You’ll have to excuse Joseph Putu if he doesn’t have the knowledge of the Florida Gators like some signees do. Or even if he doesn’t know much about the game of football in general. Until Putu was seven years old the word football didn’t even involve helmets or shoulder pads.
Putu was born in the Ivory Coast, a West African country home to more than 20 million. He, like most in the country, grew up playing football, or soccer as you probably know it. Putu played goalie, and got a good laugh when I asked him if that meant he was good with his hands, a trait that would have translated to playing football. My ignorance in the question wasn’t foreign to him.
When he was eight years old his mother and father decided to move to America, Silver Springs Maryland, to be exact. The opportunity for their children to pursue a great education drew them and Putu remembers being excited, even about the little things.
“It was a different experience,” he recalled of his first memories in the United States. “I didn’t have to walk to school anymore, transportation was easier. Life was just easier when I moved to this country.”
The everyday things that people take for granted here were new and exciting, but moving to a new city, let alone moving to a new continent, was daunting. Sports have a way of bringing people together, and that’s something Joseph hoped would be the case for him.
“I was a soccer player, but when I moved nobody liked soccer,” he said with a laugh. Putu grew up watching David Beckham and dreaming of playing soccer. He didn’t know anything about college football, the Florida Gators, or even the game itself. He even told his brother that he would never play football, this foreign game, the passion for soccer still inside.
But he wanted to fit in, too. Unfortunately, after moving he wasn’t able to financially afford to buy cleats, pads, a helmet, or go through and get the necessary paperwork to play.
“I wanted to start playing in Maryland but we didn’t have the paperwork, my physicals and stuff,” he recalled. “I never played on a team. I just played in the backyard and stuff.”
So, in a way, Putu learned the game in the same way that most of us do — in a backyard where two-hand touch quickly turns into tackle, before someone gets hurt and everyone gets in trouble. Putu did enjoy watching the game. A family friend was close with Jelani Jenkins’ family and Putu recalls going with them to Good Counsel High School to watch Jenkins play. That was his first experience with watching football at a high level, and when Jenkins committed to Florida, his first experience watching the Gators.
Putu’s first real opportunity to play football didn’t come until his ninth grade year. The summer before he began high school Putu and his mother moved from Silver Spring to Rhode Island, where he enrolled at Mount Pleasant, where he met John Benton.
“I told Joseph all the time, I see that he has the athletic ability and he was going to be tall. So I always told him, he has to be better than those guys we play against. I don’t care who it is. You always got to be the best guy on the football field” Benton told Gator Country’s Kevin Camps. “Every time we went to a camp he had no problem being consistently one of the best players in that camp.”
Putu started out playing defensive end and receiver, but a thought from Benton, his defensive coordinator, and a bold move by Benton really set Putu’s career off.
“He’s probably one of the best defensive backs in the state, if not the best safety and we had to actually argue,” Benton said. “And the first day we went to defensive practice, I just told Joseph to go to safety. And the coach just gave me a glare, like, you better be right. I was like, I know I’m right”
I joked with Putu that it was probably nice finding out that you could be the one hitting and not the one that gets hit. He laughed harder than my lazy joke deserved before agreeing, “I prefer hitting.”
Putu won state championships every year he was in high school, he earned all-state recognition his junior and senior seasons, while also being recognized as a second-team all-state basketball player and all-state runner on the track team.
The accolades were nice, but it seemed like everything he was doing went unnoticed. Colleges weren’t sending letters, inviting him to come visit — nothing. It was discouraging and Putu let it affect his attitude towards school.
“I really didn’t focus too much in the classroom,” he said. “I wasn’t getting the recruiting attention that I wanted. I didn’t care about going to class.”
Putu thinks, and he may be right, that college programs, especially big-time Division I programs don’t look to Rhode Island when they’re on the recruiting trail.
“My recruiting process in high school wasn’t good,” he said. “I was going to camps and stuff but being from Rhode Island, coaches don’t really look at us like that.”
