"Third-and-goal, yard-and-a-half for Chicago," Bob Papa, NFL Network's play-by-play announcer, says above the orchestra cheers of the San Francisco 49ers crowd.
It's Thursday night football at Candlestick park, and nearly 70,000 people are shouting into the haze that's formed from the mixture of evening mist and dirt kicked up from players' cleats, hoping their collective distraction is enough to stymie what looks to be a sure Bears scoring chance.
No team really established momentum early on, until early in the second, when the Bears, behind quarterback Jay Cutler, began a long march to San Francisco's one-yard line.
Chicago lined up in goal line formation and the 49ers match up likewise, sending seven down linemen and packing the box with two more.
"Cutler with time…" Papa says again above the roar of the crowd as Cutler fakes a hand-off and drops back. "And … Intercepted!"
Aubrayo Franklin knew exactly what play Chicago was going to run before they ran it. The 49ers nose tackle saw Bears tight end Greg Olsen settle lightly in his stance, priming to fire off in a pass route at the snap of the ball.
"I just played my keys, and I felt like they weren't going to run it," Franklin said. "I just anticipated that they were going to pass and I played over the top. He rolled out and passed and I snatched it."
Franklin, on that night, simultaneously became the only nose tackle in the NFL this season to record an interception and put a trademark stamp on what has been nothing short of a breakout season.
Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky calls him the gear that makes the wheels of the defense turn. Aside from picking off quarterbacks in the red zone to save touchdowns, Franklin quietly has become one of the most adept defensive linemen in the league at reading gaps and beating his man to them, using his lateral quickness and hand speed to give opposing offensive linemen fits.
Franklin, who has been a professional football player for eight years has an easily recognizable first name, but he hasn't become a household name yet. As he continues to warrant praise for his efforts anchoring a defensive-line that has vaulted, statistically, into the top five in the NFL
Early BeginningsFranklin started playing football at age 10, which was a bit later than he would have liked. He played many sports as a child in Johnson City, TN., but when it came to football, he had to abide by rules set in place to protect other children.
In Pop Warner leagues across the country, teams are divided by weight, not age or grade level. This is done to group kids of similar size into the same teams to guard against injury, but Franklin had always been a cut above, barely missing weight limits.
"I played offensive line and defensive line," Franklin recalled. "I was big. We had a weight limit, so it was always hard for me to make the team because we had a weight limit. I was too big."
But, when he did play, he single-handedly changed games. With his mother Chauntini Carter appearing at every game in support of young Aubrayo, he was dominant enough to earn a spot in a state All-Star game, played against a select team from further south in Tennessee.
Most impressive about Franklin's efforts was that due to his size, he only played Pop Warner for one year – and he still earned his way to the state's biggest youth football game.
"I remember I got MVP of the game," Franklin said of his All-Star performance. "I got a real big hit that game, and it was the play of the game."
Just as he would do nearly 20 years later on a national stage in the NFL, Franklin read his keys and beat every linemen down the line of scrimmage on a toss sweep, caught up to the running back and made the tackle.
Loving the lineAs Franklin grew, both in size and age, athletics came naturally to him. He was just gifted with unnatural agility and speed for someone his size.
But football took a backseat for Franklin. His first love was baseball. Manning the hot corner, Franklin stood out as a prime defensive and offensive third baseman. The same side-to-side power allowed him to stab at balls hit in the gap, and his over-sized strength gave him the ability to hit the ball wherever he pleased.
"I could do both offense and defense," Franklin remembered. "I was actually pretty good. I played my freshman year of high school, but then my football coach persuaded me to stay in one sport. So, I just stuck with football."
It turned out to be a good decision.
Playing at Science Hill High School in his hometown Johnson City, Franklin turned into a star. Despite his size, his coaches loved how quickly he could sniff a play out and hunt it down, part instinct, part freakish athleticism. So, at nearly 260 pounds as a high schooler, Franklin played linebacker.
"From tackle to tackle, I was making plays," Franklin said. "Coaches who wanted to recruit me out of high school would always tell me, 'We're recruiting you as a defensive lineman.'"
Naturally, Franklin made the switch to a nose tackle – a position he fell in love with because it brought him to instant contact on nearly every play.
"I didn't really have to wait for the contact," he said. "The only thing that was hard was the adjustment of my reads – at linebacker reading back as opposed to reading right up front."
Earning itSteve Spurrier, the only Heisman Trophy winner ever drafted by the 49ers, also played at Science Hill, and Spurrier knew exactly who Franklin was. So impressed was the "Old Ball Coach" that he offered Aubrayo a scholarship to the University of Florida – but Spurrier wasn't the only one.
Franklin was pulling in Division 1 scholarship offers faster than he was pulling down opposing running backs, but something was pulling Franklin as well.
"I got the D-I offers," Franklin said. "I was getting recruited by a bunch of D-I schools, some top schools. I just didn't have my grades. So, I decided to go to Mississippi for Junior College. That made me grow up a whole lot, being that far from home knowing that it's your last chance to get back into Division I."
He chose Itawamba Community College for many reasons, but without his mother Chauntini, Aubrayo says he might not have earned his way to a D-1 university.
Chauntini went to every single athletic event she possibly could as much as she could. She would take him to basketball and Pop Warner as a child, and be at all of his football games in high school. Not only would she spend time with him after his games asking him how he felt or talking Xs and Os, she also helped him find his faith.
"She was real big in my life – really big spiritually," Franklin said. "She was the first one to show me about reading the bible and things like that. The way she lived her life was an example for me. She was a big motivation for me."
At Itawamba college, Franklin would earn numerous awards and national recognition, but without his mother's help and motivation, he said grades would have been much more difficult.
Going proMoving on from a small Mississippi community college to a Southeastern Conference university like Tennessee was the next step for Aubrayo athletically, but from when he graduated high school to the time he arrived on campus in Knoxville, TN., he was a completely different person.
"It was kind of hard," Franklin said of his time at Tennessee. "My first year there, I came from junior college and I was playing behind John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth. I learned a lot from John, and I learned some stuff from Albert. But, I knew that next year, like I said, it was my time. I had my back against the wall like, 'If you're going to do it, you're going to have to do it this year.' Luckily, God blessed me and I got drafted."
Franklin, after spending two seasons as a Volunteer, the Baltimore Ravens took the agile linemen in the fifth round, where, just like he had at Tennessee he would learn from some of the best pros in the game.
"There were a lot of guys that I could learn from and take different bits and pieces from each of those guys and put it to my game as far as watching film, or watching a certain guys' technique or just how to be a complete pro," Franklin said. "I just tried to take that and apply it to my game."
Now, four years removed from his time playing with members of a Ravens defense once known for being the most ferocious in the league, Franklin is headlining a defense that more than came into it's own this year.
"I was always playing hard, but it was just playing fast," Franklin said of how he has grown as a player. "I wanted to pickup where I left off last year and really pick it up this year. "Coach Manusky gives me a lot more freedom, and he has given me the chance to make a play if I'm playing the gap and he thinks I can take it. He just says, 'Take your shot.' I'll try to force everything going toward me back to Pat and Takeo. And that's been key for us."