Football gave Rankin a direction, and Morgan State has provided a home
Cornerback is 'one of those kids that can play on Sundays,' his coach says
Morgan's Joe Rankin leaps to intercept a pass intended for Towson's Alex Blake in the first half. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / September 3, 2011)
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He wasn't going to school regularly and when he was there, he was acting out. He was dealing with an unsettled home situation all while regularly moving to different shelters and hotels.
He was lost.
But one day, Rankin was on the bus preparing to meet with his probation officer when he looked out the window and saw something that would change his life.
As the bus passed Seneca Valley High School's football practice field, Rankin glanced at players going through drills — at that moment he decided it was time to make a change.
"I painted a picture of myself and it was someone who wasn't being successful," Rankin said. "I took that image I saw on the football field of these kids out there being positive, doing something they love, and I was rolling past and I was like, 'You know what, I can be someone out there doing something good for myself.'"
The following season, in his junior year, Rankin tried out for the team and four years later he is one of Morgan State's top defenders and, at 5 feet 10, 195 pounds, has established himself as a shutdown cornerback.
Morgan State, coming off a 5-6 season, will host its annual Blue-Orange Scrimmage on Saturday at 10 a.m., giving fans a chance to catch a glimpse of the 2012 Bears. According to coach Donald Hill-Eley, a lot of Morgan State's top players are recovering from injuries so the scrimmage will give the coaching staff an opportunity to see how much depth they have.
Rankin is not one of the injured players. His talents will be on full display at left corner during the scrimmage, and Hill-Eley has nothing but high expectations for the junior.
"Joe has God-given potential. He is a special kid," Hill-Eley said. "He is one of those kids that can play on Sundays. A lot of young men think that they're coming to college and everybody is going pro, but there are very few who have the opportunity to play at that next level. Those are the ones that are labeled 'special.'"
Long before the recruiting process began, it was clear to Mark Smith, president of Pro Power Foundation, that Rankin was special.
"Honestly, I just looked into his eyes," Smith said. "When I looked into his eyes I really saw something special in him. When I looked at him, I had to help him. I just saw it in him that he wanted more out of his life."
Though Rankin was just a 12-year-old student at the time when he came in contact with Smith, a former teacher at Mark Twain School, their relationship has lasted through the years. Rankin even began volunteering at Smith's Pro Power Football Camp.
"He really helped motivate me. I really see him as a father," Rankin said. "He molded me into a successful young man and gave me the inspiration that I can do anything that I want when I put my mind to it."
Years later, after attending three alternative schools, Rankin ended up at Seneca Valley. He talked to coach Fred Kim about joining the team and developed into a highly recruited player.
In his first season playing football, he had seven interceptions, returning three for touchdowns, as a cornerback and was an impact player at running back.
According to Rankin, his play that year got schools such as Georgia, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Ohio, Rutgers and Army interested in him.
But there was one problem all of the schools had with Rankin: his grades.
In Rankin's senior year, he turned his grades around and even made the honor roll. But his efforts were too little, too late.
By the time his SAT score met the NCAA Clearinghouse's requirements, all the schools that had been interested in him had moved on.
"It hurt me," Rankin said. "I cried. I really felt that I did everything for nothing. I was really looking forward to going to a big school. I was really excited, especially to go to Louisville. They wrote an article about me in The Gazette about going to Louisville, so I felt embarrassed. I felt like I let myself down."
Said Kim: "Maybe things happen for a reason. The old saying is what doesn't kill you will make you stronger, and certainly for Joe going through all of the adversity when things seem like his life turned around and everything is going his way and all of the sudden something like that happens, he didn't give up."
Like Rankin, Hill-Eley and Morgan State didn't give up either.
The Bears offered Rankin a chance to play and without knowing much about Morgan State, he accepted.
The NCAA did not initially clear Rankin, so he had to sit out his first year. But after a year of working hard in the weight room and in the classroom, he earned a scholarship and was eligible to play college football.
"Coach Hill brought me in and made me feel like I was at home," Rankin said. "Even when I was ineligible for the first season and had to sit out, he still made me feel like I was a part of the team. My first night in my dorm bed, I did the Tiger Woods fist pump. I was just so excited to be somewhere and be a part of another family."
Rankin is an education major, with good grades, and continues to volunteer every summer at the Pro Power Football Camp.
"Even before Pro Power, I knew I wanted to give back and help people who were just like me," Rankin said. "Once I started coaching the camp, I saw how I was motivating these young kids, and that has been something that I have always wanted to do: give back and help others. … I didn't do this on my own."