As a man with a degree in English, perhaps South Charleston football coach Donnie Mays should have known as well as anyone that books can’t always be judged by their covers.

But few could blame him for being a bit underwhelmed and a bit more than skeptical when Meagan Parsons approached him with her slight 14-year-old son Drew Joseph before the opening practice in the summer of 2015. The family had just moved to South Charleston from Winfield and Parsons promised big things from her son.

South Charleston was coming off an appearance in the Class AAA state championship game and Joseph looked more like a potential water boy than the future heart and soul of the Black Eagles defense.

“One hundred and forty-pound white boy,” Joseph recalled of himself with a smile. “He was looking at me like, ‘All right, bud.’ ”

“You think you might have a crazy parent on your hands,” Mays added. “You’re looking at the kid and he’s smaller and just stocky. You’re looking at him and you’re like, ‘What in the world? Is she serious right now?’ ”

It’s fair to say Mays didn’t know immediately what he had in Joseph, though he went on to say it only took a short workout to figure it out. What he had — albeit in an adolescent’s frame — was a man-child in every non-physical sense of the term, forced into adulthood years before his time by circumstances far beyond his control.

Those circumstances began on Friday, Oct. 19, 2007, the day Joseph’s father John Joseph was shot with a .22 rifle by his boss at the time, Timothy Allen Williams. John Joseph was killed instantly at the age of 27.

The shooting was ruled an accident and the blurb found in the Charleston Gazette’s library from Oct. 21 of that year is only seven paragraphs long. The lasting ramifications could fill novels. Drew Joseph was just 6 years old.

“I sit out there on the field before games by myself and I go out there and think about my dad,” Joseph said. “I work out all the time, and every time I’m down, I don’t even have to remind myself. It just kicks in. I’ve got to do this for my dad. I have to work harder. It pops into my head and I can’t quit. I’ve got to keep going.”

He attacked every rep of that opening workout the same way he’s attacked every rep in every workout, every practice and every game snap since — like each moment in the weight room or on the field would make up for a moment of his childhood he’d lost in the midst of responsibilities thrust onto him by necessity.

“I knew we had something,” Mays said. “He wanted it. You could see a sense of urgency in him already. You’re going from drill to drill with him and he’s just amazing. You’re watching him hit everything as hard as he can go. There’s no struggle, and if there was a struggle, it was because he was trying to get something extra.”

Football as solace

The morning sun is shining through the window in the living room of Parsons’ home in South Charleston. It was the home she grew up in and moved back into in the summer of 2015 with Drew Joseph and half-siblings Jackson Shinn (now 12 years old) and Madelene Shinn (9).

The whole family is present on this Thursday morning, but only Joseph and Parsons begin in the room as the conversation drifts toward the events of 2007. Tears begin to flow from Parsons only minutes in. Joseph’s voice wavers at times but never breaks. Another display of strength in support of his mother.

Parsons recalls the young love she and John Joseph dived into as high school sweethearts. She found out she was pregnant her first week of college and Drew came along shortly thereafter.

But despite getting married and having a child, the relationship didn’t last, though she continued to make sure Drew had a strong relationship with his father. That included a nightly phone call, one that went unanswered on that fateful October evening.

“I made him call, he didn’t answer and I was so mad at [John] for so long,” Parsons said.

By morning, the news of the previous night had broken — along with the hearts of those in Albert and Marsha Joseph’s house that day. That included Parsons and Drew Joseph.

“They told me and I just kind of took it,” Joseph said, scratching at a chinstrap beard growing around his face. “I was so young, I didn’t really know what was going on, and I still didn’t for a long time.”

Football immediately became the release Joseph — who was playing in the Nitro Midget League system at the time — didn’t yet know he needed.

“Two days after his dad passed away, he had a football game … he played that game,” Parsons said, pausing to compose herself. “It was homecoming and he was crowned Little Wildcat. It was huge. That was a big deal for us. He’s never quit playing football.”

‘Joseph on the tackle’

Any resident within earshot in the surrounding neighborhoods around South Charleston High School likely has Drew Joseph’s name branded in their brains whether they’re football fans or not.

For two-plus seasons, his name was put there by public address announcer Kelly Merritt, who finished a 25-year run in the position for the Black Eagles after one game a year ago. Merritt, now the Daily Mail editorial page editor at the Charleston Gazette-Mail, saw a bevy of great prep football players in his years, but admitted Joseph stuck out in his mind for more reason than one.

“I do remember for a couple of reasons — one, he has such an easy name to say,” Merritt said. “As I recall, he made those impact tackles, too. You didn’t expect it from him and then, ‘Boom! Drew Joseph on the tackle.’ Next play, ‘Boom! Drew Joseph on the tackle.’ This rhythm just developed, ‘Stopped by Drew Joseph, Drew Joseph on the sack, Drew Joseph breaking up the pass.’

“Undersized, quick and got to the ball and made those impact plays. Those are not little gentle tackles. Boom! He stopped them.”

Merritt, and the rest of the West Virginia prep scene outside of SC’s practices, didn’t get a formal introduction to Joseph until the fourth game of his freshman year against Cabell Midland.

Starting in front of Joseph was Derrek Pitts, a do-it-all defensive player who became one of the state’s most-recruited gridiron stars before settling in at WVU. Breaking into the starting lineup was going to be tough, but as practices came and went, Joseph’s effort was backing Mays into a corner.

