At a certain point, Lamarcus Joyner got sick of seeing it happening over and over again. There had been too many fights, too much fear.
He says he was 6 years old when he allegedly first saw his dad hit his mom. He was watching cartoons in his parent's room at Victory Homes projects in Miami and he heard a slap. She fell off the bed. Lamarcus saw his mom and cried. Nine years later, the man was still around, and the boy was fed up. On his way off to football practice, he decided to say something.
Lamarcus Joyner (USA TODAY Sports)
On that day, Rose Joyner was crying again. She was wondering about giving Lamarcus' father another chance, and Lamarcus felt there were already too many.
"You raised me to be tough," Lamarcus told her. "Mom, you're not being tough right now.
"You're a fool, Mom," he said. "You're being a fool."
Later that night, Lamarcus got home from practice, and his father was gone.
"You changed my life," Rose Joyner told her son.
The NFL draft is held on Mother's Day weekend this year, and it's never difficult to find a powerful bond between a football player and his mother. It seems like every Hall of Fame speech is founded on a tribute to a mom who believed when nobody else would. Deion Sanders, a former Florida State defensive back like Joyner, told the crowd in Canton, Ohio, at his induction that he invented his "Primetime" persona in part so that "my mama would never have to work another day of her life."
Lamarcus Joyner's bond with his mother is a little different, though. Its power is not from sticking it out through anything; it's from knowing when not to stay. It's from knowing when to leave. Because Joyner's character is built from watching his father go, and from watching his two older brothers go.
And from his own decision to go.
Joyner and his mom have the same laugh and the same candor. They speak about terrible circumstances with openness and a pinch of levity. Asked about how he got into football, Lamarcus mentions an older friend named David who wanted him to join a team. Lamarcus, only 12 at the time, said he couldn't because his mom didn't have the money. The older boy smiled and said, "I got you," and soon the insurance was magically paid. He never found where the money came from.
"Probably selling drugs," Joyner says.
Trouble was everywhere in the neighborhood and in the house. Rose got weary of separating her two oldest boys, Michael and Keenan, and finally laid down a rule: "If they're going to fight," she says, "go out that door, and when they come back, I'll beat both of them."
Ultimately, there wasn't much she could do. Both Michael and Keenan went to jail – one for armed robbery and one for stealing guns. Lamarcus is still upset at the way they ignored their mother.
"I got tired of hearing my mom crying," he says. "I never wanted anyone to do my mom like that."
Most of the crying, though, came from other problems: the domestic abuse, the unproductive job search, the poverty. (Efforts to reach Lamarcus' father were unsuccessful.) Rose did hair styling for extra money, and then started making fried food to sell in the neighborhood. She calls it "managing." Lamarcus jokes that it's something else: "She was a hustler."
She felt she had no other choice, as many of the jobs she applied for required a car or time away from her five children. So she did hair. She washed clothes in the tub until she saved enough for a washing machine. She cooked. The stench from the oil filled the duplex and made the Miami nights even hotter. Lamarcus says he would pour water on his shirt before going to sleep to keep cool.
Rose worried Lamarcus would get hurt playing football, but she figured there was more of a chance he'd get hurt not playing football. He got into trouble once, at 14, when he got into a fight and went to a juvenile center. Rose was so incensed that she nearly didn't go get him. That, she says, was the last time he messed up under her watch.
"He was the only one who always listened to me," Rose says.
Lamarcus could always take guidance. He wondered why he was one of the few players who consistently showed up at the little league fields. His coach told him, "All these guys are not going to make it. I want you out of this."
The coach said he knew someone in a southwest Miami suburb who might help with that. Lamarcus could go to school in a safer neighborhood and play football there. "That sounds real good," Lamarcus said.
The commute did not sound real good. It was two-and-a-half hours each way. Lamarcus would have to wake up before dawn, take a city bus from Liberty City to a Metrorail, then take another bus, then walk a mile to Southwest Miami High. He would put in a full day of school, then practice, then come all the way back. He wouldn't arrive home until after 7 p.m.
