Today, on national signing day, Franklin, La Salle's 6-1, 220-pound linebacker, plans to finish what his mother started when he signs a letter of intent with Syracuse.
"Now, I know she'd be proud of me," he said. "I know this is what she wanted for me when I tried to quit back in seventh grade. I know she's proud of me."
Shelice Highsmith passed away Feb. 11 last year due to heart failure after suffering from reccurring brain tumors that began when Zaire was in fifth grade.
"She loved to laugh, loved to eat, loved to go out and have a good time. She was a very vibrant person,'' Franklin said. "She loved new things and meeting new people. She was always super nice. Everybody always loved my mom."
However, Highsmith wasn't always enamored with football because she worried about her son's safety. After years of begging (and an assist from grandmom, Juanita Highsmith), Franklin finally got his chance in third grade.
But by seventh, Franklin grew tired of the dieting required to make weight because he was always bigger than the other kids.
"My mom sat down with me and was like, 'You can't quit. Finish what you started.' ''
Now, according to Rivals.com, Franklin is ranked No. 18 in the nation among the 2014 class of inside linebackers.
As a junior at La Salle, he re-emerged from a broken leg that sacked some of his sophomore year and helped the Explorers to their fifth consecutive Catholic League championship (the streak was snapped by St. Joseph's Prep last season).
Offers from Arizona, Temple, UConn, Pittsburgh, UMass and others weren't far behind for the two-time (2012-2013), first-team Daily News All-City linebacker. And although Franklin bonded quickly with the Syracuse staff, his decision wasn't based solely on football.
"I think she'd be proud of the reason I chose Syracuse," he said. "It wasn't because they had a good football team; it was because they had the major I wanted. She always emphasized, 'Look, you could get hit one day and never be able to play again so you always have to have something to fall back on,' and that's one thing she'd be proud of me for."
To that end, Franklin has plans on a sports management degree with an eye on front-office work in the future. Now, he lives in West Oak Lane with his mom's sister, Marla Burke, and her husband, Oliver Burke, and two cousins (Monae and Darien Singletary). His father, Brian Franklin, lives in South Philadelphia.
Zaire Franklin, whom Highsmith nicknamed "Ziggy" - the only cartoon he laughed at as a baby - also expressed gratitude toward the La Salle community, which "wrapped itself around me and helped me through."
As for the future, attending an Eagles game last season crystallized what Franklin previously saw as an amorphous and somewhat hubristic NFL dream.
"I feel like they say you have to shoot for the stars, so why not?" he said. "I've gotten every possible opportunity I could ever ask for to make that a reality so I'll work toward it and give it everything I have, but at the same time I won't go [recklessly] chasing it.
"I kind of see myself as a front-office guy, but if not, come back and coach high school football or be the athletic director at La Salle or something like that."
On Twitter: @AceCarterDN