From scrawny high school bench-warmer to nation's top small-school defender, CB Michael Joseph's circuitous journey to the NFL as improbable as it is inspiring
By Chase Goodbread | Published April 12, 2018
DUBUQUE, Iowa -- For a few hours, Michael Joseph's football career was ostensibly over. It had begun like a dream, and ended -- he thought -- like a nightmare: from youth-league superstar to a 130-pound high school bench-sitter.
Guys like Joseph are lucky to extend their playing days through high school, not unlucky to carry it further. Joseph was coming to realize this as he emailed one last college coach. It was to the University of Dubuque, a Division III walk-on program. He was desperate to keep playing football yet prepared for his plea to be ignored like every other tiny program he'd already contacted.
For a few hours, it was.
For a few hours, one of the most incredible journeys ever traveled to the NFL draft was the closest it ever came to dying prematurely.
The odds of a high school football player reaching the NFL are so tiny, they're expressed in fractions of a percent. For the best of the best -- the elite recruits bound for places like Alabama and Clemson and Ohio State -- it's still the longest of longshots.
Joseph wasn't a longshot. He was a no shot.
He never started a game in his varsity high school career, and was no more likely to play college football than a member of the marching band. His email to Dubuque? He might as well have bottled a written message and hurled it into the Fox River near his home.
That is until, after just a few hours, a reply hit his inbox.
You won't find Joseph in any high school recruiting database. For 2013, Joseph's recruiting class, Rivals.com published profiles for 8,506 prospects across the country. Of those, 34 were given a perfect five-star rating, and more than 4,700 didn't get any stars at all.
Joseph? He didn't even get the recognition of a no-star profile. So, he essentially faked it.
Step one: distribute a highlight tape.
But how does a player with no highlights compile one? Joseph didn't make more than about a dozen tackles in his sparse career at Oswego (Ill.) High, and he played with the JV as late as his junior season. He strung together all the clips he could muster that made him look even the least bit impressive, a montage of 16 plays.
To watch it is to witness the depth and length of the pipe in Joseph's pipedream.
In an era where college football programs are sometimes overly generous with their height/weight listings, giving a player an inch here and 5 pounds there, Joseph refused to run or hide from his. With an introductory graphic preceding his video, he laid his undersized soul to bare for college coaches:
5'8" 130 pounds
Oswego High School_
When he finished editing the video, Joseph played it back, and it was less than three minutes long.
Too short, he thought. So, he re-edited the clips to include the opposing quarterbacks' pre-snap cadences, just to stretch the length to 3:20. For the video's first play, Joseph chose an incompletion on which he was nearly beaten deep. He offered up only six plays showing him in coverage. The rest were a mix of tackles in run support and special teams action. Curiously, his two most impressive plays -- both pass breakups -- were sequenced Nos. 3 and 13.
One of his best friends, Devin Keenan, got an early peek at the video, and recognized a raw, painful truth about the plays Joseph had selected.
"It was garbage time," Keenan said with a smile. "I didn't say anything, but I knew with just about all those plays, we were up by 35 with a minute and a half left in the game."
No matter. The schools that received Joseph's "highlights" wouldn't know what was on the scoreboard. It went to an assortment of small colleges, junior colleges, any place with a football program, in hopes of a response. Nothing came back.
Joseph had a cousin, Bridget Hosley, a track star at Dubuque whose mother had been pressuring him to attend college with or without football. So, at his aunt Valerie's behest, he decided Dubuque would be his final sales pitch -- a last resort -- and one last time he sent 16 clips that badly stretched the definition of a highlight back into cyberspace.
Dubuque's recruiting coordinator, Mike Schmidt, now the head coach at Wisconsin-LaCrosse, opened the attachment in late spring 2013, so late in the D-III recruiting process the doors had all but closed to late additions. He wasn't especially impressed -- who would be? -- but he had been caught in a generous mood that day.
"He looked like a baby giraffe on this tape, just uncomfortable and so skinny, but fast, with a long stride, and agile," Schmidt said. "And you can't teach speed and quickness. No doubt, he was incredibly scrawny. You could see that. But I figured, 'Why not?' "
He was 130 pounds -- that's why not.
