It all hit Zaire Franklin on New Year's Day.
I'm not supposed to be here.
The kid from Philadelphia who grew up on welfare and food stamps, who lost the two people closest to him as a 16-year-old, who poured his life into football – he made it.
And he didn't just make it. He earned a contract extension, was a three-time team captain, a starting NFL linebacker and a soon-to-be record-holder. He started a foundation, Shelice’s Angels, in honor of his late mother and grandmother and continues to make a tremendous impact on young women through it.
On the field at MetLife Stadium, as those waves crashed over him before the Colts' Week 17 game against the New York Giants, Franklin broke down. He cried.
I'm not supposed to be here.
But I am.
"When you've been denied so long," Franklin said, "and when you have people telling you what you was but you didn't believe it. They were telling you what you were supposed to be the whole time.
"Man, and then to beat those odds?"
A few things Bobby Wagner said stuck in Franklin's mind this year.
"Anybody can have one good season," Wagner, the Seattle Seahawks linebacker who's had more than a few good seasons, cautioned Franklin.
And: "They're gonna see you coming now. Last year, they didn't see you coming."
In his first year as a full-time starter on defense, Franklin set a Colts record with 166 tackles. Using his high football IQ and thumping physicality, Franklin was a box-score-stuffing tone-setter. In the Colts' Week 3 win over the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, Franklin had 12 tackles to with a tackle for a loss, a quarterback hit and a pass break-up.
"I always thought he was a great player and just didn't necessarily have the opportunity," Wagner, who Franklin considers a mentor and inspiration both on and off the field, said. "Last year he had that opportunity and showed how good he could be in this league."
Franklin, throughout the 2022 season and into 2023, has managed to toe a line that isn't always easy for athletes to balance. He recognizes and celebrates his wins – "In this business if you don't," Franklin said, "nobody will" – yet understands there's more to accomplish than a single good season.
"If shiny things are what moves you, now you're more susceptible to being a one-hit wonder," Colts assistant linebackers coach Cato June said. "… But when that's not who you are and it's not your makeup — his makeup is being a leader. It's all about the team. And that's who he is. So him having success individually kind of is overshadowed by the team having success. It's easy when you're a man of character."
Franklin said he's already felt himself be "three steps ahead" of where he was at this time last year, when he was not only sliding into his first full-time starting gig but learning a new scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. Now in Year 2 under Bradley, Franklin is combining all his traits – "toughness, grit, durability, extremely smart," described linebackers coach Richard Smith – with experience in the style of defense he'll play on Sundays.
And he's continuing to put in the work necessary to have more than just one good season.
"The key to being really good is how can you play at a high level for a consistent period of time, and you could definitely tell he wants that," Wagner said. "He wants to have that consistency from his career. I always love watching his film. You could see the growth every year as a linebacker, you can see the splash plays, you can see him getting more comfortable making checks and things like that. So I definitely feel like he wants more and that's what's gonna make him great."
When Franklin isn't working toward building a legacy on the field, he's pouring himself into making a lasting impact in both Philadelphia and Indianapolis.
"I want that to be first and foremost," Franklin said. "Yes, he was a great player, yes he was a great leader. But also he affected every community in which he was in in a positive manner. And he left it better how he found it."
Through his foundation, Shelice's Angels (named after his late mother, Shelice), Franklin has hosted workshops, seminars and trips designed to arm young women with the tools, confidence and role models they need to succeed as professionals. He's taken groups of young women to meet with successful businesswomen at Meta, Google and the Philadelphia 76ers, among other workplaces. And, among other initiatives, he's hosted financial literacy seminars, using not only his degree in finance from Syracuse but his real-life experience having to budget in survival mode after his grandmother passed away.
"The genesis of it at its heart is really just me giving back to young women who are in situations that I was in," Franklin said. "I feel like so many times as athletes, we want to do football camps. When I pull up to a middle school, I'm talking to the young guys — they're like, 'oh, who's the best running back you played,' it's always stuff like that. And I love that — that's the stuff that motivates me, keeps me going.
"But I feel like so many times, the young women are the ones that are overlooked in those communities."
When Wagner was finished chatting with Colts.com for this story, he made sure to make one final point about his friend and fellow linebacker:
Highlight Franklin's impact in the community. More people need to know just how profoundly positive a force Franklin is through Shelice's Angels, Wagner – the Seattle Seahawks' 2019 Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee – said.
He's right. Franklin's story cannot be told without emphasizing the genuine passion he has for giving back, and using his platform as an NFL player to hammer it home.
"I remember being in school and I used to think, 'are the Eagles real players? Like, I don't — are they real people? I only see them on TV. They're like movie stars. Where they be at in Philly?'" Franklin said. "I used to always think that. And I always told myself like, man, if I make it to the league, I'm gonna make sure I come down, I'm gonna make sure the kids know that I went to this school because I always thought that'd be so cool
"… A lot of times it's to let the kids know that their dreams are real. I'm a real person. I really was in your shoes doing the things you did. You can obtain what I have. You could be just like me or better than me. You can reach these things, you can feel it, you can see it, you can see how I walk, talk, laugh. Because for me so many times, if I could see it, I could achieve it."
While Franklin is pouring making plays on the field and making an impact off it, there's something else more important and more fulfilling for him.
He's Kairo's dad.
Franklin and his fiancee welcomed their son into the world in 2022. When he looks at Kairo, all he wants is for his son to grow up in a happy household with the opportunities he never had
"For me," Franklin said, "It's just making sure that he lives a fulfilled life. I went through so much as a kid."
Franklin's mother passed away when he was 16. Two months later, his grandmother – a central figure in his adolescence – passed away. He had to go through unthinkable trials and tribulations to even become a massive longshot to make it to the NFL.
But Franklin made it. And his legacy as a player, as a community leader, as a father is just beginning.
"I've lost so much in my life, so to gain him," Franklin said, pausing for a beat. "It seems like it balanced everything out.
"He just means everything to me. He's why I do everything that I do."