TORONTO - Orlando Franklin has made it big in the NFL but hasn't forgotten his Toronto roots.
Over four seasons with the Denver Broncos, the towering six-foot-seven, 330-pound Franklin has developed into one of the league's top offensive linemen. Last week, he signed a five-year, US$36.5-million free-agent deal with the San Diego Chargers that included $16.5 million guaranteed.
Heady stuff for someone who had legal troubles growing up in Toronto. But Franklin wears a constant reminder of his adopted hometown, its name tattooed on his left forearm.
"Each and every day I realize where I came from and definitely hope I can be an inspiration," Franklin said in an interview Wednesday. "Hopefully many kids can look at my story and understand they could accomplish the same things I have."
Franklin was three years old when he and his mother arrived in Canada from Kingston, Jamaica. At age 12 he was arrested for robbery, then three years later for robbery and possessing a stolen car.
That led to an emotional discussion between mother and son. Franklin promised to change his ways but his mother made him put it in writing.
Franklin also asked his mother if they could move to football-crazy Florida so he'd have a better chance at success. They moved to Delray Beach, and Franklin ultimately landed a scholarship at Miami before being Denver's 2011 second-round pick and signing a four-year, $4.4-million deal.
Franklin started 70-of-71 games over four seasons with Denver, including playoffs. He lined up at right tackle for the Broncos' 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Now entering his fifth NFL campaign, Franklin feels he's an ambassador for Toronto when he steps on the field.
"I'm playing for Toronto, I'm playing to put Toronto on the map when it comes to football," Franklin said. "A lot of Canadians are getting many great opportunities in football now . . . I'm excited about what the future holds for this city.
"Every day I think about it (how far he's come). I remember when I was seven playing (youth) football running around and I never really thought it would evolve into what it has. I'm definitely grateful and thank God each and every day for putting me in this position."
The Chargers are banking on Franklin to help boost a rushing attack that averaged just 3.43 yards per carry last year, second-lowest in the NFL. Quarterback Philip Rivers was also sacked 36 times, 10th most overall.
Franklin will play left guard in San Diego and should have some familiarity with the offence. Head coach Mike McCoy served as Denver's offensive co-ordinator before heading to California.
"I would've loved to stay in Denver," Franklin said. "I had four great years there but they weren't able to give me the deal I thought I deserved.
"The great thing about San Diego is they have an established team and in December I'll be in flip flops, in January I'll be in flip flops and in February I'll be in flip flops. You can't complain when you get into a situation like that."
Once again Franklin will be tasked with protecting an All-Pro quarterback in Rivers. Franklin's final two seasons in Denver were with future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning under centre.
Franklin said his two seasons with Manning made him a better player.
"He just demanded so much from his peers and teammates around him that it just forces you to become a better player and grow up," Franklin said. "He's a perfectionist, that's the way he's on the field but is a big jokester off it.
"He plays around a lot and likes to remind himself and everyone around him that this is supposed to be fun . . . he's fun to be around."
And with the Chargers and Broncos being AFC West rivals, Franklin will face his former team twice annually.
"It's not really going to be odd," he said. "My (former) teammates understand."
For many fans, pro football is an obsession. But Franklin says for players, it's very much a job.
"When I was in college . . . I often felt I could beat the guy across from me with pure brute strength," Franklin said. "The thing about the NFL is you're going up against someone who's just as strong as you and knows as much about the game as you do.
"Not only does he have those advantages, but he's often a 10-year vet trying to stay on the field or make a team because he has three kids at home and been married for the last eight years. It definitely shows you that a lot of people have a lot more to play for at this level."