He’s the perfect candidate. The player who could make the move and take the money and begin a paradigm shift that would change the way college football does business.
“That’s crazy to even think about,” says Clemson receiver Justyn Ross.
But for this star freshman—a player too young for the NFL, too good for college football and too aware of what can happen in this world to rely on opportunity—this couldn’t be more real.
The XFL will begin its reincarnation next spring with more integrity and less theatrics—and $500 million in the bank. The league says it will draw its talent pool from college football and even sign players straight out of high school.
That’s where Ross and other NCAA underclassmen, who aren’t available to the NFL because of its longstanding draft rule, come into the picture.
To be eligible for the NFL draft, a player must be three years removed from his graduating high school class, and currently most of those who can’t apply for early entry are trudging through wasted earning years. But for how long? Those players can now sign with the XFL and make more money in one spring than the value of a five-year college scholarship—and still eventually get drafted by the NFL.
XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck sent a letter last year to agents informing them the XFL could pay as much as $200,000 a year for elite players.
“The XFL isn’t paying that premium salary for NFL castoffs or guys that have been cut,” one agent tells Bleacher Report. “They’re aiming directly at college football players.”
Players like Ross.
Ross arrived at Clemson as the nation’s hottest wide receiver recruit. His speed and his 6’4″, 205-pound frame made him a critical recruit for both Alabama and Auburn, but neither could keep him at home. And then after a slow start at Clemson, his impact was staggering.
It was more than just being a deep threat for star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. His big-play skill after the catch and ability to high-point 50-50 balls already have him among the elite at the position. At 19 years old.
“He can be as good as he wants to be,” says Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. “As good as anyone we’ve had.”
Think about that: Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams, DeAndre Hopkins. All first-round NFL picks. And no one from that group was close to Ross’ bloated 21.7 yards per catch last season—a number that was nine yards per catch better than Hopkins’ freshman season, seven better than Watkins’ and six better than Williams’.
One NFL scout told Bleacher Report that Ross was “one of the two best players on the field” in January’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game, in which he had six catches for 153 yards and a touchdown (after having six catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns in the semifinal). As a freshman. Lawrence, a future first overall pick, was the only better pro prospect.
So what’s left to accomplish?
Thus the XFL question.
The question is posed, and Ross reveals what many in college and pro football already believe. “There are guys right now in college football that would take that money and run,” he says.
Asked if he’d be tempted, Ross says: “Yes and no. Because if you automatically go to a league out of high school, eventually you can get your college education. But at least being on that scholarship for one year, it will give you the idea of how important it is and why you should come back and get your education.
He stops here because, well, the money is tempting, and the idea of playing and not getting paid isn’t too appealing. And because…
“Wait,” he says. “My mom wouldn’t let me do that, anyway. … She’d kill me!”
“He’s right about that,” Charay Franklin says with a laugh.
Franklin didn’t go through all she did for her son to be tempted by short-term gain and ignore long-term value. Pregnant at 15, she had Justyn at 16 and two years later—after graduating high school in Phenix City, Alabama—joined the Navy to give him a better life.
Weeks after completing basic training, 9/11 happened, and the world changed for everyone—including a two-and-a-half-year-old toddler whose mother began the first of four 18-month deployments over the next 15 years that would shape who and what he is and has become.
Franklin didn’t go through all of that, didn’t miss years of her son’s life and birthdays and football and basketball games and his recruitment, to do anything other than stick to the plan: graduate in three years from Clemson and then go to the NFL.
If the XFL plan were in place a year ago, though, the decision might have been a lot tougher. Two games into his freshman year, Ross was ready for a change of scenery.
He wasn’t playing, he didn’t feel wanted, and he wanted out. Then again, other players in similar situations won’t have Charay Franklin on the other end of a 2 a.m. come-to-Jesus phone call.
“He wanted to come home. He told me, ‘Mom, I can go to Chattahoochee Valley Community College and they’ll give me a basketball scholarship,’” Franklin says. “I told him you’re not going anywhere. You’re going to stick it out and work hard and when your time comes, you’re going to show everyone what you’re all about.”
At that point, it wasn’t up for debate. Franklin said stay, and her son did.
“He has a strong mom, a great mom,” says Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who lived much of his childhood and young adult life with a strong single mother who shaped his life.
When you’re a single mother and your life is consumed by making your son’s life better, you’re not taking no for an answer. And this wasn’t the first time for Franklin.