That, along with academic struggles in high school, were the obvious answers. But Division III schools like Dubuque are able to take chances on players who can't get a chance anywhere else. The tiny Presbyterian university has fewer students (about 2,300) than the public high school Joseph attended in Oswego. Every football player there, from the top of the roster to the bottom, is a walk-on, and longtime head coach Stan Zweifel has the flexibility to carry as many players as he feels the program can manage. Last year, the Spartans roster numbered around 150.
So why was Joseph's 130-pound frame not automatically disqualifying?
"It's Division III football in Iowa," Schmidt said. "We weren't playing against a bunch of huge monsters out there. The year we recruited Michael, we had an all-conference linebacker who weighed 175."
Life on a Friday night bench can be a culture unto itself. As much as coaches would prefer a singular bond permeating from the biggest star on the team all the way through the sophomore who just got pulled up from JV, the reality is that two very different bonds can form. One between starters, for whom games are the glory and payoff for a hard week of practice, and another between reserves, for whom a hard week of practice must largely be its own reward. For the latter group, there's an unspoken shame in the post-game trek back to the locker room while wearing a clean jersey and taking an unnecessary shower. Younger players know it best, but most eventually graduate to the starting lineup.
Joseph knew this shame as a senior, the elder member of a club nobody wanted membership in.
"We used to buy sunflower seeds and sneak them in our hand warmers so we could at least have a snack while we sat on the sideline," Joseph said. "We'd hide them in our pouch. We knew we weren't getting in the game."
Oswego High coaches permitted injured players not in uniform to have seeds on the sideline, so Joseph and a couple friends he describes as his "bench compadres" could freely scatter shells without being implicated.
"It was good cover," Joseph said.
Over the last half of his senior year, he didn't play a single snap. He came close, however. During a playoff game, one of Oswego's starting cornerbacks had to come out after an accidental collision with the goalpost. A coach yelled, "Michael! Get ready!" But Joseph had so many sunflower seeds stuffed in his mouth he couldn't respond. Instead, he turned his head away from the coaching staff to spit the seeds to the ground. He realized his sudden shot to play, for once, wasn't coming with a minute to go in a blowout game; it was coming with playoff stakes.
Until it wasn't.
"They ended up putting our quarterback in there instead of me," Joseph said. "He was a good athlete. They told me to get ready, but I think the head coach said, 'No, put the quarterback in there.' "
As small as Joseph was as a child, he wasn't always overlooked as a player. Quite the opposite.
He was a dynamic running back in youth leagues, overcoming his size deficit with breakaway speed that made him a feared rusher. He wore a No. 5 jersey to match his favorite running back, Reggie Bush, and once did a Bush-style front flip into the end zone. Nobody cared how small he was -- the game came to him easily, and he was having way too much fun to worry that he was tipping the scales at just 80 pounds in the eighth grade. He was so fast, he literally ran out of his cleats at times. His coach, Dustin Keenan, tired of seeing him cross the goal line in socks, decided something had to be done.
"I'd have a coach tape his cleats onto his feet," Keenan said. "That was part of the pre-game ritual."
Then Joseph entered Oswego High as a ninth-grader, and the dream crashed.
He joined the freshman team weighing around 90 pounds, and didn't see significant action that season, or any thereafter. Exactly what kept him on the bench depends upon whom you ask. His former Oswego coaches praise him across the board for his work ethic, attitude and quickness, but with two quality cornerbacks ahead of him, Joseph couldn't crack the lineup.
"His biggest problem was getting off blocks from bigger receivers on run plays," said Oswego coach Brian Cooney. "The agility in his feet allowed him to get around a lot of blocks, but when it came time to hold an edge, and there's nowhere else to go, and it's time to put your foot in the ground, he could struggle with that."
To those close to Joseph, there was more to it than size. His stepfather, Larry Rogers, thought he was denied a fair chance. So did Keenan. Rogers even advised his stepson to stop playing.
"A lot of times he'd come home and say, 'I'm going to be starting tonight, or starting next week, so let everyone know to show up.' Then it wouldn't happen. This was how it went down his last three years in high school," Rogers said. "I got tired of every year, football season rolls around, he's hyped up and wanting new cleats, and I knew they weren't going to play him. From a parent's point of view, you don't want to see your kid come home hurt. ... It was politics as usual. I'm going to call it what it was."
