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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Throughout his entire football career, Tony Joiner has morphed into a quarterback, a wide receiver, a linebacker and a safety.

But there's one position he regards above all the rest.

It's called the "reaper."

Originally called the reaper by UF director of football operations Troy Starr, Joiner decided to roll with the moniker and now embraces it as a job title.

According to his Facebook profile, Joiner is employed by the University of Florida, and his job duties entail "recklessly endangering other players from the opposing team."

"I really do view this as a job, a fun job at that," Joiner said. "I'm doing something I don't like to do, but I love to do, and that's to play football."

Since first arriving on campus, Joiner has had something of an animated persona.

Fellow safety Kyle Jackson can still recall his recruiting visit to UF when he met Joiner, who sported orange and blue beads in his hair.

Once they committed, the two were dropped off at the same time to orientation and immediately became friends.

"He had a big ole' water jug, and he was loudmouth Tony since the first day I ever met him," Jackson said.

Though he is humble and jovial during interviews, Joiner's supposed loud mouth has gotten him into some trouble before, especially when it comes to the Gators' rival opponent this Saturday - the Volunteers.

"We really want to go in somebody else's house and take their cheese and all of that. Make a sandwich in their kitchen," said Joiner before UF's 21-20 victory in Knoxville, Tenn., last season.

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You won't hear Joiner talking about ham and cheese creations these days. When a reporter asked Joiner what kind of sandwich he'd be making this year for Tennessee, Joiner barely breathed a word on the subject before Jackson put the kibosh on it.

"You better not say anything," Jackson calls from afar, shaking his head.

"I know, I know," Joiner reassures him, laughing.

"That was a bad deal to give them bulletin board material like that. I'm kind of a lot more cautious about doing that this year."

Joiner seems to be cautious in other facets, perhaps because he realized he had something to lose.

When UF coach Urban Meyer arrived on campus in 2005, Joiner was a sophomore with the potential to be a key contributor.

But Joiner, from his own mouth, wasn't living his life right, mainly when it came academics and class attendance.

Meyer was not happy with Joiner's antics, and the safety was dismissed from the team. He was later reinstated after Meyer had a change of heart, and Joiner played in the final 11 games of the season, which included a start against LSU.

He earned the starting position at strong safety his junior year and led the defensive backs with 59 tackles for the year.

During those two years, Jackson and Joiner grew to be more like brothers, and Jackson tried to be a positive influence on his best friend.

The two would often take weekend trips to visit Jackson's family in Jacksonville, where Joiner experienced a very different lifestyle from his small-town childhood in Haines City.

"He was just wowed because he had never seen that coming from Polk County," Jackson said.

But Joiner continued to struggle with some aspects of his life.

Just weeks prior to the Gators' national championship game in January, Joiner approached his best friend in UF's locker room and told Jackson he wanted to change and needed his help to do so. Jackson asked Joiner three or four times if he was absolutely committed to change, and when Joiner said yes, Jackson agreed to lend a hand.

Neither will discuss the details of Joiner's problem, but also insist the matter was not severe, but Jackson said that ever since that encounter, his friend has been headed in the right direction.

"He listens to me, and that's part of changing," Jackson said. "If he had a closed mind and didn't want to change himself, it never would have happened. He's come a long way since his freshman year. He was a wild guy and now he's more calm. … We all have goals and aspirations, and if what you want in the future is different from the way you are now, you have to change."

Joiner's growth and transformation helped him develop a new relationship with his coach.

"Tony and I are real close, about as close as I've ever been with a player," Meyer said. "We've been through a lot together."

Two weeks before the men's basketball team won its second national championship, Joiner ran into former Gators forward Joakim Noah, who was on his way home from the gym.

Joiner and Noah had a three-hour long conversation outside of the Keys dormitory complex. The two sat on a bench until 6 in the morning discussing their experiences as athletes for an immensely successful program.

"We just sat there and talked about what it takes to be a champion, what it takes to be a leader on your team and to have guys…that listen to you," Joiner said.

The conversation came in handy as Joiner entered his senior season at UF.

While he was viewed as a leader during his junior season, Joiner took a backseat to players like linebacker Brandon Siler and defensive end Ray McDonald.

This year, as one of two returning starters on defense, Joiner has taken on a more vocal role to fill the void left by the numerous players who either graduated or entered the NFL Draft.

"You've got young guys who are willing to listen to everything you say," Joiner said. "If you say, 'Go jump through a wall,' they're willing to do it, you know? And just to be a leader to those guys and to help mentor them as football players has been great this year."

In late August, the team voted Joiner as one of five captains. It was the senior's second preseason honor - he had been selected to the All-Southeastern Conference second team in July.

"He's the most vocal leader that we have," freshman cornerback Joe Haden said. "He talks the most trash. He talks the most to motivate you. He'll tell you when you look good. He'll tell you when you look bad. He leads by example by going hard all the time."

During UF's opening game against Western Kentucky, Joiner's leadership capability was put to its first official test.

Western Kentucky won the coin toss and elected to receive the ball first. After months of fielding questions about their youth, Joiner and the other 10 members of UF's defense finally had a chance to prove their worth.

The defense allowed the Hilltoppers to run nine plays for 62 yards - not exactly up to the standards of last year's unit.

Joiner huddled his teammates on the sideline for a quick regrouping session.

"He said, 'Act like it's practice. Act like we're the only people out here. You know everything you're supposed to do,'" Haden said. "That kind of calmed me down."

Haden has taken an early liking to Joiner, both on and off the field.

The freshman is an avid dancer, and the two occasionally check out Gainesville's nightlife - although Haden said Joiner is more of a wallflower.

The two may like to have their fun, but Joiner knows when to be serious, and the senior has discussed his problematic past once with Haden.

"He said it took him getting kicked off the team to realize how much he loved football," Haden said. "He saw when I first got here that I liked to go out all the time. He saw a lot of stuff in him, in me. I'm not saying I was headed down that path at all, but he just wanted to make sure I was straight."

With all eyes on him, Joiner welcomes the responsibility.

"You kind of want the pressure to be on you," Joiner said. "You want to be the guy that everybody leans to. You want to be that guy, that if you go down, you want your team to feel you and want you to be out there with them. I feel good about it. I embrace it."

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