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Executive action


Brandon Joiner

When it comes to Bengals rookie linebacker Brandon Joiner, this isn't a reprieve from the governor. It is, simply, a reminder by the honorable Mike Beebe, the 45th governor of Arkansas, just how important is the story of his fellow Arkansas State alum.

"He's a good guy. This is the kind of story you like to talk about," Beebe says late Thursday afternoon from Little Rock and the executive mansion, recalling the crucifix Joiner made for him out of braided leather that Christmas that Joiner spent in jail before leading ASU into a bowl game.

The request for a chunk of Beebe's time Thursday morning is granted swiftly by the end of the business day despite the late notice and a gubernatorial head cold.  

"Kids mess up. They do foolish things. We probably have all done stupid things when we're young. He went over the line," Beebe says. "He did what he had to do. He paid his dues. He's a class guy."

Joiner may have paid his dues, but the polls are about to open. On Tuesday the Bengals hold their first of 10 voluntary on-field workouts mixing the veterans and the rookies before the June 10-12 mandatory minicamp.

Joiner has been a Bengal for 13 months, but it is his first primary with the big boys. While the other free-agent rookie linebackers from last season, Vontaze Burfict and Emmanuel Lamur, started an NFL playoff game, Joiner read a proverb and a psalm every day while curling his biceps as he pulled a towel stretched over his prison bunk as far as he could.

"I was able to watch them play Dallas and Houston," Joiner says of Burfict and Lamur. "I was saying, 'They're my boys.' They were balling, too. I was thinking, 'Right now it's their turn. I'll get my chance.' "

Beebe, who got his poli sci degree from ASU 45 years ago and has been an ardent Red Wolves follower ever since, offers this executive mansion scouting report on Joiner as he waits his chance:

"Heck of a player, heck of a player," Beebe says. "He has what it takes with both strength and speed. He doesn't lay down. You don't see that all the time. He has the tools. He's explosive. He's really fast for a defensive end."

The 6-3, 245-pound Joiner is making the switch to SAM linebacker, a democratic move that harbors no classes. Fellow free agent Jayson DiManche made the same move this past week in rookie minicamp that Joiner made at last year's rookie minicamp. Aaron Maybin, a former No. 1 pick, is making a similar move and so is, in a sense, Super Bowl hero James Harrison as he morphs from a 3-4 outside backer to a 4-3 SAM.

But none of them spent May 23, 2012- Jan. 15, 2013 in a Texas jail losing a dozen pounds.

Those are the dates Joiner carefully writes on a piece of paper before he tears it out of his spiral notebook and gives it to anyone for the record. He also puts on the paper 20 days in December 2010, 20 days in May 2011 and 20 days over that Christmas of 2011 and New Year's 2012 at the end of a season he was named the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year.

The Bengals signed Joiner after the 2012 draft knowing he may have to miss his rookie season because of his legal issues, but also knowing they had a raft of letters of recommendation ranging from Beebe to Joiner's head coach at Arkansas State, Hugh Freeze, to those who documented his overflowing hours of community service.

"Very athletic guy; a very strong guy," says Bengals linebackers coach Paul Guenther. "A lot of good players have come out of that conference and it says something he was Player of the Year. He did a lot of things well and we saw enough on tape that makes us think he can make a transition."

It happened Joiner's freshman year at Texas A&M when he was 18. He had come from the bad streets of Killeen, Tex., already a miracle in the making, securing a scholarship despite growing up in a one-parent home where his mother couldn't work because of cerebral palsy and where both he and his sister started working as early as possible.

"She can't stand up and walk for that long," Joiner says. "When I was old enough, I cut yards and washed cars and my sister started working at Walmart. I've been cutting yards my whole life. I helped the guy down the street. He'd pick me up and we'd go work on some cars. I didn't learn much, but I'd screw this in and that in and I'd make about $10."

Let Joiner tell what happened that freshman year at A&M in 2007.

"I was young, I was thinking real fast," he says. "We robbed a drug dealer. A bad mistake and I made it. When I got away from home and I was on my own, my decisions kind of strayed me from (God's) goal for me. But when I started getting focus back on Him, He put me right back on track where He wanted me to be."

Where Joiner is now is in the Paul Brown Stadium locker room asking Eric Ball, the Bengals director of player development, about how he'd like to just show up at a Boys & Girls Club in the most unkind of neighborhoods.

Which is no surprise to his mentor, Rennell Woods, the former executive director of City Youth Ministries in Jonesboro, Ark., home of ASU. Joiner also writes on the piece of paper that he had to complete 360 hours of community service and it was Woods who saw him go above and beyond it.

When ASU went to the Bowl last year and the team was asked if someone wanted to speak at a juvenile detention center, Joiner quickly raised his hand because "I wasn't going to see the facilities," he said.

"This is a guy that fell in love with community service. He began to see himself as not a liability, but as an asset," Woods says. "He started to find out it's better to give than receive. He was there not to do the hours, but the center became his second home. In three weeks he went from a guy nobody knew to a guy everyone knew. When he started sharing his story, he started impacting kids and he started to see himself not as a criminal. As his life started changing spiritually and emotionally, his football career took off."

Woods, a tight end and H-back for ASU back in the mid-90s, points to a conversation he had with Joiner early in his senior season about John Maxwell's 80-20 theory.

"Say you've got an alcoholic problem, or a sick child, or you're having problems with your marriage," Joiner says. "If you can put all your energy into God and what He wants, those things can be overcome if you take care (of your faith)."

It was at about that time that whenever Joiner racked up one of his 13 sacks, he pointed to the sky.

And faith is what kept sustaining Joiner from May 23, 2012-Jan. 15, 2013. He had two playbooks. The one from the Bengals he had for three days in early May 2012 that he had only in his mind, and the Book of James that he had in his heart.

While he watched games on TV, Joiner would test himself. What would he do in that in defense or against that look? Meanwhile, his favorite Psalms in there were 23:6 ("Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life") and 139:14 ("I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made"), but it was James 2-7 that got him through.

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that's the testing of your faith," Joiner recites.

"I never know how strong I really am if I never max out the bench press, or I never know how fast I am if I don't get in a race, or people who are married never know how strong their marriage is unless they go through some things. It kind of shows you the kind of man you are when you go through some things. It made me strong."

Woods says his relationship with Joiner is so strong he says it's a big reason he resigned from City Youth. Emboldened by Joiner referring to him as his mentor, Woods is now executive director of AMEN (At risk Males Education).

"It's a city-wide mentoring network. I see young men needing direction, not correction," Woods says. "He listened to me. He not only took what I said to heart, he put it into action. If I can continue to get young men to not only listen, but put it into action, I think we're headed somewhere in our future. He was an impact on my life."

And so on down the line. Joiner, a down-and-once-out-underdog, and Beebe, a sitting two-term governor, it turns out, impacted each other.

"I'll give a kid a second chance," Beebe says. "He may be big and he may be strong, but he's still a kid. I thought it was a classy move by the Bengals, to put him on a list and bring him back."

Joiner says Beebe told him he hung up his crucifix. But it wasn't made out of braided leather. It just looked like it. Like Joiner's story a governor likes to tell, it was made out of a lot more than the materials.

"It was cut-up trash bags. Black and white trash bags that were cut up and tied together to make it look like that," Joiner says. "He believed in me. He supported me. When I went back in there, it was all I had to give him."

The notebook paper with all the days in jail is folded up in someone else's pocket and put away for good now. But Joiner has ripped off a small piece of paper from the bottom to write down one more thing.

Ball is telling him the toughest Cincinnati location for a Boys and Girls Club.

"Got it," he says and puts it in his locker.

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