Lessons for Lamarcus

Lamarcus Joyner (20) plays bigger than his size and possesses a wisdom beyond his years. Melina Vastola/US Presswire

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The lesson about leadership came during a meeting with his coach just before the season.

Lamarcus Joyner never lobbied for the job, but throughout his football career, he always seemed to be the one teammates looked to for answers. Now, with veterans such as Nigel Bradham and Greg Reid gone from Florida State's defense, he again was thrust into the role of leader, and for the first time he could remember, he wasn't entirely comfortable with the position.

"In the beginning, I was a little bit nervous," Joyner said.

Being a leader, Jimbo Fisher told him, is like being at the tip of a funnel. All the expectations and demands and responsibilities spread throughout the program slowly swirl down to a singular point, where the leader shoulders the burden. It is a big job.

"Being the parent -- the parent of the secondary -- I've got to make sure Terrence Brooks is lined up right or [Nick] Waisome knows the coverage," Joyner said. "It's a different kind of pressure, man."

The pressure builds. That's how the funnel works. It reached its tipping point six weeks into the season, when Florida State lost for the first time.

Fans and media were in a frenzy. Players grasped at any remaining inspiration amid another season of diminished expectations. Even Fisher's stern resolve showed cracks as he offered subtle digs at players who'd failed to execute while dodging questions about his play calling and his role in the devastating loss to NC State.

And then there was Joyner, who answered the questions with the same thoughtful poise and the same sly grin that hints that he's privy to some larger truth that has escaped his interrogators.

He refused to bemoan the loss, apologize for a lack of effort or make grandiose promises about the future. He said, simply, that he was blessed to have an opportunity to play football again the next week.

"It's tough to go against the majority and not talk about what people want to hear," Joyner said. "People want to hear that you're frustrated, that we could've done this. Everybody's looking for something to blame, but that's never me. I come from a background where I know the struggles, so a 60-minute football game -- you lose that, hey, let it roll off your sleeve. You get another opportunity to go prove yourself."

The lesson about respect came from the doubters, and there were many of them along the way.

At just 5-foot-8 and less than 200 pounds, Joyner hardly fits the mold as a standout safety. Most colleges recruited him as a cornerback, and he heard his share of critics wonder whether he'd ever be up to the task of playing at an elite level.

The doubts fueled him.

"My whole deal is, I wouldn't change reality," Joyner said. "But what people don't believe, I want to make them believe."

Through three seasons at Florida State, Joyner has created multitudes of converts.

A year ago, he stepped in as a starter and racked up 54 tackles and four interceptions. This season, his numbers dipped a bit -- 45 tackles and just one pick -- but opposing offenses have been reluctant to test him. In spite of his size, Joyner has developed a reputation as one of the ACC's biggest hitters, and his intuition on the field has overshadowed any physical limitations.

"I'll do whatever I have to do in my power to succeed," Joyner said. "If it's not good enough for one person, it will be for someone else. My faith is very strong, man. I believe whatever I put my mind to, I can do it, despite what anyone says."

Dozens of defensive backs racked up more tackles this season. Twenty-six ACC players defended more passes. Five other members of his own secondary recorded as many interceptions as Joyner.

Yet when the All-ACC team was announced earlier this month, Joyner was a first-team safety.

"I didn't have five or seven picks or 100 tackles, but I showed opponents that I'm a good ballplayer, and I will make you pay on the football field," he said. "Guys respect that, and they'll game-plan around that. That's a big honor for me."

The lesson about responsibility came from his mother, a woman who carried the burden of raising a family on her own.

Rose Joyner worked as a printer for a small newspaper chain near Miami. The job paid little, and the hours were inconsistent.

"It's almost like a hustle," Lamarcus said. "She took care of five kids, and she never had a real job."

Rose raised her family in government housing. Welfare checks helped fill the gaps when the paychecks were too small or disappeared altogether. Life was hard, but there was little tolerance for excuses.

Growing up, Lamarcus gained the nickname "the odd child" among family members, because he'd been the one who always stayed out of trouble, always excelled in school. In the sixth grade, however, he brought home his first F.

