The Colts on Tuesday named linebacker Zaire Franklin, the NFL's leading tackler and a profoundly positive force in the communities he calls home, as the team's 2023 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award nominee.
The Walter Payton Man of the Year Award is the most prestigious honor an NFL player can receive. The recipient of the 2023 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award will be announced during the annual NFL Honors show prior to Super Bowl LVIII on Feb. 8, 2024. Each Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee will receive up to $55,000, and the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year winner will receive a $250,000 donation to the charity of his choice.
Whether it's been in his hometown of Philadelphia or his adopted hometown of Indianapolis, Franklin's dedication to finding intentional ways to improve the lives of those in the community around him earned him the honor of becoming the Colts' Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee.
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. Franklin founded Shelice's Angels in 2019, and over the last four years has seen the young women he's worked with grow up – and be well-equipped to eventually enter professional environments in fields such as business and technology.
"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."
This June, Franklin hosted Shelice's Angels third annual business academy, a two-day event partnered with the University of Michigan for young women from two schools in Philadelphia. The event included a business simulation, guest speakers and a panel discussion aimed at empowering the young women in attendance with knowledge and experience to help them thrive in the business world later in life.
Franklin also took a group of female students from Cornwell Middle Magnet School in Philadelphia to Meta's New York headquarters in May for a tour and a question-and-answer session with some of the tech company's leaders.
Through Shelice's Angels, Franklin has taken groups of students on several visits to prominent workplaces in tech, sports and business, including the Philadelphia 76ers practice facility, HB Sports & Entertainment and Google's New York headquarters. On those trips, those students were able to meet and talk with several women in high-ranking positions.
The goal for Franklin, through Shelice's Angels, is to provide young women opportunities not only to learn, but to be able to envision themselves in the business and tech leadership positions those women are in.
"I always make an actual effort to make sure that I'm spending time with young women, giving them those experiences, giving them safe spaces to talk about their struggles and their dreams," Franklin said, "and to talk to other women who are successful about their journeys and what it took to actually reach those places."
Among other initiatives, he's hosted financial literacy seminars – including one last spring at Lucas Oil Stadium – 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.
Franklin also hosted a Thanksgiving Impact Program in November with the Boys and Girls Club of Indianapolis, providing a Thanksgiving meal and opportunity to spread hope to local youth.
And for all these initiatives, trips and events, Franklin is not only present, but deeply involved. It's not just money Franklin invests in kids and his communities – it's time, too.
"When I was their age, 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?' I used to always think that," Franklin said. "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.
"So for me to go back to my middle school, go back to my high school, go back to Philly or even in Indianapolis, 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."
Franklin has used his platform to support Shelice's Angels through several fundraisers, including a sold-out bowling night in Philadelphia this spring and a partnership with Indianapolis restaurant Hoagies & Hops, which donated a portion of proceeds from their sales – including "The Zaire" cheesesteak – to Shelice's Angels this fall.
On the field, Franklin has followed up his record-setting 2022 season – his 166 tackles set a Colts franchise record – by leading the NFL with 130 tackles entering Week 14. He's been voted a team captain every year since 2020, and his example – rising from being a seventh-round draft pick to special teams ace to starting linebacker to franchise record-holder, all while making a profound impact in the community – one for teammates to follow.
And being nominated for the NFL's highest honor will go down as another marker in the legacy Franklin has built – and aims to continue to build.
"I want that to be first and foremost — 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," Franklin said. "And he left it better how he found it."