For former Mizzou wide receiver Will Franklin, it’s easy to pinpoint when he scraped rock bottom. A fourth-round draft pick by Kansas City in 2008, he washed out of the NFL a year later, was waived by the Chiefs, then the Lions, then the Raiders. As the opportunities dried up, depression took hold. A divorce soon followed.
“I was down, man. I lost so much of myself in (depression),” he said. “It caused my divorce. It was so hard because I had never felt failure. I had never felt not being wanted.”
What followed was life after football, a promising one that’s been more about giving than taking. Franklin returned to Mizzou in 2014 and finished his degree. He rejoined the football program as MU’s director of player development. He worked with younger versions of himself to make sure they had a plan when the game passes them by.
Then came another calling, one that’s become familiar for Mizzou players of his era. These days Franklin is back at his high school alma mater in St. Louis, back at Vashon, back at 3035 Cass Avenue, where he’s taken over as the school’s varsity football coach. He’ll coach his first game for the Wolverines this fall.
Franklin is just one of several who played for the Tigers during the Gary Pinkel years (2001-15) who have become high school head coaches in the area and around the state. Over at Trinity Catholic, there’s former MU cornerback Terrence Curry, fresh off winning last fall’s Missouri Class 3 state title. At De Smet, former MU cornerback Robert Steeples enters his fourth year as the Spartans' head coach. Former MU lineman Howard Brown has been back in North County for the last 15 years at McCluer South-Berkeley and now at McCluer. Across the river, former linebacker Orlando Gooden is the new coach at Granite City. At Vashon, Franklin hired former MU receiver Arnold Britt, another Vashon grad, as his offensive coordinator.
In Columbia, a couple former Tigers from the Pinkel years have just landed head-coaching jobs: defensive lineman Atiyyah Ellison at Battle High and tight end Michael Egnew at Father Tolton High. Over in Fulton, former punter Trey Barrow will coach his second season this fall, while down in the Bootheel, former running back Jimmy Jackson is back for his sixth year at Caruthersville.
Is it just a coincidence so many Pinkel players have ascended to head-coaching jobs around the state? Curry begs to differ.
“If it’s a coincidence then I’m a billionaire,” said Curry, who played for the Tigers from 1999-2003. “That just goes to show you the kind of influence and a teacher (Pinkel) was.”
When Curry bumped into Pinkel in Columbia at Mizzou’s spring game last month, the former coach congratulated his former team captain on his recent state championship.
“He said, ‘How did you pull that off?’” Curry recalled. “I told him, ‘I put the Coach Pinkel on them.’ He was a great influence on me as a person and a player.”
Curry, who for years ran the Damien Nash Youth Foundation, the late running back’s local charity, joined the Trinity staff a few seasons ago then last year replaced coach Cory Patterson when he left for the University of Illinois. Curry quickly found himself drilling into his players the same mantras that he learned at Mizzou under the program’s career wins leader, all based on discipline and structure.
“It’s the things I say to our guys all the time: ‘No one’s bigger than the team. We’re going to be six-second competitors. We’re going to know our assignments,’” Curry said. “I’ve seen what (Pinkel) implemented and how he turned regular football players into great players.”
Steeples spent his first four years at Mizzou then followed assistant coach Barry Odom to Memphis, where he played his final year of eligibility. He was a business major and planned to enter the corporate world after football.
While training with the Minnesota Vikings in 2014, Steeples had a run-in with a police officer that ended without incident but later got him thinking about his future after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, not far from the neighborhood where Steeples grew up. He decided then he wanted to play a positive role in his community.
“If I wanted to serve the youth I needed to have a better understanding of what they’re going through and get in the trenches with them,” he said.
As his NFL career winded down, Steeples took up substitute teaching and found he liked connecting with the students. Football would become his platform. He started helping with the De Smet staff, then landed the head-coaching job in 2016.
“A lot of us benefited and were developed by the city,” he said. “We want to come back and help. There’s a calling there and a need in St. Louis. … I always say my goal is to coach the young man first and the player second. You get to interact with a lot of people in the classroom and outside of football. Really it’s all relationships. You’re breaking the ice with young men and creating a culture so they can create memorable experiences together.”
Steeples counts Pinkel, Odom and former Mizzou strength coach Pat Ivey as his strongest influences. He laughs to himself when he hears himself repeating Pinkel to his De Smet players.
“Pinkel used to always say, ‘Get out of yourself and into the team,’” Steeples said. “You make fun of him a little bit at the time when he’d always say, ‘Winning is hard,’ but after experiencing some lean years here and then having success you really do realize that winning really is hard. Now I say it all the time.”
Shortly after playing his last game at Mizzou in 2003, Brown came home to Berkeley on a mission. During the season Mizzou offensive coordinator Dave Christensen had the linemen over for dinner, and after getting lost in their house, Brown pulled out a notebook, sat down with Susie, the coach’s wife, and asked a question: How did you get here?
Brown saw a happy, affluent couple, but he wanted to know their origin story. Over Susie’s cornbread casserole, he learned the early days of Dave’s career were a struggle. He filled his notebook about the humble beginnings that led to a long, successful career.
“The seed was planted,” Brown said. “You have to grind. You have to accept that foundation. … Those (coaches at Mizzou) were successful because they knew what it felt like to be hungry. The great coaches have been hungry.”
Brown came home to Berkeley and has since become a mainstay in the area’s coaching community and slowly built a team with limited resources into a winning program.
“Everyone has their ways of making a difference,” Brown said, “but the best way is this platform and using athletics to make change. It’s an amazing thing.”
When he coached at Mizzou, Pinkel was honest with players who asked him about getting into the coaching profession. The time commitment can be exhausting and hard on families, he cautioned. Never, though, did he expect to produce a new generation of high school coaches. For that, he’s proud and flattered, he said.
“One thing I’d want them to learn from what we did is you’ve got a responsibility to help kids and help them mature and guide through some personal things they have at home and give them great direction,” Pinkel said. “All those kids know that, and I’m very proud of them.”
“Boy, you can make a difference,” he added. “You can do things that allow these kids to grow and mature and some day their players will be talking about them and the influence they had.”
For all the depths he overcame after his playing career ended, Franklin might be one of Mizzou’s best success stories from the Pinkel years. As part of Odom’s staff, Franklin helped launch an annual career fair where former MU players came to Columbia to network with current players to talk about their plans after football. It was Franklin’s idea to help the current players buy suits for the event that they could later use for job interviews.
“You shouldn’t feel ashamed when football stops,” Franklin said.
MORE THAN FOOTBALL
At Vashon, Franklin knows many of his players will play their final games on his watch. Life will continue. For Franklin, his calling transcends football. It’s about hope. It’s about community. It’s about the area’s next generation. That point, Franklin said, was reinforced with the recent fatal shooting of eighth grader Jaylon McKenzie, a standout player in East St. Louis who was already drawing interest from major programs, including Mizzou.
“This is our future,” Franklin said. “Our young men are counting on us. Being at Vashon, knowing the type of life these guys go through, my worry is whether they eat or their home is a safe environment. That does make you want to do more. For me, it’s a do-more business.”