FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- For his first few weeks at St. Thomas Aquinas High, Lamarcus Joyner had to catch two public buses every morning. Then he had to catch a train. During his hour commute from Miami's Liberty City neighborhood to the Fort Lauderdale prep school, Joyner occasionally caught up on homework. Other times, he would sit and think.
"I like thinking," Joyner said Friday. "I like being alone."
Joyner, a defensive back, receiver and kick returner, felt alone at times on his team last year at Southwest Miami High. Certainly he was a star, and college coaches noticed his rare blend of speed, power and ball-hawking skills. But he didn't feel challenged on the football field, and he wasn't making the grades he needed to make himself eligible to play in college.
So, through an uncle who knows St. Thomas Aquinas assistant Cris Carter,yes, that Cris Carter, the rising senior reached out to the program that has produced a steady stream of NFL players as well as a legion of former football players who succeeded in fields that have nothing to do with lugging a leather ball toward an end zone. To gain admittance, he had to meet with St. Thomas Aquinas principal Tina Jones. "She saw that I was a respectful child and that I could come and handle myself at St. Thomas Aquinas," Joyner said. He also had to meet with legendary Raiders coach George Smith. "He'd already seen my highlights," Joyner said. "But you know Coach Smith. He's done seen a lot of great guys. He looked me in the eyes and said, 'Can you play football?' I said, 'Yeah, coach.' "
Even though Joyner is surrounded by fellow blue-chippers, he stood alone again late Friday awaiting a kickoff from Byrnes High, the Duncan, S.C., powerhouse that had come to Fort Lauderdale to wrest the nation's No. 1 ranking away from Joyner's Raiders. Byrnes had just marched the ball down the field to slice the Raiders lead to seven. Mother momentum seemed to have taken up residence on the Rebels sideline. Nothing that came before -- not Joyner's 52-yard touchdown streak or teammate Phillip Dorsett's 73-yard pinballing touchdown catch -- mattered anymore. If St. Thomas Aquinas didn't answer, Byrnes was going to come back and win.
Joyner caught Kaleb Patterson's kick at the 7-yard line and spied a crease. He blasted through the hole and into the open field. No Rebel would catch him, as long as he could run through the cramps seizing his calves. Joyner scored, and while the 42-34 victory wasn't quite secure yet, the Raiders had the upper hand again. Asked what the kickoff play was called Joyner wasn't exactly modest. "We call that Automatic Six," Joyner said. "It's just an automatic with Lamarcus Joyner back there."
As Joyner crossed the goal line, a trio of gridiron greats watched with great interest. Miami Dolphins receiver Ted Ginn, who knows a thing or two about kickoff returns, smiled. Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter yelled. Florida coach Urban Meyer, whose main recruiting target Friday was Joyner, raised both hands in the air in celebration.
Meyer isn't alone in his desire to sign Joyner. From a long list of suitors, Joyner has narrowed his choices to Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Ohio State and USC. And, thanks to his move to St. Thomas Aquinas, he'll probably actually attend one of those schools. Joyner said he had a 2.3 grade point average before he transferred. As he learned more about the NCAA's initial eligibility requirements, he feared he wouldn't qualify. Friday, he happily reported he is carrying a 3.2 as a senior.
For that, Joyner thanks his teachers and coaches at St. Thomas Aquinas. He hopes he repaid them Friday. He scored as a receiver and a kick returner, and he cleaned up any defensive messes as a free safety. And when Byrnes receiver Jazz King (nine catches, 156 yards, two touchdowns) started dominating, Joyner slid to cornerback and locked down King.
In a matchup of two Top-20 recruits, Joyner shined brightest Friday. Byrnes tailback Marcus Lattimore, a senior high on the wish lists of plenty of college coaches, rushed for 118 yards and two touchdowns, but he also fumbled three times. Meanwhile, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano also in attendance had to smile at the performance of Byrnes quarterback and Scarlet Knights commit Chas Dodd, who completed 26 of 44 passes for 416 yards and three touchdowns.
The Rebels refused to quit, but the Raiders made fewer mistakes. "I don't know if you can say anybody is the best team in the country," Smith said. "Who knows? What I take away from tonight is that we played a team that is one of the better teams we played in the history of this school, and we won the game. Our kids fought all night."
That especially goes for Joyner, who left the field screaming in pain from leg cramps after several possessions. Still, when the Raiders needed Joyner to make a play, he made one. "Every play, you never really know," Aquinas quarterback Jacob Rudock said. "He could take one play 20 yards, or he could take it 80 for a score."
It was the least Joyner could do for the coach, the teammates and the school who have helped him become one of the nations best players. "I finally got to show St. Thomas what I'm really made of," Joyner said. "I came to their team for a purpose. I wanted to give back to St. Thomas just like they gave me an opportunity."