His physical presence creates an enigma.
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No one looks at Linval Joseph‘s 6-foot-4, 329-pound frame and sees insecurity or an ounce of weakness. The Minnesota Vikings‘ Pro Bowl nose tackle, whose job it is to annihilate interior offensive linemen, doesn’t look like someone who endured years of verbal torment as an adolescent.
His experiences growing up prove that appearances often deceive. Joseph learned that there is no face of bullying, from the people who do it, to those on the receiving end.
“I’ve been bullied all my life,” Joseph told ESPN, relaying how moving from the Virgin Islands to the Gainesville, Florida, area at 10 years old made him an easy target.
He spoke differently than his classmates, who mocked him for his accent. They made fun of him for wearing “bobos,” the nickname given to the off-brand shoes he got from Kmart, and spoke ill of his mother, calling her poor and saying she had snakes for hair.
Joseph did his best to take a proactive approach. If they’re going to make fun of me for my shoes and dirty clothes, he thought, then I’ll wash cars and cut grass to make money to buy nicer things. But even after he did that, the bullies would find something else to attack him for, until Joseph’s involvement in football, weightlifting and track provided an escape from verbal torment.
“I felt like with success came clarity,” he said. “I did every sport in high school, so now the bullying became a motivation-type thing. Now they’re looking up to me because I’m doing well.
“If I hurt someone playing football it was like, ‘OK, we shouldn’t pick on him. Let’s be on his side so he doesn’t beat us up.’ Everything in life eventually switched, but I do remember those hard days where it felt like everything was adding up.”
But it’s not like that for everyone. Joseph knows that, which is why he holds his personal connection to being bullied close.
He has memorized the statistics, numbers that paint the vast scope of where these instances occur, from homes to schools to the workplace. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 28 percent of U.S. students in grades 6-12 experience some form of bullying. Suicide, which can be the result of bullying, is listed as the second-leading cause of death in the United States for ages 10-34.
He knows the stigma that comes with being a victim of bullying and how it can be difficult to overcome when you don’t have anyone to talk to.
Now, Joseph knows it’s his responsibility to be proactive, to put his hand in the fight to end bullying in schools and help those going through it know that they’re not alone.
“I feel like me putting my message out there, it could help people understand that these people are bothering you and picking on you because — for one — you don’t understand what they’re going through at home,” he said. “They could be getting bullied by someone else and feel like by bullying somebody it makes them feel better.
“It’s something we have to get to the bottom of. Why is it getting worse and not getting better? Why is it affecting our kids? Why are kids shooting up schools? What can we do to prevent it or slow it down?”
Joseph long wanted to use his platform to shed light on the issue but didn’t know where to start. He partnered with World Artist United (WAU) this offseason, a branding and marketing agency catering to athletes and the entertainment agency, to start spreading his message.
Creating the biggest reach began with finding a universal message, one everyone could understand. For Joseph, it started with an example that placed his 3-year-old daughter, Elani, at the center of the issue.
“The first thing we talked about was what if somebody shoots up the school that your daughter’s in? What would you do?” Joseph said. “You see these things happening all the time, but unless it happens to you, it’s hard to understand.”
His reps from WAU posed a rephrased question to the defensive tackle.
“I feel like me putting my message out there, it could help people understand that these people are bothering you and picking on you because — for one — you don’t understand what they’re going through at home. They could be getting bullied by someone else and feel like by bullying somebody it makes them feel better. It’s something we have to get to the bottom of.”
“What if somebody came into your daughter’s classroom and shot your daughter — what would you do now?” Joseph said. “That caught my attention. I would want to do everything. By me hearing it that way made me think of it differently. … When you see how it can affect you, you want to be a part of it. Now you’re fighting for something.”
Joseph spoke about his past experiences to patients at Minnesota Children’s Hospital in July. He then helped launch a text-to-give campaign through WAUHOPE, which stands for World Artists United to Help Others Progress Everyday, to help raise funds for victims of bullying.
Joseph uses his Instagram to shed light on his own story and promote awareness of the mistreatment many face every day. He called out teammates Danielle Hunter, Brian Robison, Anthony Harris and Stefon Diggs in a video to participate in the cause. Getting more voices involved to spread awareness is critical, Joseph said.
“It will go unseen or unheard if nobody talks about it,” he said.
With his involvement still in the infancy stages, Joseph hopes to one day help establish a call center for those struggling with bullying to have someone to talk to. And not just for children. Joseph notes the need for resources to help those who are bullied in the workplace.
It’s something he wants talked about in NFL locker rooms — breaking down the barriers of the alpha male culture where talking about bullying is sometimes considered taboo. He wants to shed light on the root of bullying, which in many cases stems from the bullies once being bullied themselves. He empathizes with those people, wanting to do what he can to show them a different way.
He wants to do so much, but Joseph knows his journey to help end this epidemic begins with a single step.
“I always wanted to do something to help,” he said. “Bullying isn’t just here in Minnesota or in Florida; it’s all over the world. It’s a global problem. This happens every day all over the world, from a child to a grown adult. Hopefully we can make schools a safer place. Kids are being held back because they don’t feel that type of support or they feel alone.
“That’s the reason why I’m trying to make a stand and make it be heard and known what’s going on in this world, because these numbers are jumping rapidly and nobody is really doing anything about it. That’s the main reason why it’s a focal point, because we have to get these numbers down, we have to protect our future. I’m a true believer in that.”
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