When she was in Kuwait for her last deployment during Ross’ junior year, she figured out a way to watch his high school football games. Her deployments when Ross was two and six were harder because it was the early age of internet communications, and if communications were down, she’d go weeks without emails to and from her son and her mother Annette, who was with him.
But this was different. There was a time change, and she’d have to forgo sleep for football. So she stood outside the barracks at 3 a.m. and had her friends show his games on Facebook Live.
She eventually missed much of her son’s hotly contested recruitment between Alabama, Auburn and Clemson, but her parameters for his decision were simple: The school has to be within a six-hour-drive radius of Phenix City. And the three-year college plan.
The terms were non-negotiable.
So when his career at Clemson started out slowly and he wanted to leave, it’s not really surprising that coming home to Phenix City wasn’t an option. Why in the world would the idea of cashing in on his athletic ability with a new football league before graduating from Clemson be any different?
But understand this: These scenarios of diminished playing time and leaving school unfold all over the country at every FBS school. Elite recruits don’t play early, and then they transfer.
And without his mother’s guidance, Ross might have bolted—like so many do.
Listen to Ross talk about his first two weeks during the 2018 season, and insert any elite recruit at any major college football program—and understand the idea of the XFL poaching those players from the college talent pool isn’t as far-fetched as it seems.
“I was losing confidence at first. I wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to,” Ross says. “I asked my mom, ‘Did they really want me like they said they wanted me? Or were they selling me a dream?’ I wasn’t trusting the process. I was ready to play, but I realized I had a lot more learning to do before they could put me out there to play on this type of stage.”
He’s asked, “So can you see how other players, who may not have the support system you do, could be tempted by the XFL?”
“If [the XFL] is offering that kind of money, that’s hard for an 18- or 19-year-old to turn down,” Ross says. “If you really need that money, oh yeah, go do that. Something could happen. You can get hurt. Anything can happen. You have to take care of yourself because it can be over just like that.”
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
That, more than anything, is the elephant in the room for college football. The sport gives athletes an average of $5,000 per year in full cost-of-attendance stipends, a pittance in comparison to the billions in combined annual revenue of the Power Five conferences.
The NCAA, too, is holding out on allowing student-athletes to market their name, image and likeness (the case is working its way through courts).
“It all depends on the viability of the XFL,” one Power Five coach tells Bleacher Report. “All it takes is a couple of big-name guys to take that money, and others will follow. Once that happens, how does the NCAA respond? Do we continue to allow talented young players to leave, or do we up the ante with stipends or allow them to market themselves or both?”
There is no one and nothing more important in Ross’ life than his mother. Not football, not some plan that prioritizes earning money over earning a degree.
“She is my inspiration,” he says. “What she went through for me, what she has done for me in my life, I just can’t even explain how important she is.”
He’s asked, “Do you remember when you were 15 and 16 and what you were doing?”
“Yeah, I was playing basketball and football and doing kid things. Didn’t have to care about anything,” he responds.
He’s told, “Now imagine her being that age and being pregnant.”
“I’ve never really thought about it like that,” he says. “She changed her life for me. If she decides to do something different…man, I’m not here.”
If she didn’t step in last fall, Ross wouldn’t be where he is now, either. Those 1,000 yards receiving and nine touchdowns and an unthinkable 21.7 yards per catch wouldn’t have been part of Clemson’s run to its second national title in three seasons.
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In fact, Clemson’s national title likely wouldn’t have even happened, and Lawrence’s rapid development might have taken another season. Ross would have been more concerned with mid-range jump shots at Chattahoochee Junior College.
“He has just begun reaching his potential,” Lawrence says of Ross. “A guy his size and his speed. Some of the things he does on the field athletically just make you shake your head.”
Ross arrived at Clemson last summer and went through his first fall camp while trying to break into a deep wide receiver corps. In the first week of practice, former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant threw a fade to Ross, who leaped over two defenders, twisted his body and made a highlight catch.
“We knew what we had,” Elliott says. “But when you see that stuff from a freshman in the first couple of practices, yeah, that gets you excited.”
Four months later, Ross had his best game of the season in the biggest game of the season.
And by the end of the 2019 season, he’ll be at the top of the list for the XFL.
Not that it matters.
“I think you just have to be patient,” Ross says. “Just have more sense of your life after football. You can go to [the XFL] and do the numbers. You can get your endorsements and your money that you can fall back on after your career, but that’s not happening for everyone. You’re going to need something else to fall back on.
“Besides, my mom isn’t going to let me leave college without my degree.”
There’s no debate about that.