Putu wound up at North Dakota State College of Science, by chance. NDSCS’s initial attraction to Mount Pleasant was because of running back Randolph Zleh. It was NDSCS defensive coordinator Eric Francis, who liked Putu’s physicality, that made the push to sign him. That meant trying to convince Putu, a kid from the West Coast of Africa, that settling down in North Dakota for two years would be a good decision.
“I was just playing because it was something I liked to do and I would graduate high school,” said Putu. “Where I’m from nobody goes somewhere big. If someone goes Division II or even NAIA we’re going to be happy.”
Something changed in Wahpenton, North Dakota, a town of less than 8,000 people. Somewhere along the way Putu realized that the game he started playing as a way to fit in with the other kids in the neighborhood could be a tool to a better life. He learned that he couldn’t just show up to practice, he had to take school seriously as well.
“I found out that this college stuff is real,” he said. “Now I’m paying tuition out of my pocket, I have to take it seriously.”
He bounced around again. His career started at receiver before he moved to safety during his freshman season. Putu moved down to corner and found a home. He still wasn’t getting recruited by schools that he was interested in and made a plan to graduate from NDSCS, move back Rhode Island and enroll at the University of Rhode Island and possibly walk on.
Then his sophomore year highlights came out and things started getting crazy.
“It never really hit me that I was going to be able to go to a big time school but every week it seemed like the offers were getting bigger and bigger,” he said. “The last three weeks the offers just kept getting bigger.”
Rhode Island had some communication with Putu but then Tennessee State offered a scholarship. Soon offers from Conference USA schools and MAC schools started rolling in and the Rams backed away. Everything changed the day that Arkansas extended a scholarship offer.
“That’s when everybody started coming in, really,” Putu said of the weeks after his Arkansas offer. UCLA, Texas A&M, Florida, [offered scholarships] after Arkansas offered that’s when all the big schools started coming in.”
Putu took a visit to Arkansas on January 29 and committed a day later. He fell in love with the facilities and how nice the people were to him around Fayetteville. Putu was intent on sticking with his commitment until a notification popped up on his phone — Geoff Collins started following Putu on Twitter.
“I followed him back. We started talking on there and I was like, oh man, this is it, this is a dream school,” he said. Remember, the
family friends and the relationship with Jelani Jenkins, Putu’s first introduction to college football was through Jenkins and his career with the Florida Gators.
Putu officially committed to Florida and signed his letter of intent on February 3. He took an official five days later and put on a jersey for the very first time.
Putu will enroll at the University of Florida, a sentence he wouldn’t even have known the meaning of growing up as a kid. He’s done a lot of growing up since his high school days, when going to class and studying was optional. He’s been humbled, he’s grown and he’s reprioritized his life.
I asked Joseph what he’s looking forward to most about getting to Gainesville. Most players would tell you, on the record, that they’re looking forward to competing, or meeting all of their teammates and playing the game. Maybe off the record they’d say girls, or parties, or some of the other things that can come along with being a Division I football player at a major university.
“I promised my parents after I’m done [at NDSCS], I would go to a four-year school and graduate,” he said. “To come up there, learn form the best and get my degree. That would mean a lot. My parents can brag that their son got a degree from the University of Florida and that I’ll get a good job. It would mean the world.”
His uncle is excited. He fully understands the adventure and opportunity of which his nephew is about to embark. His parents, well, that’s a different story.
“My parents don’t know anything about football, they’re soccer fans,” he said. “I had to break stuff down for them and tell them that I’m going to be on TV every Saturday and they get excited to hear that.”
He’s a long way from his birthplace, and he hasn’t been able to call one place “home” for more than five years since he’s moved to the United States. Jim McElwain and Geoff Collins sold him on Gainesville being a new home. Gators take care of Gators, and Putu can’t wait to meet his new family.
“I’m finally doing something that I love to do and I finally have the chance to do it.”