- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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When Auburn coach Gus Malzahn talks about the 2012 Tigers going through a storm, he might as well include Missouri quarterback James Franklin.
The senior went through a hurricane in Columbia, Mo., last year, but managed to find the strength to stand again in 2013. A year removed from an injury-plagued SEC debut, Franklin is a little more than a day away from playing for his school's first SEC title.
It's a fitting last stand for a player who has given so much to his program and who went from being a breakout player in 2011 to injured in 2012.
"It's pretty exciting to me to be able to be at this point and be able to come back this season and to have some success," Franklin said. "I'm just really thankful for it. I'm glad that I did go through the things that I did, and it's helped me out a lot with my perspective and perception on some things. I'm just thankful that I've gotten to come back after this year of getting hurt and my teammates have welcomed me back."
And they should have with open arms. Franklin has been one of the most selfless players around since arriving at Missouri. He's taken heat for not being "tough enough," as if his laundry list of injuries were simply overlooked, but didn't publicly pout. He supported his team when he couldn't be on the field and led them valiantly on the field (mostly in pain).
Last year, Franklin, who was coming off a 2011 season in which he threw for 2,865 yards, rushed for 981 and had 36 total touchdowns, suffered multiple shoulder injuries (starting in spring practice), a knee injury and a concussion. He played in just nine games and totaled 1,684 yards and 10 scores.
With a young, talented Maty Mauk waiting in the wings, many wondered if Franklin's days as the Tigers' quarterback were coming to an end. Those thoughts only intensified when coach Gary Pinkel opened the quarterback competition this spring.
Despite a very strong push from Mauk, Franklin won the starting job before the season and immediately went back to being his old self, passing for 1,577 yards with 14 touchdowns and rushing for 290 yards and three touchdowns before suffering yet another shoulder injury against Georgia on Oct. 12.
Franklin was sidelined for a month and had to hear about and watch Mauk perform masterfully in his place.
"It was definitely frustrating having to watch on the sidelines because I wanted to be out there and playing to help my team win," Franklin said. "At the same time, it was good to see them winning and knowing that they could still go in there and make plays, especially on the opposite side of the ball, put up points and do a good job and be successful with Maty in there."
While receiver L'Damian Washington stood strong behind starting Mauk, it was hard for him to see Franklin on the sideline.
"It's tough because that's my brother," Washington said. "You always feel for your brother whenever they're going through a trying time in their lives."
Two drives into Franklin's return to the football field on Nov. 23, he felt the sting of college football wash over him when he was stopped for no gain on a scamper and then sacked by Ole Miss linebacker Mike Marry.
Having James [Franklin] back there at quarterback, I think it adds a little more confidence to our offense and defense as a whole. I think it basically does something to our team. We know how relentless he is. We know the fighter he is.
”-- Missouri WR L'Damian Washington
Because of his past, the sight of Franklin being hit was cringe-worthy. But he didn't fret. He didn't hesitate, and he didn't linger on the turf inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. He popped up and kept playing. His nerves weren't shot, as pain finally wasn't shooting through a shoulder that had been to hell and back since the spring of 2012.
"It felt good [to take contact]," Franklin said after Missouri's 24-10 win over the Rebels. "Thankfully, I didn't take too many hits. When I did, I wasn't really thinking about it. To be able to come out and pass and run, it felt good."
Franklin finished that game with 142 passing yards and 42 rushing yards. Nothing flashy on paper, but mentally, it was a major step forward for a quarterback who has been so banged up in his two seasons in the SEC.
In last week's SEC East-clinching win over Texas A&M, Franklin threw for 233 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another 80 yards. The hits have kept coming, but Franklin has kept chugging.
In two seasons, Franklin has seen his game, body and image take hits. In 2012, he dealt with the controversy surrounding his decision to refuse to take a cortisone shot in his shoulder. He heard grumblings from fans about his toughness and no one was quite sure how he'd handle his 2013 return.
Some weren't even sure if he'd be the starter, but the return of Franklin has clearly made this team better. He's blocked out pain and distractions to lead this team through a special season. Mizzou won with Mauk, but it's 11-1 record (9-0 with Franklin as the starter), No. 5 BCS ranking and East crown were earned in large part by what Franklin has done.
"Having James back there at quarterback, I think it adds a little more confidence to our offense and defense as a whole," Washington said. "I think it basically does something to our team. We know how relentless he is. We know the fighter he is.
"He's going to lead this team, and right now we wouldn't have gotten this far without James. He's definitely our hero, our team leader right now. We're just going to follow him and continue to follow his lead."
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