Brandon Joiner’s hell was cold and smelled like a rusty aluminum can.
Even when he tried to rest, Joiner couldn’t escape the hell of his own making.
For six days in early December of 2007, he was surrounded on all sides by the cold, concrete walls of the Brazos County Jail.
He tried to rest, but the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Joiner was given only a mat made for pre-kindergarten children. The blanket was little more than pocket lint out of a pair of jeans. If he folded his clothes, that was his pillow.
For 23 hours a day, he shared the long, narrow holding cell with as many as seven other men. They were given one hour in another room to play cards and dominoes. Joiner didn’t play; he’d seen too many games that led to fights.
Mostly, Joiner watched television or read his Bible and tried not to think about what was going on in the outside world. That would have made him crazy. He’d listen to other people’s stories. Sometimes they were funny.
Joiner, 18 at the time, and a former Texas A&M football teammate broke into a College Station apartment complex on Nov. 29, 2007, bound the wrists of two men with duct tape and stole cash, drugs, keys and cellphones.
This was Brandon Joiner’s hell.
He tried not to think about how he’d hurt his mother’s heart. Or how she was working to get her only son released on bond.
It was her dream that he would get a college education and he’d wrecked that. She prayed that his dreams would come true, and he’d taken that away, too. Yet, it was her comforting him when they talked.
“I was just broken mentally, I was broken physically, and I was broken spiritually,” Joiner said. “I had no idea of what to do or where to go or where to turn to. And my momma told me the only place you can look is up.
“She said, ‘Look to the hills, from which comes help.’ And that’s when I realized the only person that could even help me feel better about the situation, not get me out of the situation ... was God.”
He made up his mind, then, to take advantage of every day he was outside that cold, concrete cell. There his mother’s dreams and wishes still lived and his life could still have meaning.
“It was during that time that I realized I need to be more selfless instead of being selfish and reacting off of what I wanted — it’s not about me, it’s way bigger than me,” Joiner said. “It’s about my mom, my sister and my family and about everybody else. ... I was going to do the best I can to just make my momma smile. If I could make my momma happy, make her smile, then I was doing something right.”
Joiner’s knees barely fit under his desk at the Convergys call center in Killeen.
“What do you do?” co-workers asked him.
“I work here. I’m new here,” he’d tell them.
“No, but what do you do?” they’d respond.
“Well, I used to play football.”
Joiner, a former Shoemaker defensive lineman who fielded Football Bowl Subdivision scholarship offers from about 20 schools before signing with Texas A&M, was now trapped in a cubicle during the day and slept in his old room at his mother’s house.
When his former high school head coach, Ken Gray, called shortly after his initial release, Joiner immediately tried to apologize.
“I don’t want to hear that,” Gray interrupted. “Do you want to play football?”
When Brian Mayper, a recruiter with Navarro College, visited Joiner days later, Joiner’s personal belongings were packed into trash bags and boxes that lined the walls of his mother’s living room.
“Brandon, I need to know exactly what happened,” Mayper said.
It was mid-December. Joiner was suspended indefinitely from the Aggies’ football team and faced two counts of aggravated robbery and three drug charges, one a felony.
Mayper knew all that. He wanted to hear Joiner explain it.
Joiner detailed his experience, because when faced with the opportunity to get a second chance, he knew only the truth mattered.
He did not see disdain in Mayper’s eyes, though.
“He was really open to what I was saying, and he really was comforting at the same time, because I realized he wasn’t judging me. ... He made me feel human again.”
Joiner was allowed to enroll at Navarro, but was immediately put on suspension after he was indicted in late January.
He wasn’t eligible to practice with the team when it opened spring drills in 2008 and he had to maintain a healthy GPA academically and walk a straight line personally. None of which turned out to be a problem for Joiner, who held higher than a 3.0 GPA that semester.
That summer, Nick Bobeck, who was the offensive coordinator at the time, was named the Navarro head coach. Bobeck appealed to the college president to have Joiner’s suspension removed.
“He’s an exceptional young man; he’s got a great personality. He’s extremely talented, too,” Bobeck said. “None of us — myself, Arkansas State, (former Arkansas State head coach) Hugh Freeze and the Cincinnati Bengals — wouldn’t have given him an opportunity if the kid wasn’t extremely talented. He’s very, very talented, but he’s also got a great personality and he’s a good person. If you spend enough time with the kid, everybody says the same thing.”
