I knew I’d be able to accomplish what I want to accomplish.
This year was crazy. This defense had the makings of being elite. You add a quarterback that you hope is the missing piece. Jonathan Taylor is the NFL’s best rusher. You’re probably thinking “Super Bowl.” Stephon Gilmore’s there. Was that the expectation last season?
Franklin: For sure. No question. You get a feeling from management and the coaching staff when they feel like, “We got the team. We’ve got a team that can do some shit.” I definitely feel like that was the feeling in the room, in our organization. It was one of those situations where it was death by a million cuts. So many different things stopped us from really taking that next step over the last five years honestly. A paper cut turns to a bullet wound. We weren’t strong enough to weather that storm. It all broke down.
What was your reaction to the news that Jeff Saturday would be your coach in the middle of the season?
Franklin: To be honest, I wasn’t sure how to react. I found out the same as everybody else — on my phone. That’s the craziest thing about it, too. When Jeff was hired, I was still reeling from Frank. I had a great relationship with Coach Reich. He’s a great man. And I understood that changes probably needed to be made at that point. But it was still disappointing that we didn’t accomplish the goal we set out to accomplish. I was still dealing with that. Jeff did a great job of, “Look, I’m here now. Let’s move forward. I’m not trying to be like anybody else. I’m just trying to be me.” I think he did a great job of trying to instill his imprint on whatever it was.”
You won a game nobody expected you to win. You got big leads and lost those big leads. What a roller-coaster.
Franklin: I was telling people, “We’re not even quiet bad.” I feel like there’s teams in the league that are bad. It shows you how small the margin for error really is in the league. The difference between good and bad is really not as far as people think. There’s a little luck and a lot of preparation. For us, we were a bad team in that we didn’t have the general build and the foundation that it’d take to go on a playoff run. But we were extremely talented. Extremely talented. To be honest, it may be the most talented team we’ve had since I’ve been here other than 2019 when Andrew retired. Defensively, we had stars everywhere. We had guys having career years everywhere. We had it. That just goes to show you that, yes, it’s about talent. Everybody needs talent. L.A. just overpowered with talent. But it took guys that had been there who understood what it took to weather those storms. Like Aaron Donald. Those tough guys. Matthew Stafford, a veteran who had been through something understood what it took to push through a moment. Because talent is going to beat talent. Where do you go from there?
It has to be strange on a personal level to have a career year — you almost had 200 tackles, forced fumbles, sacks, making plays — and all of these brutal losses. There had to have been a moment where it hit you that you’re a legit starter in the NFL for a long time… meanwhile you give up that lead against Minnesota and these losses are just eating away at you.
Franklin: You’re devastated about how the team is doing. It sucks. When you have a great performance without the win, it’s just so empty. You get a win with a great performance? Now, you’re getting Player of the Weeks, now you’re getting Pro Bowl votes. But when you lose, it’s almost like you have to go into hiding for a week. For me, it was one of those situations where I was extremely happy and proud of myself. Because I always felt like I was a guy in the league — now it’s “You’re really doing it. You’re really proving it.” It felt good to feel what that feels like, to change the game. When I’m making big plays? I just shifted the game. That’s a good feeling. Knowing you that you have that power. Knowing that you have that capability, that playmaking ability. It was disappointing to be losing. But at the end of the day, tough times make you stronger. We went through this season. It was what it was. Let’s learn from it. Let’s move on. Let’s bounce back.
You seem like a leader — a voice — that could get this team right and moving the right direction given everything you’ve been through. How do you plan on being a voice to reset and turn this team into a winner.
Franklin: First thing’s first. It comes with supporting our new coach: Coach Steichen. Obviously, I have a tremendous amount of respect for him just because he won that Philly game. We had them, and they made a call that we didn’t see coming. An adjustment. I sat down with the coaches afterward, like “Man.” He’s a great coach watching what they did in Philly. For me personally — as a voice in the locker room — it’s understanding, yes, we had some good teams. We had some great times. We had some big wins and some big losses over the course of my last five years. But we haven’t accomplished anything. Through all those things, we didn’t win anything. So at that point, that allows you to put every process that we had, every scenario we had before, it allows you to put that into question because regardless that didn’t get you the results you wanted. So now you have no choice but to embrace something new. Embrace the change. Embrace the different perspective. Embrace the new voice. Embrace the new systems because the definition of “insanity” is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. We weren’t getting the results we wanted so we made major shifts, major overhauls. Life is about change. The league is about change. The worst thing you can do is try to fight it. You might as well get on the train and run with it because the faster all of us are pulling in one direction, the faster we’ll get this whole thing moving. That’s my whole mentality about the whole situation.