Rose found the report card and called Lamarcus into the bathroom. She was crying. She told him she was disappointed, and the words cut like a knife. Lamarcus looked her in the eyes and promised he would never disappoint her again.

"And he never did," Rose said.

Rose is fond of saying that she raised soldiers. Lamarcus considers it a badge of honor. When times get tough, he works harder. The reality of their situation never dimmed his mother's determination to carve out something better or hedged her expectations that her son would make something of himself. That drives him.

"I talk to my mom every night," he said. "I love my mom. I love her to death. To have that same talk, knowing that I'll always be my mom's baby, it's special, man."

The lesson about maturity came from his brother, who made enough mistakes for the both of them.

In the South Florida neighborhood where they grew up, the Joyner boys were surrounded by Miami and Florida fans, but Michael Joyner's passion for FSU burned deep, and he dreamed of someday seeing his little brother play for the Seminoles.

"I never thought in a million years I'd really be a Florida State football player," Lamarcus said. "I didn't know what the future held for me."

But Michael knew, and he understood how rare an opportunity it was.

The boys lacked a father figure in their lives, and when Rose went off to work in hopes of scraping together enough money to keep the family afloat, the responsibility of keeping Lamarcus on the right track fell to Michael. He was a leader by example, insofar as he made every mistake possible to ensure Lamarcus would learn from them.

Michael could smoke, but he never let Lamarcus near a cigarette. Michael had a girlfriend, but Lamarcus wasn't allowed to socialize with the opposite sex.

"We come from an environment where we don't have people that did it before us, and he just always tried to steer me the right way, because God knows he wasn't doing things the right way," Lamarcus said. "He wanted a lot for his little brother."

His brother's struggles taught Lamarcus the value of following a straight path to his goals. Being taught the right way to do things is a lot easier than learning lessons the hard way.

It's advice Lamarcus has followed throughout his life, and every now and then, he will call his brother just to thank him for showing the way.

"To follow his words and make it here," Lamarcus said, "it's a feeling I can't explain."

The lesson about independence came from within, on those long walks home from the Little League field, down dark streets through tough neighborhoods.

Trouble surrounded him, but Joyner never seemed to notice. He would be lost in his own thoughts, dreaming of something bigger.

"I never had an entourage or a big family where people were always supportive," Joyner said. "But God has his hands on me."

When this season ends after the Discover Orange Bowl, Joyner will have a choice to make. The NFL awaits -- either now or in another year. There are still doubters. His size will hurt him in the eyes of talent evaluators, which means he's unlikely to be an early selection regardless of when he enters the NFL draft.

There are believers, too. At home, his family knows how close he has come to his dream, and Joyner knows how much an NFL paycheck would mean to his family.

"There was a little struggling," Rose said of Joyner's childhood. "I'm still struggling. But I've got [Lamarcus] on the right track."

Rose isn't offering any advice to her son, though. The decision is his alone.

There is no legion of friends or neighbors or groupies clamoring for Joyner to rush toward his payday, either. He has spent a lifetime tuning them out.

Fisher offered his insight, and he said he would support any player who felt he had maximized his potential at the college level. That, too, is for Joyner to decide.

"Physically, mentally, I feel as though I'm ready to take my game to the next level," he said. "I feel that I've accomplished all I need here at Florida State. It's a win-win situation. If I leave, I get a great opportunity to make it to the next level. If I come back, I get to get my degree."

The lessons Joyner has learned along the way will make the final decision an easy one.

Joyner will think about his role as a leader, and the opportunity to mold a new group of Florida State defenders next season. He'll think about his mother, and the promise he'd made to never let her down. He'll think about the dreams his brother dreamed, and he'll know he already has accomplished more than he'd thought possible. He'll remember the doubters and yearn to prove them wrong all over again.

"I'm to the point where I don't really need much advice from anyone," Joyner said. "If you weren't there from the beginning, I don't need you asking me about the next level or anything now. I have a small circle."