Joe Este is an NFL MVP before he even makes a teamby J.W. Miller on 05/14/18
You might have missed this news item, but on Sunday the Tennessee Titans signed undrafted defensive back Joe Este of the University of Tennessee-Martin. Este, 23, was the only one of 20 rookie free agents who spent the weekend trying out for the Titans and hoping for an NFL contract. At first, the news seems like hundreds of other seemingly insignificant tidbits buried in 6-point agate type that announce team transactions and player movement in the major sports. But when you hear Joe Este’s story, you will see that he is far more than just another lightly regarded prospect with major league aspirations. In fact, if you’re familiar with such feel-good sporting tales as Rudy, Rocky and Invincible, you will recognize that Joe Este’s story would fit right into the “underdog makes good” genre.
Ron Higgins of the Times-Picayune has chronicled Este’s unlikely journey that began at Bonnabel High School in Kenner where Este, a 5-11, 200-pound defensive back, performed well enough to get noticed by college recruiters. But before signing day in February 2013, Este learned he was an academic non-qualifier under the NCAA minimum standards and was not eligible for a scholarship. Este walked on at Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College, began to take his grades seriously and played well enough to earn a scholarship to UT-Martin in 2016.
Este performed well enough at UT-Martin, starting 22 of 23 games, recording 129 tackles, 11½ for loss, 18 pass breakups and four interceptions. But it was those two years off the field that is the crux of this story and defines just who Joe Este is.
His family life had been what Higgins charitably called "tumultuous." His mother, Candrice, was taking care of her two grandsons, aged 6 and 7, after her daughter, Este’s half-sister, disappeared. But shortly after Este settled in at UT-Martin, his mother called and said she was ill and could no longer take care of the boys. Este went to head coach Jason Simpson, informing him that he couldn’t stay at Martin because he had to go home and help take care of his nephews. Simpson settled him down, told him not to give up and began to discuss options with Este.
The coach knew that Martin’s small-town environment would be ideal for the boys if they moved up and lived with Este, and he believed the community would embrace them. Simpson took the problem to the NCAA, which agreed to increase the amount of Este’s scholarship because he now had dependents to support. Este filed papers to gain temporary custody, but when he returned to New Orleans, his half-sister had reappeared and took the boys away. For six weeks, Este stayed in New Orleans and searched for Zackary and Christopher, whom he found in Tylertown, Mississippi, living with his half-sister’s father. Este convinced him that the boys were better off with him, and in late July, just before the start of pre-season practice, Este and his nephews moved into their new Tennessee home.
Three years out of high school, Joe Este was a college student-athlete and the single parent of two rambunctious boys. But the discipline he had learned in football came in handy when applied to his new responsibilities: Wake up at 5, get ready and make breakfast; get the boys up and get them dressed and ready for school. Drive them to school at 6:45, return home and get himself ready for class at 8. At 2:30, join the school car line with other parents, pick up the boys and drive them to UT-Martin’s football building where Coach Simpson allowed the boys to attend Este’s defensive backs meeting or play with the children of other coaches. Practice began at 3:45 and when it concluded at 7, Este dressed and took the boys to his apartment where he fixed dinner. At 8 p.m., Este helped the boys with their homework, and at 9, he put them to bed. For three more hours, Este studied and then at midnight, lights out. The next day: ready, rinse, repeat.
When conflicts arose, Simpson’s wife or one of Este’s other guardian angels in the town would step in and help. It wasn’t long before members of the community began stopping by the football building and offering to help Este and the boys however they could. Things went well during the season as the team finished 7-5 and the young single father learned how to stretch his Pell Grant check to pay rent, bills, groceries and school supplies.
Then Este’s mother Candrice dropped another bomb early in 2017, calling to say she had been homeless for two years, living much of the time in her truck in a casino parking lot. Food and personal hygiene were options, she had suffered a mild stroke and heart attack and other members of her family had turned their backs. She admitted she was contemplating suicide. Again, Joe Este wanted to throw in the towel and come home, but he didn’t. He bought his mother a bus ticket, and that is how Este’s family and his responsibilities expanded once again. Candrice had found stability with Joe and the boys. She embraced the role of grand-mother, attending the boys’ baseball games and watching her son become a man.
After Este’s senior season at UT-Martin, the family moved back to Kenner, and he began an intense training program that began at 5:30 a.m. when he rose and headed for the first of two workouts six days a week. And on Sunday, it paid off when he was signed by the Titans after showing leadership skills on the field as well as running a 4.38 40-yard dash. As Higgins wrote on March 3, “In every step of Este’s fight to rise above the odds of a hardscrabble childhood, family naysayers and alleged friends told him “you can’t” and “you won’t.” Este’s responses: “I can” and “I will.”
Keep an eye on Joe Este in his quest to make the Titans' roster. It might be the best story to come out of the NFL all year.