Mike Joseph rarely hears his name without the word “big” in front of it. The gregarious 6-foot-5, 390-pound high school sophomore dwarfs nearly everyone he comes in contact with and looks down at people with his round face and wide smile.
Four schools in 15 years, and at every one, it wouldn’t take long for someone to suggest the nickname “Big Mike.” It’s what people have been calling him for as long as he can remember, and every time a new friend would suggest it at a new place, Joseph would say he wasn’t offended. The nickname would always stick.
When “big” isn’t used as part of his name, it is used to describe him. When he played in his first football scrimmage as a Quince Orchard lineman, the player across from him muttered, “Dang, you’re big.” When he goes through a handshake line after games, instead of hearing “good game,” players say “you’re big” as a compliment.
Shoulder pads add inches to his frame, making him look broader than he already is. At football practice, his jersey hangs tattered around his neck like a bandana. He wears a size-18 shoe.
Physical anomalies are embraced in football, and the more extreme — the faster, the stronger, the bigger — the better. At Quince Orchard, Joseph quickly established himself as a force on the offensive line, protecting the quarterback, opening holes for rushers and helping propel the No. 12 Cougars into Friday’s Maryland 4A South region playoff matchup against Clarksburg.
But take away football, and being a 390-pound 15-year-old makes Joseph an outlier in a country where the average boy his age is about 5 feet 7 and weighs around 125 pounds, according to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention. Aside from a family disposition for high blood pressure, Joseph has no health ailments, but now, for the first time in his life, he’s working to manage his body for life on the high school football field and beyond.
“In football, it really helps to be big,” Joseph said. “When it’s everyday life, people have to get used to me being big. When you first see me, you’re in shock that you see such a big kid that’s so happy and 15. It’s a shock to people, but they get used to it, so it doesn’t really bother me.”
Joseph was 11 pounds 4 ounces when he was born, a big baby compared to the average 7.5 pounds. By the time he was a third grader at Montrose Christian, he was already 5-7 and bigger than most of his teachers.
A photo of Joseph at 7 shows him with the same chubby cheeks that he has at 15. He’s always smiling, and football coaches often tell him to be meaner, to get angry before he goes out onto the field so he looks more menacing.
With a gentle demeanor, maybe it was his intimidating size that kept him from getting picked on until the fifth grade. But Joseph remembers the boy who called him fat. It was the first time he had ever been teased and the first time he realized he was different.
“It just got to me,” he said. “At first, I was like, ‘Yeah, I know I’m big. I can’t help anything about that.’ But it kept happening every day, and I’m like, ‘Why are you still saying stuff about that?’”
He never was picked on again, but he still notices the looks he sometimes attracts. At the movie theater with his mother Sunday, a man sat behind Joseph, but once the previews started, he moved further down the aisle. At games, his mother, Pamela Best, often overhears other parents wondering aloud how she feeds him.
Joseph is comfortable in his own skin, but his size has impeded him in some ways. His father never taught him how to ride a bike because he thought Joseph wouldn’t be able to balance himself. Elwyn Joseph now lives in St. Croix, and the two hardly speak, partially because Joseph remembers overhearing his father make comments about his weight when he was younger.
Joseph used to live with his mother in a townhouse in Gaithersburg, but the pair had to move earlier this year when he eventually outgrew it. His head started scraping the ceiling and he was cramped in his room, so when he started going to Quince Orchard, Best found a house near the school with higher ceilings. She can barely afford it, but it’s worth it for her son to be comfortable.
“He couldn’t turn around in his room, so I was like, we need more space,” Best said. “It cost me everything, every check to check. But it’s okay. He needs space.”
Quince Orchard Coach John Kelley was on vacation when Joseph first came to the school the summer before his freshman year and expressed his desire to play football. Though he was nowhere near Quince Orchard, Kelley still had to see him.
“One of our assistant coaches called me and said, ‘This kid just transferred in, and he’s humongous,’” Kelley said. “I’m like, ‘Take a picture of him and send it to me.’ ”
The photo was taken in Quince Orchard’s gymnasium, and Kelley saw a man instead of a 14-year-old boy.
He didn’t start playing football until Best got him involved with the Montgomery Village Football Program in eighth grade. On one of the first days of practice, the players had to run a mile, and Best felt sorry for Joseph as she overheard parents wondering whether he was capable of finishing. Would he hurt himself? Did he have asthma? What if he had a heart attack from the exertion?
Joseph would have to stop and walk sometimes, but he always kept going. At Quince Orchard’s practices, he was the slowest when the team ran after preseason practices. He sometimes jogs throughout the hallways of Quince Orchard from class to class, while students carefully navigate around his big frame.
