On the night of May 29, 2019, Austin Joyner found himself laying in bed unable to sleep.
The Marysville Pilchuck High School graduate, who’s one of the best football players ever produced by Snohomish County, was nine months into his forced retirement from the University of Washington because of multiple concussions. Joyner was still trying to come to grips with life sans football, but as the minutes crept toward midnight he took his wakefulness as a sign.
“I’m religious, and I just took that as a moment where God was talking to me,” Joyner said. “He just put an idea in my head that maybe I should reopen the idea of me playing football.”
Since that fateful moment Joyner’s path has been littered with coronavirus-related speed bumps. However, he recently took his first true step — albeit a brief one — back toward his dream of playing in the NFL by participating in The Spring League, an elite development league based in San Antonio.
Joyner played cornerback for the Alphas, one of six teams in The Spring League’s coronavirus bubble. Joyner only played in one game, as the league was forced to shut down prematurely because of a coronavirus outbreak. However, Joyner deemed it a positive checkpoint in his return to football.
“It felt surprising,” Joyner said about being back on the field. “It made me realize I’m actually built for this. Going in there and playing again after not playing for so long, and playing so well, made me realize this is what I need to be doing.”
The Alphas’ 22-17 victory over the Conquerors on Nov. 4 was Joyner’s first game action since suffering a concussion in the Huskies’ game against Arizona State on Sept. 22, 2018. Joyner said it was his fourth concussion during his time at UW, and three weeks later then-Huskies coach Chris Petersen announced Joyner was retiring.
It appeared to be the end of the line for a player who was a two-time Herald Offensive Player of the Year while at Marysville Pilchuck, as well as the Gatorade Washington Player of the Year as a senior when he led the Tomahawks to the Class 3A state semifinals in 2014. For a player who was a four-star recruit and started 10 games with 56 tackles and two interceptions during his Huskies career.
“It felt terrible,” said Joyner, who spent time working for the City of Everett, helping out at a school and doing meal deliveries. “I was trying to find who I was outside football. Everybody has that problem one day whenever you retire from football, but I was faced with that challenge a little sooner than I expected. It was a lot to handle, a lot to wrap my head around. I was just trying to find something I was passionate about, I was doing a lot of searching within myself.”
But that restless night reset Joyner’s course.
“What wasn’t stated (in the UW announcement) was that it wasn’t my decision to retire,” Joyner said. “Yes, I had however many concussions at that point. But all the testing had come back negative as far as neurology tests and such. So the decision wasn’t mine, it was made for me.
“(After that wakeful night) I started to research everything related to CTE or brain damage or medically retiring, everything that was related to my case,” added Joyner, who also says he feels no symptoms from his concussions. “I had to find out all the variables. But through my research I was able to assure myself that I was able to still play football. I know I’m not putting myself into danger through all my findings. I didn’t have nearly as many head blows as the people who were in some of the studies I was looking at.”
Joyner went to see a neurologist, who studied Joyner’s medical records and gave Joyner clearance to resume playing football. Joyner began working out to get back in football shape. Last January Joyner announced he had made himself available for the NFL draft, and he was set to participate in UW’s Pro Day.
That’s when the coronavirus pandemic hit and threw a monkey wrench into Joyner’s plans. The pandemic scuppered UW’s Pro Day, taking away his chance to show himself off in front of scouts. Travel restrictions prevented Joyner from being able to visit NFL team facilities to undergo tests that would verify his neurologist’s decision to clear his return to football. And by declaring for the NFL draft he was no longer able to return to college by transferring to a different school for his senior season. The NFL draft came and went without Joyner being selected or signed as an undrafted free agent.
But Joyner persisted. He continued to work out daily, and in late October he received a call from his agent about The Spring League opportunity. Joyner had to decide if he was prepared to play on four days notice, and he had to figure out the financials of getting himself to San Antonio, but he had no hesitation about accepting the offer.
Four days after getting the call Joyner played more than 60 snaps in the Alphas’ game against the Conquerors, and although he wasn’t at full game readiness, he was happy with how he performed.
“I think I played well,” Joyner said. “I wish I had been tested more. The quarterback didn’t throw my way much, when he did I made a play on it. I had a really nice tackle on the goal line and one play where I was in real tight coverage where I caused an incompletion. But there weren’t a lot of opportunities to make plays on the ball.
“But I did the most I could, given the time,” Joyner added. “I was able to show a lot through practices as least, when I had multiple interceptions and forced a fumble. Our practices were structured where we’d scrimmage other teams, so it was basically like game film, and all that film is available to scouts.”
Joyner is still hoping to get picked up by an NFL team this season, but if he isn’t he’s eyeing the CFL and using the Canadian league as a stepping stone toward the NFL.
“I think I’m about to shock a lot of people,” Joyner said. “I think I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in. My body isn’t banged up like it was in college, I’m healthy again. So I’m coming back with a new energy and without a lot of contact on my body. I think that’s an advantage right now and I’m ready for the opportunity.
“I’m not done yet.”