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Colts' Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee Zaire Franklin driven to help empower young women

From the moment Zaire Franklin was selected by the Indianapolis Colts in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft, he has looked for an opportunity to give back.

Now, four years after starting a foundation, Shelice's Angels, that works to help empower young women in his native Philadelphia, the linebacker has been named the Colts' 2023 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award nominee. Franklin is one of 32 players vying for the NFL's most prestigious honor, the winner of which will be announced during NFL Honors on Feb. 8, 2024, days before Super Bowl LVIII.

"I've done a lot of stuff in the community, and everyone says they don't do it for the awards, but it's true," Franklin said in an interview last week. "I really want to help kids and people in the community. It felt great to know I was getting that recognition, and what [being the Colts' Man of the Year nominee] will do for my organization and the impact we'll be able to have after the fact is amazing."

Shelice's Angels -- named after Franklin's late mother and created to honor her and his grandmother, two strong women who raised him -- offers young women the opportunities and resources to help build self-esteem and become equipped to eventually enter the professional workforce.

"As professional athletes, I think it's easy for us to host a football camp, it's easy for us to go into the sports teams and motivate them and inspire them, because just our presence is an inspiration to those guys," he said in an NFL Inspire Change feature. "Sometimes the young women are the group that's the most overlooked."

The foundation's "crown jewel" event, in Franklin's eyes, is its business academy, an annual two-day affair that includes guest speakers from the community and a simulation that teaches roughly 30 young women from two Philadelphia schools about running a business. The foundation also hosts financial literacy seminars and takes groups of students on class trips to the headquarters of businesses such as Meta, Google, HB Sports & Entertainment and the Philadelphia 76ers.

The most rewarding part for Franklin? Seeing the young women blossom in the program. Two girls in particular, Mahogany and Danica, have been part of the organization since its inception.

"I remember meeting them when they were in middle school," Franklin said. "They have become so confident and full of life, and to hear them talk about the program and how it has inspired and helped them fills my heart."

All 2023 Walter Payton Man of the Year nominees will receive up to a $55,000 donation in their name to their charity of choice. The winner will receive up to a $250,000 donation to the charity of his choice, courtesy of the NFL Foundation and Nationwide.

Franklin's nomination coincides with his emergence as one of the most productive linebackers in the NFL. After spending his first three pro seasons primarily on special teams, Franklin started 11 games in 2021, then moved into a full-time starting job in 2022, logging a career-best 167 tackles (fourth-most in the NFL), three sacks and two forced fumbles. This season, Franklin has a league-high 144 tackles, with another pair of forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks.

He's played an instrumental role in the Colts' defensive turnaround, which has helped them get back into the playoff race. During a three-game losing streak in October, Indianapolis allowed 38 points per game. But in the four-game win streak that followed in Weeks 9 through 13, the Colts gave up just 16.8 points per game -- a much-needed improvement that Franklin credits to trust within the unit.

"We hit a little bit of a rock bottom against New Orleans at home. They were just running the ball and throwing it however they wanted," Franklin recalled. "At the end of [Week 8], we were ranked 32nd in the league in scoring. We just made up our minds that there was no way we were going to be considered the worst at anything.

"For myself, Kenny Moore and DeForest Buckner, the three captains at different levels of the defense, we decided we were going to make plays, hold people accountable and push guys. We have a great group of young guys who love to compete. Every week, someone is showing up and making a play, and I think we just rally behind it."

Whether or not the Colts play their way into the postseason, Franklin will surely be hoping to secure another win for Shelice's Angels in February.

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