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The first 18 years of Jacobs' life were uneventful. He was born in Mullins, S.C. and lived in a shack with his impoverished family. When he was three years old, Jannie Jacobs took Franklin and all the children to Paterson. Like lots of street kids, he ran and jumped and played, but nobody accused him of being a great athlete. "We never got in trouble," says Roy Frazier, one of Franklin's friends, "because our parents said if we did, we'd stay there 'cause they weren't getting us out."
In the fifth grade, a football coach induced Franklin to join the team. First play he got his helmet knocked off and was dazed. "I was playing linebacker," says Jacobs, "but all the coach told me was the defense attacks the offense. What he didn't tell me was that the offense also attacks the defense." In high school, another football coach was impressed with Jacobs' speed. Says Jacobs, "He told me I was so fast I could just run down the field, jump up and catch the ball. What he didn't tell me is what could happen to me when I jumped up. I had to figure that out for myself, and I did." Therefore he didn't play football.
Basketball was—and remains—his first love. "I didn't have girl friends," he says. "My basketball was my girl friend." He thinks he's very good at the hoops, maybe excellent, possibly great. Truth is, he's average. But he plays constantly, to the dismay of his track coaches. Several times he has been hurt on the court. A year ago, just after the NCAA indoor championships, he suffered serious cartilage damage to his right knee that almost certainly should have been operated on. But it wasn't, in large part because Franklin has no affection for the knife. He hurt himself again last month playing basketball on the eve of the indoor season. He estimates he has injured his knee nine times playing basketball. "I don't hurt my knee on purpose," says Jacobs, "but I'm so quick, sometimes my mind doesn't have time to give instructions to my knee." Fortunately, it's his right knee that is constantly being hurt; his high-jump takeoff leg is his left. "Maybe it helps me being hurt," he says. "Since I know my right leg is a problem, I put everything into my left."
In basketball, Franklin dunks with ease and says, "I get so much enjoyment jumping up and banging my head on the rim that I just can't stop. It's a pleasure inside." This is, of course, weirdo thinking, for if anything will keep Jacobs from jumping still higher, a basketball injury probably will be it. But his high-jump coach, Bill Monaghan, is stoic. "If he hurts himself, well, he hurts himself."
Jacobs is actually less bent on self-destruction than on simply enjoying himself dinging around at sports. When younger he played lots of playground basketball, ran footraces, tried everything. He still does. He'd love to play basketball at Fairleigh Dickinson even though the coaches don't think he's good enough; he'd like to triple-jump, long-jump, hurdle and run relays but the coaches don't want him to dilute his concentration. Head Track Coach Walt Marusyn says, "He's on the road to the Olympics but he doesn't understand it—yet." Monaghan has no intention of limiting Franklin's basketball. "I hate to take something away from a kid who loves it so much. Heck, maybe that's his first love."
For sure, high jumping wasn't. He had to be cajoled by Coach Bill Shipp to come out for the track team at Paterson East-side High. JacGobs finally agreed to give it a fling in his senior year—less than two years ago—after he rested for a week following the basketball season. But after three weeks had passed, Shipp still hadn't seen Jacobs. The coach cornered him, stuffed a uniform in his hands and said, "When I give a guy a uniform, he's supposed to practice." Jacobs was less than elated at trying the high jump and he told Shipp, "I'll try, but if I'm not good, I'll quit. Basketball is my game."
Shipp put the bar at 5'10"; Jacobs was over by a ton. Then it was moved to 6'1", a fair height for a team on which no one else could go better than six feet. Jacobs, with a five-step, head-on approach, was over easy. He turned to Shipp and said, "I'm going to jump seven feet." Says the coach, "No wonder he thought that, since six feet came so easy." "I knew my form wasn't just right," Jacobs says now, "but I also knew there was nothing to it."
Later, Shipp marveled, "Man, Franklin, you can jump. Let's teach you some technique." At which time Jacobs started missing, missing, missing. A chastened Shipp said, "O.K., do it your way. Just get over the bar." The youngster improved enormously. He cleared 6'8" in high school and 7'1" as a freshman at Fairleigh Dickinson. All this in sneakers, because he didn't realize there was such a thing as special high-jump shoes, which greatly increase traction. But when Jacobs finally got the fancy shoes in time for last spring's outdoor competition, he didn't want to wear them "because I couldn't stand the thought of getting them dirty." He overcame his devotion to cleanliness and went on to finish second to 6'6�" Arizona State junior Kyle Arney in the NCAA championships. A week later Jacobs was second to Stones in the AAU championships, where he had a personal best of 7'5�".
Experts have a hard time talking about the Jacobs technique without wincing. He doesn't really jump the bar so much as he sort of flails over it backward. Even Franklin says, "I know what I do is slop compared to the Flop." Since Bill Fosbury popularized it at the 1968 Olympics the Flop has become the accepted high-jumping style, although straddle jumpers like Yashchenko have proven that their technique is far from pass�. And now we have the Jacobs Slop, although its inventor is trying to refine the terminology. He would prefer it be called the Jacobs Slope—"More dignified, don't you think?" It begins with a conventional 13-step, curving approach to the bar. But then Jacobs throws himself upward, hurls his arms straight back over his head (sometimes even clapping his hands to remind himself to keep them out of the way), jackknifes, arches his back, does a few incidental aerial gymnastics and—presto! "Who's to say that his technique isn't the best and everyone else's is wrong?" says Monaghan. Arney says of Jacobs' style, "There is so much motion over the bar. A lot of things have to be just right for him to make it." Greg Joy, the 6'4" Canadian who won the silver medal at Montreal and held the indoor record before Jacobs, says, "I think taller people are more in touch with the bar. I mean Franklin stands down there and it must be like looking at the moon."
Jacobs, who often has a bemused look when he's competing, gives such observations on his style and size the curl of his lip. "Being small, I have a lot of spring and I have more body control than those tall guys," he says. "The higher you jump, the less technique you need. When I get over the bar, I assume I had the best technique." In any event, Monaghan considers the approach 60% of the battle, converting horizontal speed to vertical lift 35%, and what goes on in midair only 5%. "By 1980," says Monaghan, "I hope he's a complete high jumper."