Just west of the Mississippi River in the tri-state area of Iowa, the University of Dubuque rises out of a criss-cross of residential blocks, almost the way so many high schools serve as a neighborhood centerpiece. Joseph's arrival was equally understated.
As a late-arriving, non-recruited player, he wasn't allowed to join the team upon his arrival in the fall of 2013. Zweifel told him he simply wasn't yet ready to play college football, and suggested he spend the semester proving himself both in the weight room and classroom.
"When we went to visit Coach Z, the first thing he said, and I mean the first words out of his mouth were, 'If you're thinking about the NFL, get it out of your head. You're too small to play college football right now,' " said Nicole Rogers, Joseph's mother.
Under D-III rules, Joseph was technically not part of the team and therefore couldn't work out with other players under coaching supervision. Dubuque's weight room facility is shared by all students, so Joseph had to choose times to work out when the football team was not. He put on around 9 pounds that first fall, and by the time he pulled on a Spartans jersey the following spring, his weight was in the 150s. He didn't play as a freshman, but he flashed impressively in practice against a tough measuring stick: Dubuque star receiver and NFL hopeful Tyler Rutenbeck.
"He didn't dominate him, but Rutenbeck didn't dominate Michael, either. He made some plays," Zweifel said. "And by this point he's lifting with the team, not on his own. And every time you looked at him, here comes another 5 pounds, here comes another quarter inch."
Rutenbeck was 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, and caught 22 touchdown passes as a junior at Dubuque. He later got training camp chances with the Washington Redskins and Indianapolis Colts before taking his football career to Europe. And before Joseph had even started a game for the Spartans, he was shaking up the coaching staff's perception of him. Schmidt, who had fielded Joseph's initial email about coming to the school, was also his position coach early in his career.
"We had a couple of big-time transfers from D-I schools that actually came in at cornerback, and (Zweifel) was just all over me all the time," said Schmidt. "He'd be like, 'You've got D-I transfers, how come you can't get them to play better than this Joseph guy? And I'm like, 'I'm trying, man. I don't know. Maybe we should play this guy.' By the time I left Dubuque, right after spring ball his sophomore year, we all knew he was looking like a starter."
While Joseph put on around 10 pounds a year throughout his Dubuque career, his struggle to gain weight was arduous.
The weight room isn't the only thing the football team shares with all students. Dubuque has no athletic dorm, and no food service specific to its athletes. While players looking to gain weight at FBS programs might be monitored by a nutritionist, feast at a training table and grab fresh protein shakes at will, Joseph had no such assistance.
He worked various jobs to pay his own bills. His first year on campus, he rolled white paint onto dorm walls for a little extra money from the school. Last summer, he worked as a cashier at the Kwik Star convenience store on Dodge Street in Dubuque, a job it took him four interviews to land.
"I got paid every two weeks, close to $400. I'd pay rent, and that was close to $300, and if I had extra money I'd give it to my parents to help them take care of my sister," he said.
One of the best players in all of Division III was squeezing in eight-hour shifts at Kwik Star -- from 3 to 11 p.m. -- around workouts with the team and film study. Joseph had a voracious appetite for watching film. The Dubuque staff uses Hudl technology, a system that tracks for the coaching staff how much tape each player is watching. Joseph logged 187 hours in about 80 days last summer.
"That's more than some of our assistant coaches watched," Zweifel said.
In the summer of 2016, Joseph took a job at a Dick's Sporting Goods in Dubuque. But having no car, he had to walk nearly five miles a day to do so. The 2.4-mile stretch from Loras Blvd. to University Avenue took him about an hour to arrive at work, and when he clocked out, another hour-long walk to his residence hall awaited. At one point, his parents arranged for him to take a car to Dubuque, but Joseph declined because he didn't want to add gas to his expenses.
He took the job at Kwik Star a year later in part because it was a shorter foot commute.
At times, his budget for food -- the very thing his weight gain depended on -- was tight. Joseph said he frequented a campus buffet for students where he could eat all he wanted for a flat price, and he'd quell evening hunger with cheap frozen pizzas or PB & J sandwiches.
