Somebody in that flock of saints had to rebel, so Joseph, in ninth grade, volunteered. Puberty had come, Dad had gone—Bruce and Rhonda had split six years earlier—his two older siblings had just moved out and the feeling that everything was falling apart was confirmed when his mother couldn't scrape together the $200 to get Joseph's heart murmur checked out, so his big love was lost, too: no high school football. He started getting in fights and disrupting classes, then skipping them altogether, drinking and smoking pot at a pal's aunt's apartment, once even funding his mutiny by pocketing cash he collected for Hurricane Katrina victims. He landed in a youth shelter, slugged a kid there who blew on his neck and was charged with assault and battery and hauled off in shackles to a juvenile detention center.
Rhonda stared at her 13-year-old delinquent in disbelief. Sure, the kid had been hyper right out of the chute, had been class cutup and funkiest dressed, wearing a big green clock on a string as a necklace to school or picking his hair out into a puffy 'fro, then having his younger brother shave a bald stripe down the center and one down each side: Reverse Triple Mohawk, Ma! But he'd always been the Williams's prodigy, spewing five-syllable words at age three, bypassing first grade altogether and reading at an eighth-grade level at—what? He can't be six! When he cursed his mother one day in the summer after his to-hell-in-a-purple-handbasket ninth-grade year, Victor, his best buddy as well as his older brother, beat him to a pulp and left him sobbing in a bush in the front yard of a town house they'd just moved into on government vouchers ... and Joseph's fever finally began to lift. Dominion High principal John Brewer, rather than expel him, gave him an eighth chance, the assault charges were dropped, Victor moved back home, Joseph passed his sophomore football physical, and the two brothers went on to become stars and leaders of their football team in Sterling, Va.
Something else happened too. How, Joseph asked a man in the 100 Black Men society who mentored him on weekends, can we ever pay back all the people who've helped us? And the reply struck him in the heart: You pay them back by helping someone else. He began staying after school to tutor struggling classmates and signing up—even before his mother could—to help those hurting. When his college application landed at UVA, admissions officers panting over his volunteer-work list had no air left when they got to his 1420 SAT score, and they fell over themselves to help cover tuition, board and books of an incoming 16-year-old.
That's how Joseph made it through high school still holding on to the strange notion that he's not separate from other human beings, not different from custodians and dormitory maids. That's why he's the one in 444,000 U.S. student-ATHLETES standing at the hub of his campus imploring his peers and professors and administrators to care. He had to be incubated in a way that neither money nor poverty incubates in America, grow up differently from other fledgling white, brown and black athletes. Grow up without the buckling weight of his extended family's expectations, without his consciousness narrowed to the needs of kin and posse, chained to the lifetime role of Clan Messiah—the poor African-American athlete's fate ever since the 1980s, when the money got crazy—and without ever climbing aboard the middle- and upper-class striver's conveyor belt of camps, clinics, private coaches, travel teams, weightlifting programs and every-weekend tournaments. All of them, from both backgrounds, kept anxiously aware of their place in the pecking order by Internet scouting and ranking services reminding them what their height, weight, bench press and time in the 40 needed to be, tunnel vision hardwired by their Sweet 16th.
Developmental compression: That's what the caretakers of psyche and spirit call a phenomenon that became normalized over the last few decades. Truth is, Agassi, perhaps the most developmentally compressed athlete of modern times, could never have wrought his groundbreaking educational initiative—which includes plans for more than 75 charter schools serving up to 50,000 students nationwide—if he hadn't leaped off the compression track in his 20s for long stretches that outraged and bewildered sports fans. Truth is, any athlete of this era, unless he attended a tiny high school that had to scrounge up enough kids to field a team, probably had to be developmentally compressed for at least a few years if only to experience the simple joy of starting on the varsity.
Joseph's speech is slowing down, it's growing difficult for him to form sentences. And still the story he tells on the steps of UVA's Rotunda brings tears to the eyes of an English professor at the rally. He never even mentions to his listeners that he plays for UVA. He doesn't want them to stereotype him as a football player.
Hope surges through Joseph and the hunger strikers: UVA president Teresa Sullivan has agreed to meet with them. At an odd hour, 7 a.m., and two more days of hunger hence, but they're desperate now, fearful that their sacrifice will evaporate in the dry air of apathy, praying that the national attention Joseph has attracted has finally begun to make the administration flinch.
On his sixth foodless day he and a roommate who has joined the hunger strike, Peter Finn, can't stop obsessing about food: sushi ... pizza ... chicken ... steak, sushi, pizza, chicken, steak, sushipizzachickensteak. They go out to dinner just to watch their girlfriends eat. "Can we sniff your food?" Joseph begs his girlfriend, Kathy Storm. She hands him a french fry and he holds it beneath his nose, closing his eyes, swooning. "Can you eat one with your mouth open?" he begs. She complies. He's getting lightheaded, goofy. He leans in to inhale another french fry and knocks over a glass, splashing water all over the table.
He falls silent on his seventh day. Opening his mouth only now and then to say to Peter, "God, I'm hungry."
"Please," their other roommate, Toye Falaiye, keeps pleading with them, "just eat."