The small Corsicana campus felt like the perfect escape — almost like home. And the close-knit relationship between teammates felt like family.
It was a harsh truth that made Joiner see his second chance wasn’t just about the game.
“That was also a big growing step in my life just realizing who I was, that I wasn’t a child anymore,” Joiner said. “I was becoming a young man, and that now I am held accountable for my actions, but also how they affected everybody else on my team.”
In June 2009, Yemi Babalola, Joiner’s former Texas A&M teammate who was his co-conspirator in the 2007 crime, was convicted on two counts of aggravated robbery and sentenced to five years in prison.
Because the one-time NFL offensive line prospect was convicted of an aggravated offense, he was going to serve at least half of his prison sentence before he became eligible for parole.
“I’ve known since Yemi went to jail that I was going to go to prison, too. I never told my momma that because I didn’t want to see it in her eyes, I didn’t want to break her spirit, but I knew I was. But I had time to face it,” Joiner said.
Still, he struggled with his infamous past and how it lingered in his life like an asterisk.
“There was always somebody asking him about it. He was embarrassed about it,” Bobeck said.
“There were often times where he talked about quitting and just going and doing something else until all this stuff cleared up,” Bobeck added.
The Navarro head coach put it into perspective for him — Joiner was more than a teammate, he was a leader as much for his off-the-field character as his on-the-field abilities.
“He made me realize, it wasn’t just about me, it was about more than me because if I would’ve quit, how many other people would see that I took the easy way out or I did this or I did that?” Joiner said. “How many other people would see that it’s OK to quit when things get hard or when you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel? How many other people think that it’s OK to quit?
“It’s not OK to quit. It’s never OK to quit. You can’t quit. You’ve got to refuse to quit.”
After his first season with Arkansas State, Joiner faced his fate.
In December 2010, Joiner and his defense attorney, Jay Granberry, worked out a creative plea deal with the Brazos County District Attorney’s office that would send him to prison, eventually.
First, he was going to be allowed to earn his college degree.
“It was a very creative plea agreement to accommodate (everyone),” Granberry said. “Our interest was in allowing Brandon to continue his education, because he’s going to get out of prison at some point, so ... we want to make sure that he’s in the best position, and the state recognized that, as well.
“That’s one part, but also the state wanted to get their deterrence out of it as well, their punishment. It kind of accomplished both goals.”
In the deal, Joiner received 10 years probation and was ordered to serve 60 days of intermittent jail time in the Brazos County Jail, pay a $1,000 fine, perform 350 hours of community service and write letters of apologies to the three victims of in the robbery. That was for one of the two aggravated robbery charges.
The deal also laid out the prison sentences that would come along with the final two remaining felony charges: one aggravated robbery charge, which was reduced to robbery, and the felony drug charge — two misdemeanor drug charges were dropped. Following his graduation, he would receive a two-year sentence for each charge to be run concurrently.
At his sentencing last May, Joiner received three years for each of the charges because he was unable to graduate as expected in December 2011 — a class he needed to graduate wasn’t offered until the following spring semester.
Granberry said going to trial with Joiner’s case was an option. While he believed Joiner could’ve received probation for his offenses, he also said it was a risk knowing prosecutors would likely be pushing for a 20-year prison sentence.
Joiner shook the district attorney’s hand after signing the plea agreement and left to make the most of the freedom he had left.
“Those two years, when I realized I was going to prison before I went, helped me realize how I should attack life all the time,” Joiner said. “It was an amazing feeling to look at life that way because you realize how short life really was. And you realize, any minute, it could be taken away from you and you knew when it was going to be taken away from you. I guess it was really a blessing because a lot of people never really get to see life through those eyes until it’s too late.”
After three years, Joiner found himself back on a Division I college campus, sitting across from Dean Lee, then the Arkansas State athletic director.
“I told him, ‘I owe it to you and I want to do my best to show you that you did not make a mistake by giving me a second chance,’ and that I would do everything in my power for this school and to represent this school, this football team, the best way I can,” Joiner said.
“He just looked me in the eye, he smiled and he said, ‘Oh, I know. I know you’re going to be a good guy because if I didn’t think you would, I wouldn’t have given you a second chance.’”
