- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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Editor's note: This story originally was published Friday, April 24. Sunday night after the 2009 NFL draft ended, Frantz Joseph signed a free-agent contract with the Oakland Raiders.
LAUDERHILL, Fla. -- The beige paint is cracking around the windows outside Marie Clercius' cramped apartment.
But inside, as this late February day winds down, the happy hum of family dominates. There is pungent conversation, laughter and food -- plenty of food -- from brown beans and rice to fruit salad to oxtail.
In the 1970s, Lauderhill was predominantly a Jewish retirement community, but by the mid-1990s it had developed one of the densest Haitian and Jamaican populations in the country. After English, Haitian Creole is the second language here, and one-fifth of the households are led by a single woman. Clercius, who arrived on a boat from Haiti nearly 40 years ago, fits both demographics.
The modest home is filled to the seams with eclectic curios acquired at the local Swap Shop. Among them: snowmen, teddy bears, elephants, advertising placards, a large Shrek towel on back of the couch. Family photos -- featuring her three children born in Haiti, and two sons born later in the United States -- compete for space on the crowded walls.
Almost lost in the clutter is a crimson jersey, No. 45, attached to the wall with two nails through the shoulders. It belonged to the youngest of her children, Frantz Joseph. He never played a down at Boston College.
He had uncommon athletic skill, a full athletic scholarship, but he was red-shirted as a freshman linebacker. What might have been?
"Had Frantz stayed at Boston College," said his brother Jimmy, "I know for a fact we'd be talking about a first- or second-round pick."
It's impossible to know with any certainty, of course. It's safe to say that Joseph's path to the NFL would have been easier if he hadn't returned home to Florida to support his struggling mother, hadn't transferred to the low-profile Florida Atlantic University.
His 154 tackles were the second-highest total in the country last season. He was the defensive MVP of the Texas vs. the Nation all-star game but Joseph, whose measurables aren't quite what the scouts would want, was not invited to the NFL scouting combine.
But as it turns out, the engaging Joseph did the right thing. This weekend, as the NFL draft unfolds in New York, we'll learn how costly his sacrifice was.
"In life, just what I've been through -- all of the trials and tribulations -- [it's] just understanding that it's not about you," Joseph said. "It's about the people around you.
"It was a very hard decision, but it was the obvious decision that I had to come home and handle that. Just looking deeper into the picture, little did I know that it was a blessing in disguise."
She didn't have her papers, so Marie Clercius worked under the table. Dirty work was all she could get, and that's what she did at the local mall and random hotels; cleaning toilets, taking out trash. She didn't always make enough money to keep the lights on, sometimes for days at a time.
They were evicted enough times to never really feel settled and food on the table, a given for most people, was only slightly more predictable than the electricity.
"Going to bed hungry was something that I experienced a lot growing up," Joseph said.
Added Jimmy, "I remember me and my brother, looking at each other in our rooms, listening to our mother cry, being sad with each other."
It is a tribute to their mother that they did not succumb to the usual temptations. Frantz, who started out as a freshman bass drum player in the Dillard High School marching band, was soon laying out ballcarriers for Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) High School. He led the Flying L's with 96 tackles in seven games and forced seven fumbles as a senior captain in 2003.
Boston College offered him a full ride, and he took it.
"You're playing great football at a high level, ACC -- Big East at the time -- and at the same time, you're getting just a step below an Ivy League institution teaching," Joseph said. "The way I looked at it, I couldn't lose."
But Clercius, whose health was failing, was unable to pay her bills. After repeated phone calls from his mother, Joseph decided to return home after his first year.
"Just hearing the person that you love, the person that's done everything for you -- crying," he said. "I mean, it's really not explainable."
He enrolled at Florida Atlantic and immediately began living two lives: scholarship athlete and household provider. In the cracks between school and football, Joseph worked various odd jobs to support his mother. He'd rent a U-Haul and help people from his church move from one place to another. He cleaned homes and cut grass. Along with his brother Jimmy, who sent along about half of his Navy paycheck, they supported their mother.