He didn't care. He wanted out.
"I'd wake up at 5 a.m. with a boom box on and football on my mind," he says. "Every morning."
Rose didn't mind at all.
"If you see your child going the right way, why not let them keep going?" she says. "If we keep them around us, they'll end up like us – with nothing."
For years, Lamarcus made the trek, coming home late and locking the door behind him every night. His defensive coordinator at the new school, Jon Drummond, made sure Joyner knew he would have to leave his childhood behind.
"He was a kid that needed to be taken out of his environment," Drummond says. "He was a kid that had to be reformed. Just because you can knock somebody out doesn't mean you have to knock somebody out. He was a rough kid. Coming from those projects, he had to be rough."
During his time at Southwest, Joyner learned to channel his anger into proving himself. "You know you're short, right?" Drummond would tell him. "You have to work the hardest."
He did. Drummond tells a story about having his players pull sleds up a hill with 20-pound plates on the back. Joyner went up once and then told the coach to "put 45s on." Drummond did and watched Joyner go. Then he turned around and told Drummond to sit on the sled himself. "Four plates and me sitting," Drummond says. "He dragged me up that hill."
Lamarcus met an office worker at his new school named Laura Simmons, and soon after she saw him walking from the school to his first afternoon bus in a driving rainstorm. "I saw this kid, in the uniform, in the pouring rain," she says. "That said it all. When you take three buses and a train and you walk, that says how much you want things. If I had to pick one word that makes him tick: survival."
Simmons and her husband invited the teen over for dinner. After trust was built, Lamarcus ended up moving in with them. Simmons reminded him of Rose: "strict." He transferred to St. Thomas Aquinas in Ft. Lauderdale at the end of his junior year, and by then he was one of the most highly touted prospects in Florida as a Rivals.com five-star player – a star on offense and in the secondary. Since the time he was a little boy, falling asleep in a soaked T-shirt, he had always wanted to go to Florida State, and he would get that chance.
Joyner became a unanimous All-American cornerback in Tallahassee and helped the Seminoles win a national championship in the 2013 season. He's projected to go as high as the first round in next week's draft, but he knows he'll always be short (he measured at 5-foot-8 and 184 pounds at the NFL scouting combine), and perhaps discounted by those who haven't seen him on the field.
"I'm never gonna pass the eyeball test. Never ever," Joyner says. "But when I do play, it's a different story."
So if it's corner, safety or nickel, Joyner doesn't care. He did it all at Florida State. Nor does he care what round or what team.
"I believe I have done everything to get to this point," he says. "I expect it to happen. I deserve to be in the NFL. I'm not going to be like, 'Wow, I made it here.' I deserve to be here. I'm gonna do what I did all my life."
If you expect Rose to be shopping for mansions, you might be surprised. She's not sure she wants to leave Liberty City. Lamarcus has prodded her about it for years, but she's reluctant.
"I've been here for 22 years, stuck, sir," she says. "This was all I had. For me to give up the little of what I had because of what he accomplished, that's kind of hard."
Lamarcus calls this thinking "nonsense." He already has ideas in mind for where he wants to move her. But her sense of caution has already seeped in, just like all the other lessons from his childhood.
"You don't know how long you'll be in the NFL," he says. "To be on the safe side, I'll probably get a nice house or apartment. Nothing too fancy. We're very simple people. We just want to be comfortable."
Comfortable is something that Lamarcus and his mom have never been. He grew up around violence, saw it all the time, succumbed to it at one point, and now will be paid to play a violent game. The danger is absorbing the violence too much, and resorting to it. But he says what he saw as a child is now guiding him.
"Any time we tried to be violent, she was hard at disciplining us," Lamarcus says of his mom. "I just never had it in me to be that way. I always felt bad for the people it happened to."
As difficult as it is to fathom, Joyner sees his childhood as a blessing. "Because of my dad, he has made me a great man," he says. "I would never treat my wife like that."
The child changed his mother's life. Then he changed his own. Now, with both of their lives about to change, the shared hope is that some vital part of them can stay the same.
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