The majority of the players taking part in Cincinnati Bengals rookie minicamp Friday were taking their first steps in the NFL. But for linebacker Brandon Joiner, it was the second chance he always hoped he would get.
“It felt amazing,” Joiner said after the morning practice. “It was a blessing really, just to get a chance to play football again and be out there with the rest of these amazing athletes and have the Bengals uniform on.”
The last uniform Joiner wore featured a lot more numbers and a lot less prestige. It was all white and exactly the same as the ones worn by every other every prisoner in the Hutchins State Jail.
The 24-year-old Joiner spent eight months there from May 2012 to January 2013 after being convicted of aggravated burglary and assault when he was an 18-year-old freshman at Texas A&M.
“It was mentally, physically and spiritually frustrating,” Joiner said. “Every day you wish you were out. And now you’ve got an opportunity to be out, so you try to use that as a log for the fire and keep going.”
The 2007 crime, in which he and a teammate broke into an apartment, tied up the residents and stole cash, drugs and cell phones, led to Joiner’s release at Texas A&M.
The other man in the robbery, Yemi Babalola, was sentenced to five years in prison, and Joiner knew a similar fate awaited him. But after enrolling at Navarro College and later Arkansas State, he maintained a 3.0 grade-point average and eventually made a unique plea deal in 2010 that resulted in 10 years of probation and allowed him to delay serving time until after he graduated.
“Yes, he did what he did, but I’m really proud of Brandon,” said his mother, Cynthia Joiner-Moore. “Sometimes people have to go through some things, and I know he’ll be a testimony for someone else’s life because of it. Going through something is one thing, but when you don’t run from it, that is the issue.”
Joiner didn’t run from his responsibility, and the Bengals didn’t run from Joiner, who signed as an undrafted college free agent last May, just weeks before reporting for prison.
“We brought him in here because we thought he was talented and had a chance to do something for us,” Bengals linebackers coach Paul Guenther said. “With the situation he’s been through, he’s matured quite a bit. What happened was a long time ago. I told him it’s like starting all over again. You’re starting from ground zero and building from there.”
Joiner missed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s while in prison. He missed his sister Amanda’s deployment to Germany as a member of the Army. And he missed being a part of the Bengals, especially when he watched them play on television.
But the visits from his mom and a letter from the Bengals kept him going.
“When I got a letter from the team letting me know they kept their rights to me, that was a blessing that gave me a boost of confidence and hope,” he said.
“I told Brandon if he ever gets traded to another team or goes somewhere else, I don’t know how you’re going to feel with me wearing a Bengal pin on and sitting up there in somebody else’s uniform, but I’m a Bengal fan for life,” Joiner-Moore said.
It is far from a certainty that Joiner will make the team this season. The Bengals return two of their three starters at linebacker, and they recently signed five-time Pro Bowler James Harrison. They also added former first-round pick Aaron Maybin in the offseason.
But one thing Joiner can guarantee is that he is a new man with a new outlook.
“I look at life differently now,” he said. “When you walk by a flower, you don’t just see a flower, you smell it. I’ve grown as a man physically, spiritually and mentally. I feel battle-tested in a way. I am more than ready for this opportunity. I know what it feels like to be at your lowest low, and I respect it more now being at my highest high.”
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