KENNER, La. — Collette Franklin is still getting used to her new reality: That her oldest son Derrick Munson — along with his extraordinarily valuable set of eyeballs — is more than 600 miles away. Her husband and three other children are still home, of course, and Collette’s life experience has left her particularly adept when it comes to adapting.
The difference this time is that Derrick isn’t around to help through the transition.
A freak accident nearly eight years ago left Collette — then in her early 30s — legally blind. Derrick was a pre-teen when his mother lost her sight, meaning she hasn’t seen more than a shadow of the lean, muscular frame Derrick has developed. She can’t describe his bright smile.
And she certainly couldn’t see any of the tackles, sacks and interceptions that led him to this point: Beginning the next phase of his football journey as an Arkansas Razorbacks freshman linebacker.
Despite that, Collette enjoys an especially close relationship with her oldest child. That’s because after she lost her sight, Derrick regularly looked after his mother and in the process, grew up faster than most teenagers.
Derrick cooked family meals. He washed dishes and did laundry. He went grocery shopping. He drove his siblings to school and his mother to doctor appointments.
“He’s a young man, but he’s a man,” said Rodney Franklin, Derrick’s father. “He had to fill a lot of shoes and handle a lot of situations because of his mother. Because I was working, I relied on him a lot.
“He had to be a kid who fit in a grown man’s shoes.”
‘I didn’t know what to do’
Collette was holding her then-infant daughter, Alaysia, who held some keys in her hands. Alaysia dropped the keys and they scratched her eyes. Within a couple of weeks, her eyesight was gone.
Doctors tried surgeries and other means to restore her vision but were unsuccessful. Eventually, they discovered the underlying issue was hereditary and only accelerated by the scratch. Her vision would have eventually deteriorated — even if the accident never happened.
Collette admits she was “a mess” in the immediate aftermath of losing her eyesight.
“I kept snot in my nose and tears in my eyes,” she said. “I didn’t want to be bothered with nobody. I didn’t know what to do.”
Collette worked at a nursing home but obviously had to give that up after the accident. And to do almost anything, she had to rely on her husband and children — especially Derrick.
He learned to cook and do other household chores. He paid bills.
Derrick laughs when he remembers the first time his mom sent him into the store to pay a bill. It was an energy bill for around $260.
“I gave the man $300 and walked clean out of the store,” Derrick said. “She was so mad at me.”
As for cooking, Derrick said he had spent years watching his mother operate in the kitchen — and even experimenting sometimes when she wasn’t home.
One day when Derrick was 10 or 11 and the adults were at work, he decided to make lasagna for himself and his brother Rodney, who is two years younger.
“I just put the cheese, meat, everything in one pot,” he said. “I thought that was lasagna.
“I think I put like seven bags of cheese in there and it was like glue in the pot. It was so nasty. My brother threw up; I thought I gave him food poisoning, but he said, ‘I’m good; your food is just nasty.’”
The boys got things cleaned up before Collette got home that day and on the other days when Derrick tried to be a chef. But a result of that curiosity is that he eventually learned the right way to cook — a skill that became valuable to the family.
Then when Derrick turned 16 and got his driver’s license, he drove his younger siblings to school. That sometimes made him late to school or morning football meetings at Archbishop Rummel High School.
“There are times he had to do things that most 17-year-olds didn’t do,” said Cordae Hankton, Munson’s position coach at Archbishop Rummel. “He had to sacrifice things a lot of kids his age didn’t have to do, but he found a way to make it work on the field and off the field despite that adversity.”
‘Was that Derrick?’
On the football field, Derrick developed into an exceptional player. Arkansas coaches extended him his first scholarship offer and he gave them his verbal pledge in January of his junior year, becoming the Razorbacks’ first commitment for 2017.
All the while, though, Collette had to experience Derrick’s gridiron success through other people’s eyes. She sat at Archbishop Rummel games in the same spot in the bleachers with family members who essentially served as her own personal play-by-play announcers and color commentators.
Collette would listen for the public address announcer and get excited if she heard him say “Derrick Munson.” If the crowd let out an “Ooooooh,” she would ask, “Was that Derrick? Did he lay it on somebody?”
Alaysia — now 8 — kept her eyes trained to Derrick during the games to give Collette a running commentary on everything he did.
Collette’s right eye is completely blind. Depending on the lighting and the weather, her left eye can sometimes make out shadows and shapes. Before Derrick’s games, a family member would tell her if Archbishop Rummel was wearing white or red jerseys, because sometimes she could vaguely make out the white team’s huddle with her left eye.
“When they have the white on, I enjoy those games a little bit more,” she said. “I really couldn’t see him, but I can see the guys on the team in the huddle. I didn’t know who was who, but I know that’s Derrick’s team.”
Things like football are what make Collette especially proud of her oldest son. He never let any of his responsibilities to her keep him from excelling on the field or making his grades in the classroom.
“I know there were things he didn’t wanna do,” Collette said. “But he never talked back. He still kept up with his ball.
“I’m just so blessed to have Derrick.”
‘Mama says …’
For fun, Derrick recently completed an online quiz that purported to provide your “mental age.” Naturally, things this like shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but his results were funny and somewhat illustrative of his life so far.
“It said I’m mentally 84 years old,” Derrick said with a hearty laugh. “That’s crazy. I’m older than my mama.”
Eighty-four may be a stretch, but it’s clear that Derrick absolutely is wiser than his age — 19 — would suggest. It’s a safe bet that he’s cooked more meals, done more laundry and paid more bills than his fellow Arkansas Razorbacks newcomers.
“Derrick is literally his mother’s eyes,” said Archbishop Rummel head football coach Jay Roth. “When his little brother had to go to the doctor, guess what? Derrick had to drive mom and the baby to the doctor. School had to wait and sometimes, football had to wait.
“He’s very mature. Very responsible.”
Collette still has bad days, just like everyone does. It’s only natural that she sometimes gets upset because of her circumstance, but she said she has far more good days than bad ones.
“To be honest with you, with the state of mind and condition I’m in today, I see better than I have my whole life,” she said.
Years ago — before Collette lost her sight — a favorite pastime she enjoyed with Derrick was watching The Waterboy, a 1998 Adam Sandler film about a supremely talented Louisiana linebacker who only left his mama’s side when he was in class or delivering bone-crushing hits on the gridiron. At Archbishop Rummel, Derrick even wore the jersey No. 9 — Bobby Boucher’s number in the movie.
(He’ll begin his Arkansas career wearing No. 29; junior safety Santos Ramirez already wears No. 9.)
Collette plans to make it to as many of Arkansas’ games as possible, although obviously, it will be much more difficult.
Anytime Collette finds herself getting mopey about the new distance between her and Derrick, she thinks about a line near the end of their favorite movie. Playing Bobby Boucher’s mama, actress Kathy Bates tells him that she understands it’s time to let him go.
Collette repeated the line verbatim.
“I can’t hold you to myself no more, ‘cause everyone’s seen how wonderful you are.”
Arkansas beat writer Jason Kersey traveled around the country visiting the Razorbacks’ 2017 signees for SEC Country’s “NextGen” series. Read his past 2017 NextGen stories at this link.