ST. LOUIS — Lamarcus Joyner was different. Cory Johnson could tell from the moment he first met him.
Now the head football coach at Killian High School in Miami, Johnson was the defensive coordinator at Southwest High School when he first met Joyner, back when the newest St. Louis Rams defensive back was in ninth grade.
"You could tell from Day One that there was something in the kid," Johnson told FOXSportsMidwest.com on Thursday. "That he had something that he wanted to be, that he wanted to be something, that he wanted to make more of life than things that surrounded him."
What surrounded Joyner during his formative years was one of the roughest neighborhoods in the United States — the Victory Homes projects in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami.
"Where he came from, you learned to survive," Johnson said. "You were put out there and you were taught to survive by the surroundings — not from what you learned in your house, but from what surrounded you.
"What was going on around that time, when he was growing up, were impoverished things: drugs, shootings, all kinds of stuff. And, of course, sports. Few make it out of that to be able to show the world that it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can make it anywhere."
Joyner has made it this far because of his surroundings. Because he’s been trying to get away from all that.
That’s how an undersized kid — he’s grown to 5 feet 8 and 190 pounds — from the projects escaped it all. How the fourth of five children, with two older brothers still in jail, became an All-County standout in his three years at Southwest High, USA Today’s national defensive player of the year as a senior at powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, a national champion and unanimous All-American at Florida State and now a second-round NFL draft pick.
"I’ve been running away from that place all my life," Joyner said Tuesday when the Rams introduced their draft picks to the media, "which is why I do what I do on the field and in the weight room and the way I respect people. It’s a dream come true. Like I said, I’ve been running from that place all my life, and to be here and to be from afar, from where I come from — there’s no better feeling."
Asked how he made it, Joyner said he kept his faith in the Lord, added on to his God-given ability with extra work and listened to the men in his life that God put there. Men such as Johnson.
Joyner’s former defensive coordinator said the kid always had the heart.
Johnson describes a kid who was always looking to prove himself. If kids were racing, Joyner would say he could outrun everybody. If they were jumping, he’d say he could out-jump them. Fighting? Well, yeah, he’d want to prove he was the toughest kid out there, too.
Joyner’s coaches taught him to pick his battles, something that helped him thrive at Southwest High, St. Thomas Aquinas and Florida State and will serve him well in the NFL.
"He’s always been that challenging guy, that wants to show everyone that he can outdo anybody who is doing something," Johnson said. "That’s how he feels when he straps on a helmet. You might go beat him in a 40-yard dash, you might jump a little higher than him, but when he buttons up his helmet and you have to put it all together and he has 10 teammates versus your 10 teammates, he feels that he will be the best player on the team and he believes it. He doesn’t think it, he believes it. He believes he is the best S.O.B. on the field."
Rams coach Jeff Fisher said players with Joyner’s toughness are rare. That’s why St. Louis focused on him with its first pick on Day 2 of the draft and was willing to trade a fifth-round pick to Buffalo to move up three spots in the second round to take him.
"We didn’t want to lose him, and he’s just an outstanding player," Fisher said. "He plays all over their defense. He plays outside, he plays in the slot, he plays high, he blitzes, so he’s a plug-in Day One nickel (cornerback). He’s very, very aggressive, tackles well."
Joyner is well aware that the Rams traded up to get him. They made a sacrifice for him, he said, and he’s good with returning favors. He plans to give all of his heart and soul to the organization in return.
Johnson thinks the Rams got the best defensive back in his draft class and said he’ll make an impact like Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, a third-round pick, before long.
"I’m telling you, he’s going to be the one," Johnson said. "If that franchise changes around, it’s going to start on defense. He’s a Bob Sanders, Sean Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed-type guy."
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.