Almost like you need harsh conversations — amongst players — to bust through. This team’s been banging at the door for a while.
Franklin: I know Ballard and Mr. Irsay and everybody they’ve relieved, they’ve been racking their brain on what that missing piece is. I know they’ll come up with an answer. I’m a soldier so I’m ready to ride out.
It’s a young quarterback. That’s what the piece is. In a vacuum, all of the signings made sense. I was at Colts training camp and you see Matt Ryan out there — he’s a general. You start to think, “OK, maybe he can squeeze one more year out of his career.” Carson Wentz. Philip Rivers. We’re not exactly sharing nuclear codes here in saying Indianapolis is going to draft a quarterback and go young. So GM “Z,” who are you taking?
Franklin: (Laughs) Oh man. Bryce is obviously a great player. A winner. I like C.J. as well. I ain’t going to lie, I just want a young dude who’s going to come in and is ready to work and win and is about greatness. And isn’t just about being popular. I want somebody who’s going to come in and is ready to grind, is ready to get after it. I know they’re going to do their due diligence and get the guy that they need. Everybody wants to kill us. I love that the media is so… their memory gets erased. I remember when we first got Carson, everybody was like, “Man, that was the move of the offseason! A-plus move.” Guess what, it didn’t work out. That’s cool. That’s fine. Everything doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to. But don’t kill us in hindsight. That’s corny.
What are those signs of “greatness” you want to see in a quarterback?
Franklin: I love competing. You can ask any of my teammates. I love when we get a chance to compete against Derrick Henry. He’s an all-time back. He’s a great back. I want to compare myself vs. the best. I want to compare myself vs. Saquon, vs. Dalvin Cook, vs. Josh Jacobs, I want to go against those dudes. I want to beat those guys. In my opinion, that’s what this game is all about. In the AFC, it’s understanding the gauntlet that you’re jumping into. Mahomes. Burrow. Allen. Lamar Jackson. Those are the guys you have to beat. No questions asked. So that’s what you want, not just from your quarterback, but the rest of your team. Across the board. You want guys who want to be the best. Train to be the best, expect to be the best, work to be the best. If you have that mentality, and you have a team with that mentality… that’s all it’s about. If we do get a young bull, whoever we bring in, we’re going to check his temperature for sure.
Any big plans this offseason?
Franklin: I have a fundraiser for my nonprofit. I named it after my mother: Shelice's Angels. Really just focused on helping young kids in underserved communities with a special target on young women as a nod to my mother and grandmother. We have our first fundraiser coming up in Philadelphia. You can see it on my socials, @ShelicesAngels. We have a bunch of cool things I’m going to announce. I always take a group of like 10 girls, take them to a really dope… a couple years ago, we took them to Google headquarters in New York City, and then to the Prudential Center in Jersey, and then the Sixers headquarters to meet the whole marketing (department) and walk out on the basketball court and see all the guys.
So, since you were raised by these incredibly strong women, you want to give back to the next generation?
Franklin: Of course. Women have played such a strong role in my life raising me. I go to high schools. I pull up to football practices. I’m obviously going to relate to the young men because I know exactly what they’re going through and where they’re from. I understand them. But sometimes, it’s the young women who need our help. I feel like they’re overlooked. My organization is doing our best to give a nod to them. And it’s in honor of my mother and grandmother.
Did you have a relationship with your Dad?
Franklin: I have a relationship with him. I grew up knowing him. He moved to Florida when I was in third grade and then he came back when I was in high school. I still know him to this day. We’re not as close, but I definitely have a relationship with him.
Now, everybody’s sleeping on the Colts. You’ve been mocked, forgotten, dismissed. You’ll be written off as a rebuilding team in transition.
Franklin: Every season needs a hero. Every season needs a villain. I’m cool playing either role.
Anything else you want people to know?
Franklin: Follow me on Instagram, @Zaire__. Follow me on Twitter, @ZiggySmalls_. And follow me on the journey. That’s all I really can say.
Before I lose you, how old is your son?
Franklin: He just turned 1 on Feb. 6. Little man over there. He’s in another room going crazy right now.
How do you like fatherhood?
Franklin: It’s a blessing. It’s great. People don’t understand how much a little 1-year-old will wear you out, though. He’ll burn you out. They’re so quick and get into all kinds of things. It’s lovely man. That’s my heart. He inspires me. We watch Mickey Mouse and all that. That’s my guy.
Once you get past that threshold, they’ll climb over anything that’s near. Your head’s on a swivel in the middle of that Colts defense, but definitely at home.
Franklin: No question. Got to.
Past Colts stories at Go Long…
Awesome article. Love learning about the drive these players possess to become great. Can't wait for Z and Shaq together!!!