(STATS) - Joe Este wakes up each day telling himself it's either going to be a good day or a bad day - that the choice is his.
It's a lesson the UT Martin student-athlete says he imparts on "my boys."
Many college football players use that affectionate term toward their teammates, but Este's "boys" are his nephews, 7-year-old Christopher and 8-year-old Zackary, whom he gained custody of last year.
It's a situation that could have thrown Este's life upside down. Instead, it's been made better.
"After the end of the day, if I'm not successful, my boys are not successful," said the senior-to-be defensive back, who turns 23 on June 25. "I go throughout the whole day trying to show them boys that you've got to go hard for what you want."
Christopher and Zachary were faced with a hard childhood. They were left by their mother, Este's older sister Taryn, who's battled addiction and faced trouble with the law.
"The boys, when she had them, they were living that lifestyle with her," Este said. "One morning, they'd wake up, the mom's gone. The next one they wake up, they see another man in the house. Stuff like that."
Candace Este, Joe's mother, took in the boys for a while, but financial and medical problems led to her placing a phone call to Joe in early spring last year. He was in his first semester at the Ohio Valley Conference school in Tennessee after transferring in from a junior college.
"It was a shocking moment because I wasn't prepared for it," Este remembered. "I was at school one day when I got a phone call from a random number and it was from my mom and she was like, 'Son, I just can't do it.' I said, 'What can't you do?' And she was like, 'I just can't take care of the boys anymore.'
"I stayed up all night just thinking about what I could do. And the next day we had workouts. Usually I'm all energized, but that morning I wasn't energized, I was just doing what I had to do just to make it through and Coach (Jeff Byrd, then UTM's defensive coordinator) had realized something was wrong. When he asked me, I told him that my nephews didn't have a place to go, that my mom couldn't watch them anymore. He sat down and talked to me and was like, 'Is there any way that you get them up here?' I was like, 'Yeah, I just need some help.' He said, 'Well, you try your best to get them up here and we'll help you out.'"
Without help, Este believes he would have dropped out of school to return to suburban New Orleans to care for his nephews. That's where Este grew up in Kenner and had their Jefferson Parrish home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
But he brought his nephews to Martin, where they moved into a three-bedroom home near campus and, as he explains, the Skyhawk family grew. He's on a full athletic scholarship, so his Pell Grant can be used for living expenses and dependent care.
"When I told them, I was getting them and coming to school, they were like, 'Man, we going to college?'" Este said. "I said, 'Yeah, bro, we're going to college.' I didn't want to just bring them and not be able to able to interact with them, so every little break that I get from outside of school or football, I try to take them to the movies, bowling, laser tag, something just to do with them. I think the biggest thing is the people in this community. A lot of people know the story or heard of it. Every time they see us in public or something like that, they tend to interact with Chris and Zack, even myself.
"They show so much love to the boys that they haven't seen in a while - probably since they were born."
A typical day last school year began at 5:45 a.m. After dropping off Christopher and Zackary at school, Este attended his classes from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Afterward, he'd bring his nephews to UTM practice, where they were embraced by coaches and players.
Este had an excellent first season with the Skyhawks. Fundamentally solid, he's an aggressive cornerback and free safety who collected 67 tackles, 6½ tackles for loss and three interceptions as UTM went 7-5 and finished second in the OVC standings.
This spring, Este joined forced with UTM head coach Jason Simpson in the coaching ranks on a youth baseball team that included Christopher, Zackary and Simpson's son Graham.
"Watching Joe sacrifice for his nephews is awesome to watch," Simpson said. "He is a great example for our team. Every day the boys are in our facilities or at practice, it's amazing to see our players' reactions to them. It's like they have 100 uncles."
"Zackary," Este said, "is more of a laid-back type of guy, like me. He wants to do the right things, be willing to help people, like I am, just interact with others. Christopher, he's a little dare devil, he wants to get into things, he wants to build stuff. If he gets caught with it, he'll get into trouble. Not like bad things, though."
This month, the boys are on a vacation in Houston, staying with Joe's step-father, Vincent Troia Jr., while Joe goes through offseason workouts and takes a summer class which will keep him on track to graduate in December with a degree in health and human performance. He aspires to be a physical therapist or a pediatrician.
Next month, the boys will return to their life in Martin, and in August, Joe's girlfriend, Troimarie Benjamin, is expected to move in with them. He believes she will be a "mother figure to them."
"It's going to be shocking once they get older and are able to understand what's they're going through and what they've been through," Este said.
"I just feel like that it's going to be a great thing at the end of this process. It's starting off good."