“I usually just block everything out and focus on finishing,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how you start. It’s all about how you finish.”
When he went to his first Quince Orchard football practice, Joseph walked over to the junior varsity side of the field because he figured that’s where freshmen belonged. But the varsity coaches started yelling for him to come over to their side. He has started every game of his sophomore year at left tackle, a position typically reserved for juniors and seniors.
“If he gets his hands on you, it’s over,” Kelley said. “If he gets his hands on a defensive lineman, he can move anybody just because of his size and his strength.”
Though Kelley acknowledges Joseph has a long way to go, he’s hopeful he will play in college. Because Joseph played basketball most of his life, he can move his feet well for someone his size. He’s also strong — the most he has bench pressed is 315 pounds, and he can squat 425.
Maryland offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said when recruiting offensive linemen, he looks for the “big guy that thought he was a basketball player, maybe a little overweight, likes to dribble the ball and bring it up the court.”
“It’s not necessarily the size as much as, can he move?” Locksley said. “He can be as big as he needs to be, but does he have the athleticism or the skill set to move laterally, vertically, bend, all of those things that we look for?”
Joseph aspires to play football in college, and everywhere he goes, he is reminded that should be the path for someone his size. At a University of Maryland camp this summer, other players were stunned when they realized he was only 15. By now, Joseph is used to the reaction.
“When I go into barber shops and stuff like that, and they’re like, ‘How old are you, man? You’re big,’ ” he said. “I say I’m 15, and they’re like, ‘Wow, you’re a walking millionaire.’ I just don’t know how to answer that. I know I’m big and stuff, but a walking millionaire, I take as a compliment because they think I can be successful.”
At Quince Orchard’s first preseason practice in August, one of the other players’ fathers stood off to the side of the field and marveled at Joseph.
“Is that Big Mike?” he asked. “He lost so much weight.”
Indeed, he had lost 27 pounds in the offseason. Last year, Joseph weighed in at 417, making him the largest player anyone at Quince Orchard has ever seen, and the regular training regimen of football helped him get down to what Kelley calls his “fighting weight.” Though Joseph believes he currently weighs 390 pounds, he’s not entirely sure because the scale at home won’t go above 340.
Coaches suggested Joseph go on a diet of no more than 25 carbohydrates per day, and though he tries to adhere to that, sometimes he cheats. Best said she typically makes him sausage and eggs with cheese for breakfast. He brings his lunch to school, which usually consists of a sandwich wrap with turkey and cheese and a jar of sugar-free pineapple with a Gatorade. He also eats granola bars as a snack. Dinner is almost always chicken with brown rice or beans.
Joseph used to drink one 32-ounce bottle of soda a day, but Best said he hasn’t had one in more than a year.
The goal is for him to get down to 320 pounds by his senior year, which would make him like “a dancing bear,” Kelley said. But even at 6-5 and 320 pounds, he would have a Body Mass Index considered obese.
Andrew Tucker, the medical director of the MedStar Health Sports Medicine program at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore, said it’s possible to be both extremely large and extremely fit with the positive metabolic impact of regular exercise and weight training. The head physician for the Baltimore Ravens, Tucker said studies have shown linemen in the NFL look healthy from a cardiovascular risk standpoint compared with the general American male, though their cardiovascular mortality is unsurprisingly higher than smaller professional football players.
Tucker, who is co-chairman of the NFL’s subcommittee on cardiovascular health, has concerns about what happens to the largest players, specifically linemen, when their careers are over and the regimented lifestyle of regular exercise and diet often ends. In the case of large high school linemen, it’s a bigger concern because few will go on to play football in college and even fewer will play professionally.
“In the National Football League, we’ve definitely seen the players get bigger in the last 20 years, and I think all you have to do is go to high school games on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons here in our Baltimore community and see that same trend has occurred,” Tucker said.
Best steered Joseph toward football because she wanted him to be accepted, and the health benefits have been a bonus. He has never had any major health problems, but his doctor has told him it’s important he lose weight.
Best is 6 feet tall and walks gingerly. She prefers elevators to stairs. She was hospitalized last Christmas because of high blood pressure, a condition that will haunt Joseph, too, because it runs in the family. The family doctor noticed his high blood pressure when he went in for a physical before the season, but Joseph said the spike was because he was nervous about the first day of offseason conditioning.
Watching football in their home with the high ceilings Sunday, Best’s back started to hurt sitting in a chair, so she moved to the couch, next to her son. She rested her head on his broad thigh and closed her eyes for a few moments while Joseph focused on the NFL players on the television screen.
Joseph is already bigger than most of them.
Staff writer Roman Stubbs contributed to this report.