Zaire Franklin thought it was a joke.
Ninety-seven? That's the number assigned to me? As a linebacker?
A few days after the Colts picked him in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Franklin had to put on a No. 97 jersey – not exactly a number worn by many off-ball linebackers in the NFL – for his first practices with his new team. It was a harsh reminder about how difficult it'd be to navigate his way to a place in the league.
But Franklin wasn't discouraged by it. He was motivated.
"It made me work harder, made me tough through it and through the ups and downs, the highs and lows of my career, continue to push and persevere," Franklin said. "It definitely, to be in this moment now, it's validation of everything I put in and all the hard work I put in and the blood, sweat and tears."
This moment now was, last week, signing a contract extension with the Colts. He joined three teammates – tight end Mo Alie-Cox, tackle Matt Pryor and defensive end Tyquan Lewis – in inking extensions. And a few days later, the Colts signed cornerback Brandon Facyson, a former undrafted free agent who's spent his entire career playing for defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and defensive backs coach Ron Milus.
During one of the wildest NFL offseasons in recent memory, those contracts may have gone under the radar amid the churn of earth-shattering trades and big-splash free agent signings.
But for the guys actually putting pen to paper, those contracts mean so, so much. Security, stability, validation – those were some of the emotions those players experienced last week.
A friend of Alie-Cox texted him after news broke of his extension: "Did you cry?"
"I'm like nah, I didn't cry," Alie-Cox smiled. "It just feels secure. I guess it hasn't really hit me yet, but it kind of hit me now that I'm back in the building and seeing all the love and getting everyone congratulating me. But it just honestly feels great having that long-term security going forward and just knowing I'm going to be a key piece and help this team move forward."
Lewis was able to re-up with the Colts while rehabbing from a season-ending knee injury suffered while returning an interception in Week 8 of the 2021 season against the Tennessee Titans. Getting that second contract despite suffering a devastating injury – both the severity and timing of it – reinforced the confidence Lewis feels the team has in him.
"It means everything to me," Lewis said. "Despite everything that happened last year, it just goes to show the organization's a first-class organization, Chris (Ballard) still believes in me and the relationships here amongst the trainers and everyone in the building, it's the best you could imagine. I'm thankful and excited to get going again."
For Facyson, the opportunity to come to Indianapolis meant plenty to a guy who fought his way into the NFL as an undrafted free agent, then had to toil on the Los Angeles Rams' practice squad last year before he got another opportunity on an active roster with the Las Vegas Raiders.
"I can't even describe the emotion. I'm just so thankful, to be honest," Facyson said, pausing to collect his thoughts. "... Man, it just means everything. I've been through some things, and it's just like everyone else, everyone goes through things, it's how you come out of them. You gotta keep your faith and one day at a time.
"That's how I look at it. One day at a time, lord just give me strength each and every day. But man, it means everything to me, it means everything to my family, my mom and my dad and all my family and my loved ones, my friends from back home in Georgia and everywhere else, they were so supportive of everything and they've been that way.
"Honestly, I don't even think it's kind of hit yet. But I started to feel the emotion, and you probably hear it in my voice a little bit, but I'm so thankful. I can't thank this organization enough for believing in me. I just want to do whatever I can to help this team win, help this team as an organization, I can't wait to get here and just explore and get to know more about this beautiful place."
Pryor impressed the Colts after he was acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles on cut-down day before the start of the 2021 season. His physicality and versatility allowed him to quickly assimilate into the team's locker room, and he played well enough throughout the season to not only earn a new contract from the Colts, but earn the opportunity to compete to start at left tackle in 2022, general manager Chris Ballard said on the "Pat McAfee Show" this week.
For Pryor, the opportunity to compete as part of a strong locker room represented an ideal situation for continuing his career.
"It came down to the organization as a whole," Pryor said. "It's really tight-knit – it's kind of like that college experience, everybody's real tight-knit, everybody's cool. There's no separation between positions. Camaraderie is a big deal when it comes to playing sports to kind of keep that stress level down. So I felt like that had a great role to play in re-signing here."
Sometimes, the NFL news cycle rips through signings like these without a second thought. But when you stop and think about the amount of work and dedication it took Alie-Cox, Facyson, Franklin, Lewis and Pryor to get these contracts, you realize just how much this all means.
Of those five guys, two were undrafted free agents (Alie-Cox, Facyson), two were late-round picks (Franklin in the seventh round, Pryor in the sixth) and one is coming off a serious injury that could've cast his future in doubt (Lewis).
In a way, all of these guys were longshots to make it to Year 5. The average length of an NFL career is just over three years. Franklin remembers being a rookie and being impressed with his teammates who had made it five years in the NFL.
That's him now.
And Franklin's come a long way since being handed a No. 97 jersey. He's a two-time team captain. He established a foundation, Shelice's Angels, inspired by the strength of his grandmother, Juanita, and mother, Shelice. He notched his first career interception last year and became a father early in 2022.
Franklin accomplished plenty in his four years with the Colts – and while he sees plenty more left to accomplish in the NFL, he also recognizes how special it is that he made it to this point.
"I feel like the past year, the past season, I started to do that just because I feel like in life, especially how we live, it's always that next thing," Franklin said. "I was just telling my fiancee, I'm like man, we just had a baby and now we're thinking about this and thinking about that. It's always something else. Once you solve one problem, there's three popping up.
"And I feel like sometimes you really gotta sit and love yourself and be appreciative for the journey you went through. Sometimes, the business we're in, it's almost like you never want to get lax because it's a competition, everyone's trying to get in the building. But I think it's definitely a part of me that's starting to realize you have to love and appreciate the things you went through because it's that love and appreciation that's going to power you and propel you forward even further than if you were staying tight and tense the whole time."
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