“We knew that he had some legal issues pending, but thought with great behavior and effort academically, those things would be dropped. Obviously, they weren’t, but he did a great job,” said former Arkansas State head coach Steve Roberts, who is now the Cabot (Ark.) ISD athletic director. “We had very high expectations of him and he met those expectations.”
In his two years at Arkansas State, Joiner recorded 82 total tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss and 17 sacks.
He was the Sun Belt Conference defensive player of the year as a senior after leading the conference in sacks and helping the Red Wolves to an undefeated conference championship and a 10-2 record overall.
His 12 sacks during the regular season were fourth-best in the country in 2011 and second-most in Arkansas State and Sun Belt Conference history. He recorded at least a partial sack in 10 of 12 games, including a career-high four in the Red Wolves’ 30-21 win over Louisiana-Lafayette.
He met Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe before the Red Wolves’ GoDaddy.com Bowl game appearance against Northern Illinois. To his surprise, Beebe, an Arkansas State alum, not only knew of Joiner, but was a fan of what Joiner had been able to accomplish since his mistake.
“Obviously, he comes across as a sincere and remorseful and a changed person or else person after person, whether it’s a coach or me or anybody else for that matter, wouldn’t feel this kind of consistent, same way about giving this guy a second chance,” Beebe said. “I think it’s as much the sincerity in his demeanor about who he is now and what he intends to do with his life that probably is the most compelling thing that’s caused people to react to him in that positive way that we see over and over right now.”
Joiner was relaxing from a pro-day training workout in Huntsville, Ala., when his mother called in February 2012.
After everything he’d come through, everything he’d accomplished to get to this point in his life, Joiner would’ve given it all up to have not heard what his mother told him that day.
“Brandon, the doctor just told me that I have cancer,” Cynthia Joiner-Moore told her son.
“Momma, I denounce that right now in the name of Jesus Christ. I denounce that right now,” Joiner told his mother. “You do not have cancer and I don’t care what the doctor says.”
In early February, Joiner-Moore had been scheduled to have a blood clot removed from her leg. Just four days before her scheduled surgery, doctors discovered a fibroid, or tumor in the muscle layers of her uterus, following a CAT scan.
The doctors removed most of the mass during the procedure, but Joiner-Moore didn’t discover that it was actually cancerous until after she woke up in the recovery room following the surgery.
“For me, it was more relief that I know what it is now and I’m getting treatment for it,” Joiner-Moore said. “I just knew I had to keep the faith because just because people have cancer, they don’t necessarily die from it. I was telling myself I didn’t have to be one (that did die), and it’s going to be OK.”
She was put on a chemotherapy and radiation regimen after the procedure.
Joiner prayed because there was little else he could do. He prayed and maintained faith and went about trying to keep his mother happy.
“It hurt, I’m not going to lie. It hurt, because at that time, I had to be strong because I just had to,” Joiner said. “I knew where it (healing) came from: It’s from joy. I knew joy would cure all things, love would cure all things. When your spirit is joyful, your body is healthy. I just knew that.”
Joiner-Moore attended a church revival in May and was told there to fill seven bottles of water and drink one bottle a day for seven days.
She drank the final bottle the day she drove Joiner to a Dallas airport to fly to rookie mini-camps in early May.
Waiting for his flight, Joiner’s phone rang. Again, it was his mother.
“They told me my cancer’s gone. They couldn’t find it. All they found was water in my lymph nodes. All they found was water, they didn’t find cancer,” Joiner-Moore told her son.
“When I tell you I broke down and cried, oh man, I cried. I cried and I prayed in that airport,” Joiner said. “That was the happiest day of my life. I completely forgot about signing day. I forgot about all of that. That stuff didn’t even matter. To know that God would bless me and my family like that, if you just believe and hold on, was amazing. ... It just shows you how powerful love is and how powerful joy is.”
Joiner spent the final day of the 2012 NFL draft, the day after he turned 23, fishing with a friend on Belton Lake.
His mother texted him while he was on the water, to make sure he wouldn’t rather be at the house, just in case; Joiner wasn’t worried about it — he loved fishing and he hadn’t caught anything yet.
But, just in case, he went home. His cellphone was dying anyway.
After getting dropped off, Joiner walked in the door and went straight to plug in his phone. When he did, it rang.
But he couldn’t answer it; it had locked up, but still rang.
“Who is it?” his mother asked.
“I don’t know. I think it might be an NFL team, though,” Joiner answered.
