A large tattoo from Karl Joseph’s left shoulder through the center of his back, a detailed emblem also featured on the Haitian flag.
Joseph was born in the impoverished island nation and raised there 11 years before moving to Orlando, Fla. with his mother. That formative period helped define the Raiders safety’s work ethic, commitment to family and his roots.
Joseph hasn’t forgotten it. Haiti remains a part of him, bonded by a connection expressed well beyond body art.
That’s where he spent one of life’s biggest moments, shunning the spotlight to be with relatives in Haiti when the Raiders selected him No. 14 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. That was celebration of where he came from on the day he became wealthy beyond childhood dreams.
“It keeps me grounded,” Joseph said on NBC Sports Bay Area’s Raiders Insider Podcast. “That’s one of the reasons I went back for my draft party. Anytime I get a chance to go back, I take it. It makes you appreciate the little things you have, the luxuries you often take for granted. It also makes me hungrier to work hard, play well and give back. Every time I go the memories come flooding back, which hits the reset button for me. It gets ready to come back here, ready to work.”
Joseph frequently visits family in his native Jacmel, a port town off Haiti’s southern coast. He went back again this spring, but not on holiday.
He joined former Seahawks defensive lineman Cliff Avril’s annual pilgrimage to Haiti, which is more than a fundraiser and photo opp. This group goes to work.
They helped build a school, supply a health clinic and run a football camp. They met with Haiti president Jovenel Moise, discussing issue pressing a beautiful in need of help for its poorest people.
“That’s one of the main reasons I was excited to go on this trip,” Joseph said of the weeklong charitable venture. “I’ve seen some of the work he had done out there, and I was ready to get involved. A lot of people go out there and put their name on stuff, but few want to interact with the people and get their hands dirty.”
Joseph broke from the pack late in the trip to visit family still living in Jacmel. They toured the now-run down house Joseph grew up in, a moment, among others, chronicled on his Instagram page.
Joseph plans to join Avril’s trip each year, and eventually start his own foundation focused on helping bring awareness, funds and infrastructure to Haiti.
He understands that performing well will help that cause.
“I have to continue to do my part on the field,” Joseph said. “The better I play, the more I contribute to Raiders victories, the more people will pay attention. I need to use that to shine a light on issues in the country I grew up in.”
Joseph believes he can reach new heights working with new head coach Jon Gruden and staff. The safety has played well in spurts, but doesn’t believe vast potential has been reached.
“I don’t even feel like I’ve scratched the surface yet,” Joseph said. “I feel like I have so much room for improvement in every aspect of my game. I’ve improved my mental game this offseason, and fit into this new defense. We’ve come a long way as a group, and that I’ve made strides personally. I’m going to keep pushing, even during the down period. I have such high expectations for myself. I’m excited about the season. People haven’t even seen the real Karl Joseph yet.”
The real Karl Joseph is a thumper, someone who can play deep and aggressive near the line of scrimmage. He’s part of a safety group that also features Marcus Gilchrist and Reggie Nelson, and will have a chance to thrive in Paul Guenther’s defense.
That would help the Raiders win and bring attention to Joseph and the place he’s commitment to helping.
“Football is my platform to give back there,” Joseph said. “That’s my purpose in life, to be able to make this an opportunity to shine light on issues (in Haiti) and give back. I cherish the chance to go back and see the place where I was born and family that was around during a critical time in my life. It’s a special place to me.”