Absolution On the Gridiron and Off
By Mak Ojutiku
“Hey, she looks just like me don’t she?” he says grinning. At first it’s hard to see a resemblance between Joseph Mendes and his daughter. After all, she’s a little three-month-old girl and he’s a towering 25-year-old linebacker. On closer inspection though, you can see some of the elder Mendes in her. They have the same nose, the same light brown eyes, and when he bounces her on his knee and plays with her, it’s easy to see they share the same smile.
Today was the first time Mendes brought his daughter to his dorm. He made sure to show her off to all of his roommates. To him, this is the best way to spend a Saturday afternoon: with family and friends. This peaceful scene is almost the exact opposite of his second favorite way to spend a Saturday afternoon: on the gridiron.
Standing well over six feet, with a broad muscled physique, Mendes looks exactly like the kind of linebacker a quarterback or running back wouldn’t want to see lining up on the other side of the field. And he didn’t just look the part.
From his high school days, to his Division I days, almost every program Mendes played for saw him put on either record breaking or season leading performances. In 2005, as a senior for Montclair High School, Mendes recorded 26 sacks, which lead the entire state of New Jersey.
That earned him a scholarship at Delaware State. Because of grade issues, Mendes wasn’t allowed to play with or workout with the team in his first year on campus. “Had to workout with the volleyball team,” he says with a chuckle.
When he got on the field, he made the most of it. In the 2008 season, he led the team in sacks. When former teammates talk about his style of play they speak of his wild physicality and quickness. Unfortunately for Mendes, he was as wild off the field as he was on it. Mendes had discipline issues in his youth and it didn’t change much when he got into Delaware.
“I put myself in situations that I shouldn’t have been in.” Mendes said. “I was a prominent athlete, but I just wasn’t mature. That’s probably why I’m not living my dream in the NFL right now.”
His issues piled up over time; at the end of his junior year, the year he led his team in sacks, he lost his scholarship. Despite that, Mendes was adamant in making use of his final year of eligibility.
“My goal was always to graduate, but also to finish my last year of college football,” Mendes said. “I wanted to show my family that it was possible to overcome.”
After a detour through Wesley College, Mendes found his way to Kean University. He immediately made an impact on the team.
“He was a momentum changer,” said Tahaj Williams, a former Cougar teammate of Mendes. “When we needed a play to be made, he made it.”
He was credited with 1.5 sacks in his first game and went on to become the team leader in sacks for the season.
Mendes draws inspiration from the struggles he endured in his youth. He was born in Trenton to a 15-year-old single mother. His family soon moved to East Orange. There, he grew up surrounded by gangs, violence and drugs. Mendes’ youngest brother was diagnosed with autism shortly after his birth. That led Mendes to major in psychology. “I just want to help people. That’s gonna be my calling no matter what,” Mendes said.
Drug addiction was something that ran his family, but Mendes himself never fell to those vices.
“Growing up in an environment where it surrounds you, it’s easy to fall prey to but it wasn’t something I ever did,” Mendes said.
Today, Mendes uses those struggles to fuel the journey of achieving his dream: becoming a professional football player. His goal is to get onto an Arena football team or a Canadian league team. One person who’s helping him with that goal is Jarvis Johnson.
“I took him under my wing and we developed a relationship to help him accomplish things in his life,” Johnson said. “I’m here every step of the way as long as he needs me.” Johnson helps Mendes with his growth on and off the field, and he’s witnessed a change in him.
“I see him maturing in a lot of ways to where he doesn’t have to resort back to the things that a lot of young black men have to go through,” he says. “It’s great to see these guys that make a change in their lives for the better. So many guys at this level lose sight of that. It’s easy to lose sight of your dreams and your goals.”
Mendes is doing strength and conditioning drills now, but he’s waiting until after he graduates, to go full time into his pro football pursuits. Up until a few months ago, he was focusing primarily on school. Now he’s focusing on school and his daughter. “Before it was school then me, now it’s her, school then me” he said with a laugh. “You learn that you can’t think about yourself, you have to think about someone else. All the decisions you make, you have to think how will it affect my family.”
This May, Mendes will become a graduate of Kean University and that’ll make him the first graduate in his family. Mendes says that achievement is only the beginning. “If I saw the light at the end of all those other tunnels, why shouldn’t I give my dreams a shot,” he said. “With everything else I’ve endured and overcame, why can’t I try to overcome?”