By Timothy Bella
When he would return to visit his father in St. Croix, Linval Joseph and his brother, Isaac, would make a makeshift basketball hoop out of a piece of board and a milk crate, attaching it to a telephone pole. Growing up in St. Croix, the Joseph boys would have to be creative when it came to entertaining themselves, whether it was tying a wagon to their bikes and riding it uphill or roasting the fruits that would grow in the family’s garden, they made it work. When they would come back to the island, they saw the same billboard.
“Every time we used to come to the islands, we would always see this billboard that read, ‘Welcome to St. Croix, the home of Tim Duncan,’” Isaac Joseph says. “We used to say that we hope we could have our own billboard someday saying, ‘Welcome to St. Croix, the home of Linval or Isaac Joseph.’”
The billboard isn’t up just yet, but Linval Joseph is already on his way to NFL and Virgin Island history. When Sunday’s big game between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots gets underway, Joseph, the Giants’ second-year defensive tackle from East Carolina, will be the first NFL player born in the Virgin Islands to play in a Super Bowl.
“Oh my goodness,” says Ernestine Johnson, Joseph’s mother, learning of the news. “I never even thought about it. He’s so low-key, though. You would never know he was in the NFL.”
Joseph, a 6-foot-4, 323-pound nose tackle who is arguably the strongest Giant on the team, would be hard not to notice, even if he wasn’t making history. He’s just the 10th Virgin Island-born player in NFL history, the two most notable being former Pro Bowlers Renaldo Turnbull of St. Thomas and Hanik Milligan of St. Croix. And the 23-year-old’s entry into the fraternity of Virgin Island-born athletes in the big three American professional leagues to play for or win championships is a much-needed addition to the small club. Aside from Duncan’s run of four NBA titles between 1999 and 2007, there have been three Major League Baseball players to win World Series championships – Joe Christopher did it for Pittsburgh in 1960, Elrod Hendricks got a ring in 1970 with Baltimore, and Midre Cummings was a part of Arizona’s lone championship club in 2001. As a matter of fact, Raja Bell and his 2001 Philadelphia 76ers’ NBA Finals loss remains the only time that a Virgin Island-born pro athlete in a big three American sports league whose team made it to the championship has not won it all.
But Joseph and his family admit that several things fell his way that helped put him in a position he is today, days away from lining up against a New England line that will try to stop Joseph from, well, stopping the run. Around the time Joseph was 10, his parents divorced and his mother moved him and his brother to Gainesville, Fla., his father deciding to stay behind in St. Croix. Johnson did her part to make the transition easy, even as she was going to school at night on top of working for the Gainesville Police Department and supporting her two sons. With Joseph going to school 30 miles from Gainesville, Johnson would go pick him up after class, having a full dinner prepared for him on the way home. They’d usually get home around 8 or 8:30 at night.
“I would cook big meals during the week so they were prepared,” she says. “That went on for four years. You do what you got to do.”
But a part of Joseph still belonged to St. Croix. In 2003, he returned to the island to be with his father, Clement, for a few months. While down there, he expressed to his father how he was getting picked on by the other kids for being tall, but not being able to do much physically. He loved soccer, basketball, karate, baseball, and track, but was starting to drift toward football, one of the lesser prominent sports on the island.
“He told dad, ‘I’m going to play pro sports one day, just watch,’” Isaac Joseph says. “My dad told me that the other day. [My brother] told him he made a promise to [our father], ‘I’m going to be a pro player. I’m going to have something and do something with my life that’s positive.’”
Returning to Santa Fe High School in Alachua, Fla., as a freshman, Joseph was a tall kid, but at 180 pounds, he was still ridiculed and criticized for wasting his size.
“They were just like, ‘You’re too big not to be strong,’” Joseph says. “‘Why can’t you do a pushup? Why can’t you do a pull-up?’”
Instead of backing down, he got angry. When he would go home, he started to do 100 pushups a night. Eventually, he would get to 500 pushups a night. From then on out, Joseph would lift at his local gym for two hours every night. He saw his bench press numbers go up by about 30 pounds a year.
“Every time I got mad, I took my frustration out of the weights,” Joseph says, a former Florida state weightlifting champion.
He had morphed into a physical specimen, the kind that has drawn praise from Patriots guard Logan Mankins this week as one of the unsung heroes of New York’s star-studded defensive line.
“It was scary,” says Scott Pritchett, his former coach at Santa Fe High School. “We’d try to spot him and the guy had more than 300 pounds above his head. His strength was unbelievable, man. He was just a beast, a man among boys.”
When he wasn’t working with the school’s agricultural program, an interest he had picked up when he would work with cows in St. Croix, he was hammering down his college plans. When tentative plans to be a Florida Gator fell through, Joseph made his way to East Carolina. But the defensive tackle’s weight began to spike, forcing him into minor back surgery. Skip Holtz, his head coach at East Carolina at the time, even wondered aloud if Joseph’s weight, which was at 360 pounds when he came to campus, would force a position change.
“He came in as a huge individual,” says Holtz, now the head coach at South Florida. “I told him, ‘If you don’t lose some weight, I have to move you to the offensive side of the ball.'”
By the next fall, Joseph had slimmed down to 305 pounds, adding a newly-found dimensions of quickness and agility that he didn’t have prior to the weight loss.
“When Coach Holtz told him that, that made a big difference,” Joseph’s mother says. “That’s when I saw him become more disciplined.”
It was all the motivation Joseph needed. He began to eat better, learning to be a good cook himself. (He would later learn to make some leaner island-inspired seafood dishes, even if it meant going out to Queens for good seafood and herbs.) The increased focus helped him buck the NFL Draft experts who said that the weight and durability issues surrounding him were red flags. Holtz says that once the weight came, Joseph was capable of doing anything as his competitive nature and the maturity he gained from his family experiences allowed him to flourish.
“I’ve had the pleasure to coach a lot of people, but he’s one of my favorites with that million-dollar smile of his,” Holtz says. “The respect he has for his parents and for his elders and the work habits he has were all established in his family upbringing.”
With a St. Croix tattoo on his back, Joseph knows where he came from and what a win Sunday could mean for future Virgin Island athletes. Besides, it was about nine years ago when he promised his father he was going to do what he’s doing now.
“I have got to do it for the whole island to show that it’s possible,” Joseph says. “Show them that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, because you can still make it at the highest level.”