Joseph grew into the most productive defensive player for Florida Atlantic, a mid-major, NCAA Division I program with high aspirations under head coach Howard Schnellenberger. At inside linebacker in 2008, Joseph made 10 tackles against Texas, 13 against Michigan State and 15 against Minnesota -- and that was just the first month.
But when the invitations to the NFL combine went out, Joseph wasn't on the list. His two postseason performances came after the mid-December cutoff date for invitations.
"I thought everybody that saw him in El Paso, saw him at his best," said Schnellenberger, who was on the sideline of the all-star game. "He's got a great instinct for the ball."
Joseph was credited with an interception and a 26-yard return and fumble recovery and another 32-yard return to set up scores in the Texas vs. the Nation game. In FAU's victory over Central Michigan, Joseph led the Owls with 13 tackles.
Instead of working out for pro scouts in Indianapolis, Joseph watched on television in late February as the country's best 300-plus prospects -- 22 of them linebackers -- culled from more than 12,000 candidates, worked under the scrutiny of some 600 NFL personnel men.
That doesn't necessarily mean he won't be drafted.
According to Jeff Foster, president of National Football Scouting, over the past five years, between 28 and 38 players who weren't in Indianapolis still managed to get themselves selected by NFL teams.
How to quantify heart?
Joseph's personal combine took place on February 24. It was, he acknowledged, probably the biggest day of his life, one that might dictate the next five to 10 years of his life.
Florida Atlantic played host to 19 scouts, representing 16 NFL teams, for its pro day.
"It's huge," explained Brian Martin, Joseph's trainer and CEO of TEST Sports Clubs. "For these guys, it's their Super Bowl. This is it."
In a game where franchises are now valued at an average of more than one billion dollars, the search for talent is a ruthless, emotionless process. In the end, numbers are what matter most.
Joseph's were well below his expectations:
Height: 6 feet, 1 ½ inches
Weight: 242 pounds
Broad jump: 9 feet, 7½ inches
Vertical leap: 27½inches
Bench press: 19 repetitions at 225 pounds
40-yard dash: 4.84 seconds
20-yard shuttle drill: 4.36 seconds
Three-cone: 7.34 seconds
"I didn't do so well as far as the numbers," Joseph said afterward. "I'd say like a seven on a scale of one to 10."
Earlier this month, Joseph worked out for the Miami Dolphins, at their facility in Davie, Fla. The Dolphins, whose scout had asked Joseph questions about his failed drug test in 2005 and arrest for marijuana possession in 2006, have been the most aggressive in doing their due diligence. Joseph freely acknowledges his mistakes but hopes that these incidents aren't going to hurt his draft position.
According to Latish Kinsler, Joseph's agent and a partner at Metro Sports, about two-thirds of the league's teams have expressed interest, including the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Carolina Panthers. Some projections have Joseph getting drafted as high as the fourth round, but the consensus is somewhere between the fifth and seventh rounds –- or, perhaps, not at all.
Joseph's anxiety has peaked in recent weeks.
"Just looking at the TVs and the Mel Kipers and the draft gurus, talking about the guys who are going the first day, and just knowing that your name's not out there," Joseph said in late March. "But at the same time you don't worry about that type of stuff because if you do, then you go crazy."
Joseph is two courses short of graduating with a double major in business and management at Florida Atlantic. Over the years, he has taken out $30,000 in loans to help support his mother. Clearly, he has the drive and the ability to succeed in life after football. It's just a question of when that life will begin. Sooner or later?
"They can't measure dedication and heart," said his brother Jimmy. "Anyone who watches film on him, they're going to see that dedication, that heart, and that will to make every play."
Unquestionably, his return to Florida compromised his career path. But will that journey ultimately take him farther?
"I know I'm a better player because of my mother," Joseph said. "Just understanding the adversity off the field and how to overcome and translating that on the field. I know if it wasn't for my mother and the situations I've been through, I wouldn't be the player that I am today."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Enterprise Unit Producer Rayna Banks contibuted to this report.