CINCINNATI – Brandon Joiner first stepped into the Bengals’ locker room at Paul Brown Stadium a year ago. Every time he enters the stadium, he still has a sense of awe. It’s a feeling he doesn’t want to go away.
The Bengals signed Joiner as an undrafted free agent last year. He was a defensive end from Arkansas State and had been named the Sun Belt Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. Joiner first walked into PBS during the team’s annual three-day rookie mini-camp.
Those three days would be the only time he was in the building last year.
Joiner was released on parole from prison on Jan. 15 after serving nearly eight months of a three-year, plea-bargained sentence on an aggravated robbery and felony drug charge in 2007. Joiner was 18 and in his freshman year at Texas A&M at the time of the incident. He was being red-shirted from the Aggies’ football team during that season.
According to police records, Joiner and a former Texas A&M teammate broke into the apartment of a known drug dealer and robbed him at gunpoint. A police search of Joiner’s home turned up illegal drugs.
“I just made stupid decisions,” said Joiner.
The Bengals aren’t the ones giving Joiner a second chance; he got that when he went to Navarro (Junior) College and then to Arkansas State. As part of his plea deal, he would spend holidays in jail and perform community service while still being allowed to go to school and play football. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Arkansas State.
The Bengals are giving him a chance at continuing this new life. Joiner, now 23, is being converted to play outside linebacker. He’s part of the rookie mini-camp again this year.
“It’s starting over, basically. It’s like any other rookie. He’s really starting over. Basically, he had three days last year. That was it,” said coach Marvin Lewis.
Joiner was reinstated to the Bengals offseason roster in February. He’s been working out at the PBS facilities and getting tutelage from linebackers coach Paul Guenther and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. The Bengals have put Joiner’s past behind them and see the appreciation he has just to be in this situation.
“I’m sure he’s been told this before but every day is a new day for him,” said Zimmer. “He’s got to stay on the same path. He’s been a good kid around here. Whatever happened a long time ago, I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
The Bengals didn’t have to stick by Joiner. They could’ve easily released him.
“I thank God every opportunity I get to come out here and play for the Bengals and the organization, it’s a great day,” said Joiner. “I’m really grateful for them. I just want to show them that they did the right thing. I feel like I’m in debt, that I owe them everything I have and I want to give them everything I have for this team.”
Joiner is 6 feet 3 and weighs 245 pounds. He had 13 sacks and 19 tackles for loss his senior season. Moving to a new position will require a learning curve, but the Bengals have openings among their linebackers and room for developing players. Vontaze Burfict, Vinnie Rey, Dan Skuta and Emmanuel Lamur all played for the Bengals last season after starting their careers as college free agents.
Skuta has moved on, signing with San Francisco as a free agent, while the Bengals signed James Harrison – another former college free agent – from Pittsburgh to join Burfict and Rey Maualuga in the starting lineup.
There is no guarantee for Joiner when it comes to making the roster. He does have an opportunity, however. That’s more than he could’ve hoped for when he went to prison last May.
“I manned up to it, I took my licks, but I look at life differently, too. I understand how important this is,” said Joiner. “I understand that football is an exceptional thing and it’s not just given. Everybody can’t do this. It’s a great opportunity. Every time I walk into this locker room I still have that awe factor, that man I’m so happy to be here and I pray I never lose that.”