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For James Franklin, a Grace Note to the Shutdown: Seeing His Family Again

Penn State coach James Franklin spent about 2 months apart from his wife and daughters. "It's been an emotional roller coaster," he said.

After processing the Big Ten's decision last week, consoling his team, conducting Zoom calls with parents and recruits and getting back his negative COVID-19 test, James Franklin got in his car and drove overnight to see his family.

"It's been an emotional roller coaster," the Penn State coach said.

Since conducting an ESPN interview Aug. 9, when he asked the Big Ten to delay its plan to cancel the fall sports season, Franklin has remained quietly away from the spotlight, dealing primarily with questions from players, parents and prospects about what comes next. The coach returned to public view Wednesday, holding a 50-minute media call during which he pronounced himself "extremely frustrated" at the method of the Big Ten decision and described his ideas about a possible winter football season.

But amid his frustration, of which there was plenty, Franklin also noted one unexpected bright spot of the past week: the chance to see his wife Fumi and daughters Shola and Addison much sooner than he had planned.

The Franklins decided this spring that, while Penn State was practicing and playing football, James Franklin would remain in State College while his wife and their daughters would live in the family's second home in Florida. That was to shield 12-year-old Addison, who has Sickle cell disease, from potential exposure to the novel coronavirus.

The family essentially has been self-quarantining since March, spending time in Colorado and Florida before Franklin returned to State College in June to oversee workouts. He spent about two months away from his family before driving overnight last week to see them.

"Because of my daughter's illness, we've been on lockdown from the beginning," Franklin said this spring. "It's not something we've messed around with at all. We've been on total lockdown."

It was a difficult choice not only because it meant spending so much time apart. Franklin's daughters are daily fixtures around the football building. They often attend practice and last year accompanied several seniors on their last walk around Beaver Stadium following the team's final home game.

"We made the decision, but it's not been easy," Franklin said Wednesday. "Probably more so on my daughters than anything. When [the Big Ten] decided to cancel the season, I decided that I was going to go see them, because the plan was that I wasn't going to be able to visit them at all during the season, and they weren't going to be able to come visit me because we couldn't quarantine appropriately to make sure everybody’s safe."

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Franklin, who conducted the call from Florida, also has given his players and coaches time off as well to, as he said, "go hug their moms, go hug their dads or their brothers and sisters." Some coaches and players remained in State College. Other players will be returning to campus soon, as Penn State plans to begin in-person classes Aug. 24.

What they'll return to is uncertain and a significant part of Franklin's frustration. While programs in three other conferences are holding practices and scrimmages, Franklin and Penn State are feeling left behind.

Penn State completed four practices before the Big Ten announced its decision Aug. 11. The day before the shutdown, everyone in the program underwent COVID-19 testing. Franklin said they all tested negative.

During voluntary workouts, Franklin said he walked the offices threatening to send home those who wore their masks improperly. Practices operated mostly normally, save for Franklin shouting at players to put on their masks after taking off their helmets. He constantly told players to spread out during field interactions.

"I felt like Mother Hen," Franklin said.

"It was challenging, but we made those decisions and we made those sacrifices, and it was working," he added. "It was working really well. And we weren't naïve that we didn’t think there were going to be challenges and there was going to be some positive cases in the community and on campus and within our football team. But everybody was at a place that we were controlling as many of the variables as we possibly could. And it was working."

Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour said she paused last week to "have my own little tantrum" about the fall season being canceled. She said that ended last Thursday, when she began a meeting by saying, "I'm fired up about the opportunities ahead and how we pull this off."

Barbour said she expected Franklin to apply a similar approach.

"He’s the head football coach at Penn State and he loves his players," Barbour said. "He loves them as young men, he loves them as student-athletes and competitors and he aches for them. But kind of like that couple of days journey that I described for myself, he and his staff have gone through that as well and now turn their attention to what a spring opportunity might look like."

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