Unfortunately for Aubrayo Franklin, this NFL season ended the same place the previous four did — in San Francisco.
The Science Hill graduate and his New Orleans Saints left their hearts in San Francisco on Saturday after getting within seconds of the NFC championship game.
The 49ers came up on the high end of a 36-32 see-saw battle that featured four lead changes in the final four minutes.
Franklin played four seasons in San Francisco before receiving a one-year offer worth a reported $4 million from New Orleans in August.
Even in New Orleans, Franklin isn’t one to toot his own horn. But he surely was jazzed up about his return to the Bay area, where fellow Henry Johnson Elementary School/Science Hill alum Steve Spurrier also played for the 49ers and former Hilltopper Ferrell Bowman played baseball for the San Francisco Giants.
San Francisco had been interested in keeping Franklin, but was apparently less interested than Franklin in ironing out a three-year deal.
Science Hill assistant coach Sandy Cody has remained close with the former Hilltopper since Franklin played for his defense in the late 1990s. Cody sent Franklin a text about the matchup with his former team before the game.
“Aubrayo’s very modest about the things he’s done and his accomplishments,” Cody said Saturday. “But I’d say he looked at it as an opportunity to show the 49ers they made a mistake.”
Franklin, a 6-foot-1, 317-pound defensive tackle in his ninth season, did get a mention late in the game from Fox color commentator Daryl “Moose” Johnston for the “push” he created on an incompletion when Alex Smith’s pass was batted down. Unfortunately for Franklin and the Saints, Smith’s ensuing pass was a long completion to Vernon Davis that set up Smith’s long go-ahead touchdown run up the left sideline.
Cody remembers Franklin as a 265-pound linebacker/defensive end who was in on 180 tackles during Science Hill’s 12 games in 1998.
“I was his position coach. He made me a good coach,” Cody said with a laugh. “Aubrayo always had a knack for getting to the ball.”
Franklin’s performance in a playoff victory at Clinton that season was memorable.
“I remember the Clinton coach up there at the time said, ‘We couldn’t stop King Kong,’” Cody said. “Aubrayo was rushing the passer so much that they started taking three-step drops and he was still pressuring the quarterback. Antonio (Love) got a pick because of his pass rush.”
Actually, Cody said Franklin weighed around 220 pounds during his junior season. He was surprised when Franklin came in some 40 pounds heavier at the first summer weigh-in before his senior season.
“But he was moving just as well as he had when he was a junior,” Cody said. “Aubrayo was always a hard worker in the weight room. He didn’t cut no workouts.”
Franklin is a run-stuffing specialist who’s still considered to be light on his feet in the trenches.
Franklin said he jumped on many pro scouts’ radar with a productive performance against Musa Smith and company in Tennessee’s 18-13 loss at Georgia in 2002. He was drafted in the fifth round in 2003 by Baltimore, where he played four seasons before spending the next four in San Francisco (2007-10).
Cody said Franklin hears from Ray Lewis from time to time, and Mike Singletary, Franklin’s former position coach and head coach in San Francisco, is an inspirational figure who stays in touch.
Franklin likes to keep a low profile, but it’s still occasionally trumped by NFL notoriety. Franklin was with Cody at Science Hill one day a couple of years ago when the Kermit Tipton Stadium turf was being put down.
Cody said the company installing the turf was out of Pittsburgh, and one of the workers recognized Franklin — a Steelers fan who probably best remembered Franklin from his days in Baltimore. The next thing Cody knew, the worker was posing for pictures with Franklin.
Franklin, 31, will be a free agent again this offseason, and this time negotiations won’t be hamstrung by a lockout.
“I keep watching him,” Cody said, “and I believe his best years are yet to come.”
Franklin sent Cody tickets to see San Francisco play in Atlanta in 2010. Franklin called him after the game. Cody was already out of Atlanta by then on his drive home, and Franklin was getting ready to fly back to San Francisco — a city that surely won’t ever seem the same after Saturday’s heartbreaking loss.
“I mean, wow, being on a team like the Saints with the kind of season they’ve had,” Cody said. “It’s kind of ironic they ended up playing the 49ers.”