No. 5 Oklahoma's Franks Feels A Fatherly Void

There was a bit of an empty feeling when Dominique Franks got home after making the first interception of his college career at Oklahoma. He felt it again when he picked off another pass and brought it back for his first touchdown.
Neither his father nor his stepfather were around to celebrate with Franks, who's taken big steps this year toward becoming a premier cornerback for the fifth-ranked Sooners (9-1, 5-1 Big 12). Over the course of his high-school career, he lost both of them all too early, and it's only the thought that they're both watching from the "stands in heaven" that gives him a lift now.
Franks was forced to grow up fast after his stepdad, Billy Martin, died during his freshman year of high school. He lost his biological father, Joe Bartee, three years later.
Along with leading his Union High School team to back-to-back state championships, he had to be strong enough that his family could lean on him.
"It was very difficult. It taught me how to hide my emotions because I know in my family, I've got to be the strong one for everybody," Franks said. "At times, it's still hard for me because they look at me to be there for them.
"I don't like to open up because I don't want nobody to see me hurting like that. It took a major toll on me."
Franks still feels those pangs of emotion from time to time, even in the best of times. With an interception he returned for a touchdown against Nebraska and a fumble he took back for a score against Texas A&M, he's become the first Sooners player in Bob Stoops' 10 years at Oklahoma to score defensive touchdowns in back-to-back games.
That's got his friends talking about the pressure to score again Saturday against No. 2 Texas Tech (10-0, 6-0), but even those two touchdowns had him wishing he could have shared celebrations with his dad and stepdad.
"I give myself a hard time, but I think I look into it too much," Franks said.
Their deaths played a big role in Franks ending up at Oklahoma, where he wears the same No. 15 jersey his uncle, Charles Franks, wore for the Sooners from 1988-91.
Franks visited Texas Tech and other schools, and never felt any pressure to follow in his uncle's footsteps. His choice was swayed heavily when his father died a week after his 18th birthday.
"I realized that if anything ever happened like that, I've got to be able to come back and visit and make sure I can take care of my family any way that I can," Franks said.
At Oklahoma, he's only about 20 minutes away from where most of his family lives. His mother and grandmother form the core of the group that's been able to watch Franks growing up quickly again -- developing into the kind of defender the Sooners need him to be.
The team is going through a stretch in which it has given up at least 28 points in five straight games for the first time ever, starting when middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds was lost to a season-ending knee injury in a 45-35 loss to Texas.
The defensive stats are somewhat skewed by a pair of kickoff return touchdowns -- consider that the Sooners still lead the Big 12 in total defense -- but it's still not the standard that Stoops has set at Oklahoma.
But Franks, who was thrust into the starting lineup late last season after starter Reggie Smith got hurt, is doing his best to make a difference, providing the kind of big plays that have become a staple in Norman for the past decade.
"He's emerging as probably one of the great cornerbacks that have played here," said safety Nic Harris, a team captain.
Franks deflects the attention to his teammates, saying that his improved play is the result of the defensive line and linebackers getting better pressure and making his job easier. He has made the most of it with Oklahoma's only two defensive scores this season.
"To be honest, I never expected to even score one," Franks said. "I was talking to my mother and I was like, `You know how great that would be if I could score a college football touchdown?"'
And with him every step of the way -- at least in spirit -- are the two fathers he lost before he really got to show them what he could do.
"I think about them every snap. It drives me because I know they're up there watching. They're looking down on me and making sure I'm becoming a better football player and becoming a better man also in life in general," Franks said.
"Everything I do, I give it all back to them and God for just allowing me to still be here in one piece and make sure my family is OK."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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