Former Southwest High defensive coordinator Cory Johnson hasn’t forgotten the scene he encountered the first time he took Lamarcus Joyner home after a track meet.
As soon as Johnson’s car pulled into the Victory Homes projects in Liberty City, he saw a group of people “about the size of a Little League football field” gambling with dice in the middle of the street.
Nobody wanted to move out of the way. Instead, they stared into his car, trying to figure out who had the guts to drive into one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Miami unarmed at 10 at night.
“Once Lamarcus rolled his window down, and they realized it was him, one of them whipped his head around and told him, ‘Don’t bring people around here we don’t know,’ ” Johnson recalled. “I told Lamarcus, ‘You’re going to need to get your [butt] home earlier than this.’ This is crazy up in here.”
The truth was Joyner, a consensus All-American defensive back at Florida State, didn’t have to look outside his window to see danger. He lived it every day. It was inside his home. It was a part of his life.
Joyner said he was 6 the first time he saw his dad slap his mother. The abusive relationship carried on for nine years before he finally had enough and talked his mother into leaving him for good. Joyner said he hasn’t spoken to his father since his freshman year at FSU.
By the time Joyner was a freshman in high school, his older brother Keenan was on his way to prison, locked up for armed robbery.
Two years later, as Joyner was just becoming one of the nation’s premier high school football talents at Southwest, his eldest brother, Michael, was busted on a gun charge, Joyner said. Joyner said both brothers are due to be released from prison next year.
So how is it that the fourth of Rose Joyner’s five children has managed to escape suffering the same fate as his older brothers? How is it that he’s heading into this week’s NFL Draft expected to be a first- or second-round pick and not dead, on drugs or in prison?
“It has to be God,” Joyner said. “I’ve never smoked or drank a day in my life. And I was always around it. I know you’re supposed to fear God only. But I feared my mom and God. I just wasn’t going to disappoint my mama.”
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Joyner did that once in middle school when he was 12. He got into a fight with a classmate, was suspended and spent a night in a juvenile detention center.
“I remember telling myself I never wanted to be here again,” he said. “My mom showed up the next day crying, saying, ‘You disappointed me Lamarcus. I thought you were different.”
“I said, ‘Mom I’ll never disappoint you again.’ I felt so bad. I felt like a loser. We laugh about it to this day because I’ve never let my mom down again.”
And he hasn’t. Since that fight, Joyner, now 23, has channeled much of his energy toward football. Despite being categorized as undersized — he’s listed at 5-8, 190 pounds — Joyner plays with the mantra: “Everybody has a plan until they get hit.”
That attitude is what made him an All-County standout for three years at Southwest, a program he led to its first district title in 2008 before leaving for tradition-rich Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas his senior season. At Aquinas, Joyner was named USA Today’s 2009 National Defensive Player of the Year.
Critics point to his size and average NFL Scouting Combine numbers (14 bench-press reps of 225 pounds and a 4.55 40-yard dash time) as reasons why Joyner might not be a successful pro.
“I just tell people to put on the film and trust your eyes,” said Joyner, who in his four years at FSU started 40 games and never missed a game because of injury. “I’m not a track star. But put on the film and tell me who the best player on the field was.”
Jon Drummond was the first of many to help Joyner escape the projects.
An assistant coach at Southwest High eight years ago, Drummond said he got a phone call one day from his old Pop Warner coach at Tacolcy Park who was looking to get Joyner to take classes outside of his neighborhood.
Soon, Drummond was picking Joyner up at his house at 5 a.m. to take him to school across town. When Drummond wasn’t there, Joyner would take a city bus to the Metrorail station, ride the train and then take another bus before walking a mile to campus each morning.
Joyner did the same at Aquinas before he started spending school nights at the home of Michael and Laura Simmons, whom he calls “my second parents now.” Laura is a secretary in the Aquinas football office who offered to take Joyner in after seeing him walk in the rain to school one day.
“For him to get on the bus that early every morning and have stellar attendance, not miss days, for four years, it was remarkable,” said Johnson, now the head coach at Killian. “There’s not a kid in this draft that plays with the hunger, tenacity and desire of Lamarcus.”
Drummond, Johnson, former Southwest coach Patrick Burrows, Aquinas assistant Cris Carter and many others did a lot to help Joyner.
Drummond would drive him to the beach for morning workouts on the days he didn’t have school and would take him to church on Tuesday and Sunday nights.
Joyner said Johnson showed him tough love and taught him two of the most valuable lessons of his life: “To be humble and to be clutch,” Joyner said. “When I wanted a pat on the back he would say ‘You’re supposed to do that.’ He also taught me that it doesn’t matter what you do during the first 59 minutes of the game if you don’t make the play at the end.“
Joyner, who has a 3-year-old son named Jamarcus, is three classes short of graduating with a degree in sociology. His plan is to finish college online and use football as his platform to get his story out to other kids from the projects. He wants them to know that no dream is impossible.
He also wants to help his mother move out of Victory Homes once and for all once he gets his NFL money.
For years, Rose has struggled financially on her own, cooking conch fritters, fries and chicken wings in her home to make whatever money she could selling food in the neighborhood. Things were so tight, Lamarcus said there were nights the family went to sleep without air conditioning so they could save on electric bills. To deal with the South Florida heat, Lamarcus would soak his T-shirt in the bathroom sink and sleep next to a fan.
“I don’t regret one minute of it,” Joyner said of living in the projects. “I loved living in that environment. It taught me so much. It taught me right and wrong, taught me loyalty, dedication, everything. Without it, I wouldn’t be the man I am today.”
This story was originally published May 6, 2014 12:01 AM.