He has lost a half-dozen pounds. His mind's mush. He raises his hand three times in Martin Luther King's Political Thought class and forgets each time what he meant to say. Fellow striker Breezy Pitts blacks out in economics class. The doctor orders her to eat.
A dozen teammates keep tabs on Joe-Joe with texts or calls. "Some appreciate his hunger strike," says wide receiver Miles Gooch, "and some think it's a bit extreme." All are stunned by the swelling media attention.
Suddenly, a fourth-string cornerback's being featured in The Washington Post, The Chicago Sun Times, SI.com, Ebony, Yahoo! Sports, msn.com, AOL news—in 45 Google pages' worth of websites! Suddenly the hunger strikers have a national bullhorn and UVA has a major publicity problem, all because of a walk-on football player of whom the school's media-relations department doesn't even have a photograph in its files. All because sports is our obsession.
But do our athletes have any more obligation to rush to the ramparts in the struggle for social justice than our bank tellers or mailmen or stockbrokers? No, probably not, Joseph says, but omigod, the platform and the wattage at athletes' disposal if they do. The tidal waves of attention paid to sports are an energy stream that can be diverted anywhere, even to the plight of a janitor or a dishwasher, even by the most insignificant of athletes. Joseph e-mails his fellow strikers, expressing his worry that the media focus on him might rub them wrong. Rub them wrong? They're thrilled. They're reaching audiences they never dreamed they could. Joseph's e-mail account is about to explode, messages pouring in from professors and students and pastors and football fans across the country.
"A rose will bloom even through the crack of a concrete sidewalk," says Edwards. "That's what has happened at the University of Virginia."
Day 5 for Joseph. Day 8 for more than half of the 21 others now going hungry. They're hoarse, frayed, frantic, marching to the doorstep of the university president's house, screaming, You're not meeting! We're not eating! You're not meeting! We're not eating! Marching on the Board of Visitors meeting in the Rotunda and shrieking, The people, united, will never be defeated! The people, united, will never be defeated! Marching on the administrative offices, howling, When workers' rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up! Fight back!
The administration won't budge, sending e-mails to tens of thousands of students and faculty explaining its financial predicament, pointing out that its minimum starting pay of $10.65 plus benefits to its direct employees is the second-highest in Virginia—regardless of the fact that the university is hiring ever-growing numbers of contract workers from outside agencies that pay them as little as $7.25 an hour with little or no benefits. Outsourcing on the cheap, no different from many U.S. corporations. At their noon rally the strikers take turns on the bullhorn pleading their case and sharing their personal stories, then sag to the ground in exhaustion, a few dissolving into tears.
It's Joseph's turn to tell his tale. So how did this kid slip through the cracks of the U.S. sports system—or bloom through one? Oh, it's clear right away, he's not been washed here by the mainstream. This is what it takes for a Division I athlete in 2012 to end up starving and chanting for human rights: a childhood lived in homeless shelters, transitional housing, a church basement, a friend's attic, a tiny camper, fleabag motels, grandparents' houses, cramped apartments ... 30 homes in his 19 years. Got off easy: His older sister, Joy, tallied 50. Moving because the joint was infested or the landlord a creep or the plumbing pitiful or a job in some other town might actually pay just enough for them to survive. Four children and a parent sleeping in one bed at one shelter, piled in with families whose adults had addictions or physical handicaps, piled in with people wondering what was odd about this family, besides the obvious: It's an interracial family in Virginia. Again and again, someone somehow materializing and offering them a hand, saving them from the streets and starvation.
How did Joseph's mom, Rhonda—raised Jewish and middle-class and suburban in Blue Bell, Pa.—end up a gypsy trying to keep four children out of oblivion's clutches? Married to Bruce Williams, a burly, good-natured black man, a reformed drug addict from the hard half of Norfolk. Both had joined Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, done years of volunteer and mission work and, still strangers to each other, committed to wedding in 1982 as part of the church's plan to erase the barriers between races and nations through intermarriage. Bruce ricocheted from job to job, a security guard one day; a counselor at a home for troubled kids the next; a taxi, truck and bus driver who kept crashing taxis, trucks and buses ... and then seemed to give up. There was never, because of all of his and Rhonda's mission and volunteer work, a cash reserve to tide them over. And so Mom kept bursting through the door to announce, We're moving again! Right now! Scavenge the dumpsters behind the grocery and liquor stores for cardboard boxes! Jam the sheets and towels in those plastic bins! Dismantle the cinder-block bookshelf! Heave everything else into those crates! Don't forget the mousetraps! Leave the place cleaner than when we arrived! You know the drill!
Truth was, they didn't—it was usually helter-skelter, a ransacked army on the run, one eye out for the roaches and rodents that kept moving with them. Between the moves and job changes, Rhonda would round up the kids on weekends and summer mornings, dress them in donated clothes, funnel them into a clunker, drive past all the ballfields where all those kids in crisp unis were playing weekend tournaments, and find someone, somewhere, in worse shape than they were to help out. Or better off; didn't matter. The Williams Crew cleaned up streets, parks, schools, hell, even rivers, wading into the Anacostia River in waist-high boots to have at the 20,000 tons of trash entering it each year. They planted trees, organized a summer school for underprivileged kids, made sandwiches for poor people, baked cookies for old people, sang Take Me Out to the Ball Game and O Little Town of Bethlehem in nursing homes.