Michael Joseph has been practicing his autograph since he was 8. He was preparing for when he made it to the NFL.
The 23-year-old rookie cornerback put his practice to good use over the last few weeks as he strolled by Bears fans at training camp in Bourbonnais.
However, what fans might not realize is the improbable journey Joseph took to the NFL — one that consisted of limited playing time in high school, a barren college recruiting process and a dream.
Joseph grew up watching the Bears. As a child, he admired players like Devin Hester and Charles “Peanut” Tillman.
“The Peanut Punch — I always tried it but sometimes, it hurts your fist,” Joseph said with a laugh. “He makes it look a lot easier than it is.”
In youth football, Joseph was always one of the team’s go-to players.
“There was always something special about him. He was always the best athlete on the field,” Joseph’s youth coach, Dustin Keenan, said. “Anytime he touched the ball it was electrifying … [And] he had the biggest heart on the field despite being the smallest on the field.”
Joseph’s stature became the ultimate demise of his NFL dream — or at least that’s what it seemed at the time.
As a freshman, Joseph was incredibly undersized, standing at 5-foot-2 and weighing 92 pounds. He quickly went from starter to benchwarmer.
Joseph’s playing time at Oswego High School was sparse, but he never complained. Throughout his career, he didn’t start a single game and made no more than a dozen tackles.
“[Joseph] was still small and wasn’t really getting the opportunity to play,” his mother, Nicole Rogers, said. “It was getting discouraging for him.”
At that point, it was a long shot Joseph would play college football. And there was no shot he’d make it to the NFL.
Joseph went unnoticed by college recruiters and ended up settling for a Division III school, the University of Dubuque.
“I don’t think he really believed [his NFL dream] was going to happen,” Rogers said.
But his No. 1 supporter, his mom, encouraged him to push forward.
“I kept telling him to keep working hard,” Rogers said. “It still could [happen]. I’d tell him, ‘It doesn’t matter where you start, but how you finish.'”
Something Joseph took to heart.
After not playing as a true freshman, Joseph had a breakout sophomore season and earned First Team All-Conference three consecutive seasons. In his senior season, Joseph made a statement, intercepting eight passes and deflecting 16. He ranked fourth on the team in tackles.
In April, Joseph’s hard work paid off. He signed an undrafted free-agent contract with the Bears. And last week, Joseph recorded two tackles in the Bears’ preseason opener against the Ravens.
“It was a dream come true, it’s something you always dream of and what a moment,” said Joseph, who will likely play in Thursday’s preseason game against the Bengals. “It was just something that I’ll always remember forever. And I just want to go up from there.”
If Joseph makes the team, he’ll likely find himself on the practice squad where he’ll have time to adjust to the NFL. If he doesn’t, it won’t deter him. If anything, it’ll serve as motivation.