"Scouts kept asking if he could gain more weight," said Mike Mandot, Dubuque's strength coach. "I'd point out that he's gotten to 190 with no supplements, no real help, no big training table, and not eating much on a fairly routine basis for a large chunk of that time. Do I think he can still gain some weight? Yeah, I'd say so. If he was in any of these D-I programs, with all their resources, the supplements, all the calories anyone needs, he'd be 215 easily."
Mandot's plan for Joseph's weight gain was simple: eat what you can, when you can.
And even though Joseph displayed a highly impressive work ethic in the weight room, his challenge there was equally daunting. After a semester working out on his own while waiting to join the team, Joseph came under Mandot's program with miles of progress to be made. Mandot splits the roster into three workout groups, and must devote most of his time to the tier of players that starts and contributes most. Group 2 includes backups. Mandot describes Group 3, where Joseph began, as "panning for gold."
"Students who share the weight room with the team, I call them civilians, and he looked like a civilian," Mandot said. "Like an average Joe at the school, almost adolescent. And he was especially scrawny in the lower half."
So scrawny that, incredibly, he could bench press more than he could squat. That's an unheard-of inversion for a football player or, frankly, any athlete. He developed quickly on the bench press, pushing 315 pounds by his sophomore year. But his squat max still lagged under 300 pounds and he didn't pass his bench press max until he'd worked out under Mandot for more than a year.
"It's genetics. My parents don't have the biggest legs, so I got stuck with these chicken legs," Joseph said. "I made the most of it."
The scrawny, adolescent-looking civilian would eventually be named the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year, intercepting eight passes and breaking up eight more on his way to a third straight year on the All-IIAC first-team defense. In his senior season he won the Cliff Harris Award, given to the top small-school defender in the nation.
"From where he started to where he is now, and then seeing NFL scouts come through, it's been like watching a Disney movie," Mandot said.
As Joseph put on size, he left his high school reputation for weak run support behind. He became one of the team's hardest hitters, along with being its best cover man, and his toughness became such that defensive coordinator Carl Coleman used him in a special role against one opponent. Luther College, which also competes in the IIAC, runs an old-school wishbone triple-option offense. For the Luther game, in both 2016 and 2017, Coleman moved Joseph from cornerback to a deep safety position to improve Dubuque's defense against a rushing scheme that always separates men from boys.
"His foot speed was such that against a triple-option, he could go from dive, to quarterback to pitch man, and track the most dangerous man inside-out, to either side," Coleman said. "He was fast enough to get to the sideline and prevent an explosive run if they pitched the ball."
Coleman replaced Schmidt as Dubuque's secondary coach in 2015, and considered Joseph to be his best cornerback from the first day he arrived. He had the speed, length and instincts to take opposing receivers completely out of the game, and brought an edge of competitiveness that will have to serve him well in the NFL. He once broke a finger against Luther College, and didn't report it until after the game.
"He's not a guy who will pee down his leg. He won't be afraid to compete," Coleman said. "If he lands at a Tampa Bay, hypothetically, and has to cover Mike Evans in practice, he'll recognize Mike Evans as being one of the biggest and best receivers in the league. But he won't be intimidated. He won't stop the drill and ask for an autograph."
Joseph wasn't the only one to send an email to Dubuque that proved to be critical to his football future. Another email helped him go from one of the best players in Division III to a legitimate draft prospect, a leap that isn't easily made. It came from BLESTO -- a scouting service some NFL clubs subscribe to and provide resources for to pool intel -- and landed in Drew Nystrom's inbox in February 2017.
Nystrom, Dubuque's offensive coordinator, also serves as its scouting liaison. BLESTO sent emails to football programs all over the country, essentially dragging the lake for unknowns. Nystrom suggested Joseph, and this time, he had a highlight tape that was completely legitimate. Not long after, area scouts Scott Hamel (Bears) and Blaine Gramer (Vikings) traveled to Dubuque to test Joseph's speed. He clocked two 40-yard dash times in the high 4.4s in Dubuque's 60-yard indoor football facility.
"I thought it was a joke they were even there to see me," Joseph said.
It was no joke. After the 2017 draft as BLESTO was preparing its list of 2018 prospects, Hamel gave Joseph a draftable grade, and ever since, scouts have worn a path to Dubuque's door. Three scouts showed up on the first day of fall camp in August, and it's been a parade ever since.