By Jeff Odom
Kirsten Joyer can still recall the hectic car trips to and from football practice.
In between dressing her sons in the back seat or behind dumpsters, to quick food runs, there was a simple goal — to one day make athletics the open door to college, which the family could hardly afford, and possibly more.
Fifteen years later, she sat in the stands at the Louisiana Superdome watching her middle son, Hunter, the starting fullback for the No. 3 ranked Florida Gators, and her oldest, Kamran, an offensive lineman for the No. 21 Louisville Cardinals, go head-to-head on one of the biggest stages in college football — the Sugar Bowl.
The Joyer brothers grew up playing football in the Pasco Police Athletic League (PPAL), Weightman Middle and, for two years, together at Wesley Chapel High.
They excelled in many different sports, including weightlifting and track and field. Each set numerous high school records that still stand today.
“We were always together, working out or tossing the football around or playing basketball,” said Kamran, a 22-year-old redshirt junior. “We’re three years apart, but we were like twins.”
The thought of one day meeting each other on opposing teams never crossed their minds, said 19-year-old Hunter, a sophomore.
“Nope, not at all; maybe, if we went to the same college maybe, but definitely nothing like this,” Hunter said. “We kind of compare it to the Barbers, Tiki and Ronde, and how they were in the NFL.”
Kirsten said from an early age she could tell her boys were going to be special.
“There was just something that was a little bit different about them as athletes,” Kirsten recalled. “They stood out. They were just different in their own unique ways. … They were so tenacious and big and incredibly hardworking, and it’s what really stood out to me most.”
As they finished high school and began their college careers, Kirsten, a longtime educator and former assistant principal at Weightman, wanted to make sure Hunter and Kamran kept their focus on academics too. While class is in session, Kirsten and her husband, Jack Joyer, call to check up on how they are doing. During the season, she always makes sure at least one family member is at Kamran and Hunter’s games.
“I’ll talk to them and their voices are so faint. They’re tired and you can hear it, but I’m saying, ‘What are you doing? What do you have going on?’ and they’ll tell me about a paper they have to write or something, and I’ll have them read it to me over the phone, and I’ll say ‘This doesn’t sound right,’” Kirsten joked. “We know they’re sacrificing so much, and we’re willing to do anything to help them.”
When the bowl matchup announcement was made, Kirsten closed her eyes and opened them again numerous times. She couldn’t believe it.
On one hand, she was glad that separate travel plans wouldn’t have to be made if Florida wound up in the BCS National Championship game in Miami, but then she panicked about who to root for in what the family has dubbed the “Joyer Bowl.”
“I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the concept that when we get to New Orleans I’m going to be watching both my sons playing against each other,” Kirsten said. “It’s so surreal, it really is. I still can’t believe it, and it’s been so many weeks since that announcement was made. … It’s truly a blessing.”
Being thousands of miles apart during the season was hard for the brothers at first, but distance hasn’t stopped them from continuing to be there for one another.
At Wesley Chapel, the two were known to pick each other up during games and each acted as a mentor.
Kamran promised Hunter that he would stick with him and help push him.
“Getting to play Division I football was always our goal,” Kamran said. “It was something we always dreamed about, and we accomplished it. It’s truly a blessing for everything.”
A lot of what both players learned under former Wesley Chapel coach John Castelamare, now at Academy at the Lakes, they brought with them to the next level. Mainly it was the competitive fire that inspired them.
“He was real passionate, molded us into the men we’ve become.” said Hunter, who transferred to Tampa Catholic for his junior and senior seasons. “He loves what he does, and we wouldn’t be here without him. He led us in the right direction. He never took it easy on us and was here for us. We appreciated him as more than just our coach.”
For Hunter, his freshman year was more of a downer for the Gators, who went just 7-6. But he never stopped working, and under second-year coach Will Muschamp, Florida came within one win of playing for its fourth BCS title this season.
“It was crazy, a huge turnaround from last year,” Hunter said. “I knew we had it in us; we just had to buy into what Muschamp was getting across and even with all these close games, I didn’t doubt us. It was my favorite year of football so far.”
Kamran, who missed almost the entire second half the season with injuries, called it a “great experience” to capture back-to-back Big East conference titles — Louisville’s third since joining the league in 2005.
When it came down to bowl selection day, the two brothers conversed over the phone about the different opponents they could face.
While Florida was already a lock for the Sugar Bowl, many signs pointed to Louisville playing Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
“He called me to talk about the possibilities and I kind of just brushed it off, not thinking it was going to happen,” Hunter said.
But when it did, the trash talking began, all in fun, of course.
“I told him he was Gator bait,” said Hunter, laughing.
“As soon as they showed it on TV, he called and started talking crap to me,” Kamran added. “I talked a little bit, but it’s all in fun and games.”
The Cardinals went on to shock the Gators 33-23 on Jan. 2.
But win or lose, the brother’s said before the game they would step back and take it all in as one of the greatest hours of their young lives.
“A great experience with quality brother time,” Hunter said. “Like the quiet before the storm.”