Growing up on a farm in eastern Alabama, Darius Joiner got used to early morning wakeup calls to do chores and late-night trips with his father, Robert, to find a cow that had journeyed off of their property.
Now a senior safety at Western Illinois and the nation’s leading tackler in FCS, Joiner admits he couldn’t pick a favorite duty on the farm from his youth.
“To be honest, all of it was my least favorite,” Joiner joked.
Though his dad wanted his son to be a cowboy, Joiner chose football, starting his career at former Ohio Valley Conference powerhouse Jacksonville (Ala.) State before transferring to WIU.
In an interview with Prairie State Pigskin, Joiner discussed his first career interception, the football stars from his small hometown, memories of playing on a state champion high school team and what his perfect plate looks like at Thanksgiving dinner.
Learn more about Joiner in Prairie State Pigskin’s Moving the Chains Q&A interview:
When you came to Western Illinois, did you have any idea you’d be leading the nation in tackles?
No, I never had an idea about trying to lead the country in anything. Me and Mike (fellow WIU safety Mike Lawson) talked before I got here, and we wanted to be two All-Americans. We wanted to be the best to come through WIU, the best in the FCS. We feel like we’re doing a good job trying to get on that plan, but we’re just trying to bring the team along and get a couple of wins before we go out.
Your first career interception was in 2018 against another Illinois team – Eastern Illinois. What do you remember about that play?
We were in a zone. I was the curl/flat defender. I guess the quarterback didn’t see me because I drifted out of my zone and into somebody else’s zone. He just lofted it up. I said, ‘Oh, that’s a gift. Let me go get it.’ (laughs) They don’t come as easy these days, for sure. They don’t throw them like that to me anymore. I don’t know why.
There are about 6,000 residents in your hometown of Roanoke, Alabama. Who’s the most famous person from Roanoke?
We have Bradley Bozeman, who is the starting center for the Baltimore Ravens. He’s from Handley High School (where Joiner graduated from as well). I’m related to (former NFL linebacker) Rueben Foster. He came through Roanoke. Hopefully it will be me in a few years. (laughs)
Your hometown is only 45 miles north of Auburn University. Which side of the Auburn-Alabama rivalry do you and your family root for?
My family knows the right way to go. We always go with the Crimson Tide. We don’t do that Auburn stuff.
If you took a teammate to Roanoke for a day, what would you like to show them?
I live on a farm, so a lot of them want to see the horses. They want to see the cows. They want to see the pond. I’d show them all of it. To be honest, Roanoke is so small but we’re so close to everything. We’re close to Atlanta. We’re close to Auburn. We’re close to Birmingham. We can get anywhere in about an hour and a half.
What was it like growing up on a farm?
My dad (Robert) was raised on a farm, so he tried to bring me and my brother (Demarcus) along, trying to be cowboys like him. We didn’t adapt to it like he really wanted us to. But it’s something we’ll always know how to do if we get older and we decide we want to go that way. I feel like it was a good learning experience. Dad grows corn and other (produce). We’ve got cows and horses. We’ve also got some rental houses back home. So all that together, it’s a lot of work. He was trying to teach us a lot of hard work and how to do stuff with our hands.
Did you have a favorite and least favorite job on the farm growing up?
To be honest, all of it was my least favorite. (laughs) Everything happens at a bad time. You might be ready to go asleep and at 2 o’clock in the morning, and Dad is talking about some cows getting out so you have to go put the cows up. You might be 13 years and he says, ‘Come with me.’ I was like, ‘Come on, man.’
What’s your favorite restaurant near Roanoke that you miss the most?
There’s a place in Lagrange, Georgia (25 miles from Roanoke) that’s called Jin Express. It’s a Japanese restaurant. I’m really missing it now because I don’t have any hibachi places to go to that are close to me and are that good. I’m going to have to go when I go home. I need some of that.
When you moved north to Macomb, what was your best cold weather clothing investment?
I feel like I was already prepared because Alabama is so wishy-washy. One day it will be 90 in the winter and one day it will be 20. You’ve just got to be prepared. I’ve got my Uggs. I’ve got my Patagonia. I’ve got my beanies.
Would you rather make a big hit or an interception?
I’d rather get an interception. I feel like you can get big hits any time in a game. I really want to score. I haven’t scored in a while. If you could talk to the (opposing) quarterback and tell him to throw me the ball, I’d like that. (laughs)
You played on a state championship team in high school. What was your best memory of that game?
We played at Auburn’s stadium. You look up and the whole stadium is filled with red. The whole 6,000 people in Roanoke are in the stands. That was so great to see everybody there.
With Thanksgiving coming up, could you describe what’s on your holiday dinner plate?
I’m a real picky eater. But when I go to my grandmother’s house, I’ll talk to my auntie and she’ll get me some string beans, some ham. I don’t eat deviled eggs, so she’ll just give me a regular (hard boiled) egg. They’ll give me some dressing. I’ll get a drink and watch whoever is playing football, and I’ll call it a day. I’m a simple guy. I don’t like my food touching. I’m not that type of Alabama guy.
Who do you like to pattern your game after?
I’d like to think I’m a little bit of a (Cincinnati Bengals) Jessie Bates, (Denver Broncos) Justin Simmons, (Arizona Cardinals) Budda Baker type. I love how they play the game and their energy. I like seeing how other great safeties do it, and hopefully one day I can be the next great safety.
What’s your favorite class you have taken at Western so far?
I got my degree in biology with a chemistry minor (from Jacksonville State). One day, I might try to be an orthopedic surgeon. At WIU, I came here to get an MBA. Right now, my favorite class is accounting, only because it’s challenging and I’ve got to really study it. It’s my favorite because it gives me a challenge.
What’s a dream job for you after football is over?
Maybe a Shannon Sharpe-type of talking head on TV. I’d make a couple million talking about sports every year. I think that would be a good thing for me.
Do you have a nickname?
I have so many nicknames. They call me D. They call me Big D. I’m a Kappa Alpha Psi (fraternity member) and my line name is Crown. It just depends on who you’re talking to. They all call me different stuff.
Earlier this season, you had 23 tackles against Youngstown State. Did you have any idea you had that many during the game?
I never had any idea. I just try to make every play that comes my way and try to give effort.
You also played basketball in high school. What type of player were you?
I’m a little biased. I feel like I’m really supposed to be in the NBA right now. (laughs) Football signing day comes a little sooner than basketball signing day, so I took the football route. I thought I was a mini-Steph Curry behind the three-point line, and I had Kyrie Irving handles.
But it just depends on who you ask.
Who’s the toughest player on your team to tackle in practice?
(Quarterback) Connor Sampson. He’s just so elusive. It’s crazy. You wouldn’t think he’s so elusive, but he will do anything to you in practice.
Who are the best players you’ve ever played against?
That’s a tough question. I know I played with a lot of great players. I played with (former JSU cornerback) Siran Neal. He played with the Buffalo Bills. I played with (ex-JSU running back) Roc Thomas and he was a crazy athlete, All-American. Darius Jackson (former JSU defensive end) was a Buck Buchanan Award winner. Marlon Bridges (ex-JSU safety) was a four-time All-American.
Do you have any hobbies?
I used to be in a choir when I was young. When I get free time away from football, I used to play basketball. But that takes a lot of weight off of me, so I try not to play basketball anymore. I just like to hang around with my friends and family. We play cards and sit around and talk.
Where have you always wanted to go on vacation?
I want to go to Jamaica. I’ve never been out of the country. I think that would be good for me.
What’s the best advice your parents ever gave you?
The sky’s the limit to what you can be and what you can have. Never put a cap on yourself. Always keep going no matter what happens.