Johnathan Franklin has gone through a lot of nicknames. There's "Jet Ski" for his speed in his Pop Warner football days, and "Hollywood" for his season-two gig on the reality show "Baldwin Hills." The latest handle for the UCLA star is "Mayor," because that's what he wants to be one day — the mayor of Los Angeles. The running back who's broken rushing records when he's on the field has cajoled his teammates into registering to vote when he's in the locker room. He plans to get to his personal goals the way he gets to the goal line: with focus. His last chance to apply that in a Bruins uniform comes Thursday in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.
You graduated from UCLA in June, but you kept your football eligibility by taking one class: Scandinavian folk tales. How did that go?
I just wrote my last paper, on "The Little Mermaid."
Did you find useful metaphors in it?
There were plenty of them. I wrote about how the Little Mermaid had all the money, everybody knew who she was, she was beautiful, but she still wasn't happy, and I related that to the world: People could have all they want, but at the end of the day, all you really want is somebody to love. And that's what the Little Mermaid wanted. She just wanted to be with the prince.
At Dorsey High School, you studied psychology and drama too. Why did you decide to pursue politics?
I always wanted to be part of a change and make a change. With psychology, I wanted to understand how people think and why they act the way they act. Being in politics, my major goal of being a mayor is to have the opportunity to do that, to make that change.
How did you get interested in politics and public policy?
The former Los Angeles City Councilman Martin Ludlow — he helped out at Dorsey and he became my mentor. I understood the things he did around the community and the impact that made. I also did an internship with the mayor [Antonio Villaraigosa] about two years ago.
I remember reading current events in elementary school and being mad at my teacher for making me. As a kid you just want to take the test, go home and play video games. It didn't really spark my interest until I got a little older. Now, me and my teammates argue [politics] all the time. When Romney and Obama were going at it, we'd literally have arguments in the locker room. It's funny — a bunch of football players talking politics.
What surprised you most in your six-week internship with the mayor?
All the voices who want to be heard in L.A. That's such a big responsibility that he has in addressing certain people; I wouldn't say pleasing certain people. It's crazy, picking and choosing who you can help and who you can't. It really correlates with football — with the mayor you have a team. You have to understand your team and understand everybody has different opinions, different perspectives. So — learning how to work with your team but also making your voice a primary voice but a respectful one.
At one game before the election, a fan was waving a sign with your name, Obama's and Romney's — and your name was checked off, like a ballot.
The day of the election, I got about 10 texts that somebody wrote my name in for president! It's been great, the support. Throughout the whole [team] banquet, nobody [told me] congratulations for the season, they said, "Man, when are you running for mayor? You've got my vote!"
A lot of people roll their eyes when they think of politics.
I just think sometimes people have the wrong perspective about politics; that sometimes it's not about now, it's about the future.
I love it, especially now that I'm starting to understand it. My interest is attacking problems in Los Angeles. I also want to form an identity for L.A. I feel we're always moving and changing so many things, we don't have our own identity. We're always new this, new that, let's change this, let's change that. Change is good, but without an identity or direction, it's meaningless at times.
You registered to vote when you turned 18. What party did you register with?
I will not declare that information right now.
I have to tell you: It's public record.
Oh no! [Franklin appears in The Times' voter database as "decline to state."]
You grew up in Baldwin Village. How did you stay focused — one of your favorite words — when so many kids you know didn't?
I had a prayin' mother. I don't say it just to sound good. God has really just shown favor on my life. It's been unfortunate to see all the kids I grew up with. Some have been shot; some went to jail; some are drug dealers. Even when I go through the neighborhood now, they're doing the same things. I had to be different. Ever since I was younger I wanted to make a change, to be a role model, so I just separated myself.
What did you do every day that was so different?
Football practice. Did my homework just a little longer. Stayed in the house rather than going out and doing foolish things. Not following everybody else's path, creating my own. Became involved in school. Ran for class president — anything I could do.
Did you win?
It was a runoff, my senior year. This girl, we were tied, but I was in Sacramento for a state track meet so I couldn't give a speech, so they just gave it to her.
You are forthright about your faith. You go to a 7 a.m. service every Sunday in Inglewood, and you cross yourself before almost every play. Do you think God takes sides in games?
No, but I know that's who I'm playing for. I love my teammates and I want to win, but I play for one audience. It's how I acknowledge God. Before every play, when I'm in the backfield and Brett [UCLA quarterback Hundley] is yelling at everybody, I'm talking to myself, I'm saying, "God, run with me, hold this ball with me, score with me." I'm talking to him the whole time, and that's why I'm so relaxed. He's just showed me favor this season.
You wrote plays at Dorsey High. You also write poetry, and you've read it at Da Poetry Lounge. You've said it's not lovey-dovey. What is it about?
I have written a love poem, I'm not going to lie! But I pretty much write about family and things that're going on in my neighborhood. Mainly it's been about change and revolution. When I was younger, I used to just sit outside and look at everything and just start writing and describe things.
You also started writing a book for teenagers?
I got about 20 pages and it was about the "N-word" and the "B-word" and how they're derogatory. It was about how people dress, how men sag and where that comes from, and how to be presentable. I also talk about drugs, how music influences you, the things you listen to.
Your volunteer list is a yard long: autistic kids, disadvantaged kids. They're looking up to you now.
It's a blessing to be a walking testimony. I've got to be conscious of the things I do and the things I say. If I go out to a party, I have to be smart with what I do and the groups I hang around. I prayed to be in this position; now I've got to stay focused.
You're not a square — does anyone still use that word? You listen to the music you've warned other kids about.
I listen to the music, but you have to be able to listen and live your life as well. I've seen people — they let the music influence them. Drinking and smoking so much, or going out to sleep with all these girls. That's a big problem. I love music, there's nothing against it, but you need to differentiate the music from reality.
There must be things you do just for fun. What's your leisure pleasure?
I have one nephew and two nieces and a little brother, and I love to hang out with them. That's my getaway. It's so great to take them out and have fun with them. Me and my nieces, we were watching this Tinkerbell movie and it was so funny watching them try to imitate Tinkerbell and fly around.
What's your 10-year plan? Play pro football and then maybe go into politics? Jack Kemp did.
God willing. Of course I want to go to the NFL, to get into politics. I want to do great things in L.A. But I've just got to work as hard as I can each day. Then tomorrow's going to take care of itself.
Are you prepared to do things like raise campaign money? That may be the most unpleasant part of politics.
If I have your support, then I'll definitely be ready.
You sound like a candidate already.
Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times