“We were on the practice field and we were trying to find a place for him,” Mays explained. “We had this position for the week, it was kind of a hybrid position that Derrek Pitts played and he was kind of put in the middle of the field and he was just going to track the ball the whole time and I thought, ‘Let’s put Drew behind him.’ We put Drew behind him and Derrek got injured right before the half. We were in here at halftime and it was, ‘Oh man, here we go. He’s going to be in the fire.’ Derrek had 14 tackles, Drew had 15 and it was like, ‘OK, that kid is never coming off the field again.’ He was minus four games and he finished second on the team in tackles that year. In his sophomore and junior years, it wasn’t even close.”

His final tally for his freshman year was 111 stops. He set the single-season tackle record at the school with 181 as a sophomore and broke it again last season as a junior with 191. On Joseph’s final tackle of last season, the 483rd of his career, he moved past Aaron Slusher as the Black Eagles’ all-time leader with a full season still ahead.

The family hero

Nine-year-old Madelene Shinn wanders into the room after a few minutes, her curiosity finally getting the better of her. At first she just listens, but then begins to interject with stories of her own.

She and her brother Jackson are the products of a 10-year relationship that was tumultuous at times before ending, prompting the family’s move from Winfield to South Charleston. Over the course of their lives, Joseph has served double duty both as a brother and in the role of father.

Parsons, who works two jobs to make ends meet, chokes back emotion again as she describes how integral Joseph has been to the lives of her two youngest children.

“When the kids need taken to school or picked up … Drew takes care of these kids,” Parsons said. “If I’ve got to be somewhere, he takes them along. If they need help with the shower or homework, he’s got one and I’ve got the other. It’s like a fine-tuned machine we run here.”

Throughout the years, his responsibilities have included cooking, laundry, mowing grass and helping with homework while doing his own.

Near the end of the interview, Jackson strolls out of his bedroom, wanting to show it off. Inside on the walls are two Fathead stickers of Joseph in his SC uniform and a quilt Mays and his wife Amanda had made especially for Parsons with pictures of Joseph playing on it. The two do something each year for the squad’s team mom, a role Parsons in which has served for three years.

To be the hero of a child at age 17 is a lot of pressure, something Joseph admits while beaming with pride. And there will be more pressure as his senior year progresses.

Unanswered question

Joseph will have to answer questions normal to people his age. First and foremost: where to go to college? He has a preferred walk-on spot given to him by WVU and scholarship offers from West Virginia State, West Virginia Wesleyan and Wheeling Jesuit so far, with more likely to come.

Then there are the questions that not many at his place in life have needed to contemplate.

In the years since the shooting, Williams has disappeared. Parsons has hired private investigators, and she and Joseph have searched websites online, all to no avail. For Parsons, the ruling of an accident has been accepted, if for no other reason to help her heal. But for Joseph, it’s not so cut and dried as questions over his father’s passing rage louder and louder with each passing year.

“It was all so quick,” Joseph said. “The review, the ruling — I think it was too quick. Under-investigated, I think.

“She’s got her mind made up on what happened that night, but I really don’t know.”

When Joseph turns 18 this year, the courts will be forced to reveal Williams’ whereabouts if Joseph chooses to pursue it. It’s a decision he’s still wrestling with as much as his college choice.

“If I talk to that guy … that’s the one thing I’ve been wanting to do, but I just can’t bring myself to do it,” he said. “Maybe that moment of truth will come out when he faces me.”

Family bond

As he’s grown, and as his understanding of what he lost at such a young age has grown, Joseph’s trips to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Charleston have grown more frequent.

It’s a place he estimates he visits at least once a month now, to sit in the quiet of his thoughts with his father and take a rest from the demands of his life. Now, as a senior in high school, those demands include a job of his own, a two-year relationship with his girlfriend, academics he’s kept up with to the tune of a near-perfect GPA and continuing to be the man of a house in which he’s served that role since he was just a boy.

“I like going by myself and just having that moment,” Joseph said.

“Now he’s older and he does get it,” Parsons added. “It’s like it happened all over again for him. It’s a fresh wound that rips off of us all the time.”

But tear at a muscle and it grows back stronger. When the fabric of Joseph’s family was torn in 2007, it also came back stronger.

His story could have turned out so much differently, a fact both Joseph and Parsons acknowledge. But it’s the strength of that family and the bond between the two in the center of it that have kept Joseph on the right path thus far, making his a story of overcoming adversity and triumph instead of another young tragedy.

“My family is so involved,” Joseph said. “All my grandparents have been involved. My whole family is coming together. I talk to all my family members now. I’ve picked and choosed the right friends, I’ve picked and choosed the wrong friends, too, and they’ve kind of weeded themselves out. I think it’s my family that’s guided me in the right direction so much.”

Included in that family are the coaches Joseph has played under, many of whom still keep tabs on him. See, the reason that football is so important to Joseph is because it became an intangible family member he needed.

Parsons has watched her son grow and develop on the field, the one place he’s been allowed to be a kid over the course of the past few years. Football is in the family’s blood, just as much as the family member they continue to mourn.

“Football was his family and these coaches were his fathers for so long,” Parsons said. “It’s always been me and Drew. Thank goodness it’s turned out how it has.

“It’s like I said to the [team] the other day, ‘You don’t turn your back on your family. You fight for your family. You don’t leave your family. You don’t talk about your coaches or your parents or your siblings or your teammates.’ I preach the same thing to those players as I do my own children and it just makes us stronger. We’ve always lived that way.”

Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, or follow him @RPritt on Twitter