Using his mother’s phone, he called the number back. A person with the Cincinnati Bengals answered.
“I broke down. I felt so good. I saw my momma, she was just sitting there smiling. I could feel it instantly, that smile on her face added 10, 20 more years to her life,” Joiner said. “I broke down crying, just tears of joy.”
He had run a 4.84-second 40-yard dash at Arkansas State’s NFL pro day that impressed the Bengals’ scouts.
He signed an undrafted rookie free agent contract in May.
“To think that something you’ve been working for your whole entire life, even though you’ve been through this situation,” Joiner said. “To be at the bottom, start all over at a junior college, to work your way from the bottom back to Division I, back to the top, it was just an amazing feeling.
“It’s what you live for. It’s one of those moments.”
When he walked out of a private conference room inside the Brazos County Courthouse on May 23, Joiner had a smile on his face.
Before standing in his spot beside his attorney, Jay Granberry, in front of the judge’s bench, Joiner walked back to the gallery where his mother was sitting and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“I’ll be home for Christmas,” he told her.
He was hoping for probation; he got two three-year prison terms to be run concurrently.
He was, however, relieved that he could finally get closure on the mistake that had followed him, haunted him and, in many ways, helped him.
When he got out, he could start right where he left off.
But prison was his biggest test yet.
“It’s limbo,” Joiner said. “You’re basically just there sitting and waiting and waiting. You’re not getting better. If anything, you’re getting worse.
“It’s a negative environment. It’s horrible. I realized that every day is precious.”
He questioned why God would have him touch his dreams of playing professional football only to take it away as he grabbed for it.
Days after Joiner’s sentencing, Granberry visited him, told him the Bengals were sticking by him.
Cincinnati put him on the reserve/did not report list in late July, allowing the team to retain his rights but take him off its 2012 roster.
“He may or may not make it in the NFL — (the Bengals are) going to give him a chance, obviously — but they thought the same thing I thought about: Here’s a young man that messed up, but look at his character now,” Beebe said. “Look at his attitude now. Look at the way he’s conducting himself now. And that’s exactly the kind of person they they also believe deserves a second chance.”
But the time he served was no less difficult knowing he still had his opportunity with the Bengals.
His mother’s uncle died while he was in prison. His only sister, Amanda Joiner, was deployed to Germany while he was in prison.
And he didn’t make it home for Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year’s, even though he was eligible for parole in mid-September and finally granted parole Nov. 13.
“I learned about what’s really more important to me. I learned about myself and my family more,” Joiner said. “You just learn so much, but that time waits for no man.
“I realized that if I want what I say I want, then I can’t wait, that there is no tomorrow, there’s only today. ... And there’s only right now. And, if you’re not doing anything right now to get where you want to be, then you’re wasting time, you’re withering away.”
Every day a new opportunity
Jan. 15 was cold and dreary. It was snowing in Dallas when Joiner stepped off a bus outside the Hutchins State Jail.
After serving nearly eight months of his term, Joiner was free. He didn’t mind the cold and did a little dance as he walked from the bus to the passenger side of an SUV where his mother sat waiting for a hug and a kiss from her son.
“Man, it feels good just to be out here,” Joiner told the Herald the day he was released.
True to his word, he hasn’t skipped a day to catch up on the training time he missed while he was in prison.
He works out six days a week, taking only Sunday off, to prepare for the Bengals’ organized team activities on April 15. Last Monday, Cincinnati activated him to its 90-man 2013 roster.
“We liked what we saw of him, and we look forward to welcoming him back when our offseason programs begin in the spring,” said Jack Brennan, the Bengals’ public information director.
“Our management agrees with the many respected sources who have spoken on Brandon’s behalf and have noted the tremendous strides he’s made since his mistake, which is now five years in the past,” Brennan said. “Our club is in agreement with them that Brandon has fully atoned in the legal system and now deserves the chance to move forward with a football career and any other pursuits he may choose.”
It was a football career for which Joiner believes he was destined.
He thought he’d have to give it up, like a penance for his mistake. But he didn’t give up on the dream he had as a boy. Five years after the mistake, he said he probably would’ve ruined the NFL opportunity if life had taken him in any other direction.
“When God does help you through a situation, and God shows you the way and you make it out of that situation, don’t forget Him,” Joiner said. “Remember to give Him all the honor, all the glory and all the praise, because He’s the reason you are what you are now.”