Wrapped around Linval Joseph’s right elbow is the Vikings’ Norseman logo wearing sunglasses and an oxygen mask. The tattoo commemorates Joseph’s first NFL touchdown, which came last season against Sunday’s opponent, the Eagles.
An internet meme emerged from a viral image of Joseph, an out-of-breath nose tackle adorned in shades and a breathing mask on the bench after he returned a Carson Wentz fumble 64 yards for a touchdown in Philadelphia.
“At first, I didn’t like it too much,” Joseph said Friday.
Defensive about his gold-standard conditioning, the 330-pound Joseph said the oxygen mask “wasn’t even working” when he used it to prepare for the next series.
“And everybody was, like, making jokes,” Joseph said. “So every time I’d do a signing or meet somebody, they’d crack a joke about the mask or me running and I’m like, ‘Bro, you can’t go out there and do it.’ I’m like, you know what, I’m going to take a negative and turn it into a positive. I’m going to own it. That was a big play in my life.”
Joseph, who turned 31 years old on Thursday, remains a wrecking ball in his 10th NFL season because of a work ethic rarely matched, even in the Vikings’ own weight room. There’s a lore surrounding his workouts, which emerges from current and former teammates when they’re asked about the big man’s 64-yard rumble in Philadelphia.
“That was the first time the world got to see it,” defensive end Stephen Weatherly said. “But we’ve seen it time and time again.”
‘It only gets worse’
Harrison Smith looks for Joseph in his peripheral vision throughout practices and games. The Vikings’ All-Pro safety can never be too sure when Joseph is also in heavy pursuit of a ball carrier, which has led to some painful collisions. Smith likened Joseph to another human missile in former Viking Andrew Sendejo, now an Eagles safety.
“It’s like a bigger Sendejo,” Smith said.
In contrast, one of the smallest Vikings — former running back Jerick McKinnon — was Joseph’s personal workout partner for years.
When Weatherly arrived as a rookie seventh-round pick, they laid out the plan to him: an upper-body workout with five “triple sets,” meaning 15 different machines done at least twice in groups of three. They would max out each lift for five to six reps. They’d repeat the entire thing by “de-loading,” or dropping the weight to reach 10 to 12 reps on each machine.
“I made it through two sets and I’m like, ‘Yeah, this is it,’ ” Weatherly said. “[McKinnon] is like, ‘It only gets worse. Next week you’ll be able to do more.’ ”
There was no next week for Weatherly.
Former Vikings defensive end Brian Robison also had to stop lifting with Joseph after a torn pectoral muscle in May 2015 forced him to stop the bench press.
“You’re midway through the season and you see a guy put 400 to 450 pounds on a bar,” Robison said. “You think he’s going to do a one-rep max and he turns around and does a set of five. It’s crazy to think about anyway, especially midway through a season.”
Joseph’s approach has changed into his 30s, which means “working smarter” in his recovery.
He fought through the toughest injuries of his career last season, starting in Week 6 when Joseph said his “whole left leg” was rolled up against the Cardinals. He declined to get into specifics but said his weekly routine last year was altered just to get his leg ready for Sundays. He also underwent offseason shoulder surgery to address a problem “two to three years” in the making.
Joseph wants to continue his NFL career “as long as my body holds up.”
“You can’t forget about the little things,” Joseph said. “Everybody wants to look good and curl, but you got to take those 2-pound and 5-pound dumbbells and stretch. Get the small muscles. Small muscles will help the big muscles.”
Cardio, including Joseph’s famous elliptical sessions running past an hour, is a growing staple.
“He’s been putting extra emphasis on it,” Weatherly said, “so he doesn’t have to come back and hit the oxygen machine as hard next time.”
Strength from within
Folks in the small town of Alachua, Fla., just outside Gainesville, were the first to witness Joseph’s shocking wheels. More than a decade before his touchdown in Philadelphia, Joseph was a menacing short-yardage fullback when the coach at Santa Fe High School, Scott Pritchett, sent him on a screen pass.
“You would’ve thought they would’ve run down this big lineman,” said Pritchett, also Joseph’s weightlifting coach, “but shoot he went 50 yards down the sideline.”
Only an official, noticing Joseph’s ineligible number, could stop him with a flag. Joseph wore two numbers for Santa Fe — No. 76 and No. 85 — and the one he wore wasn’t for eligible receivers.
“They couldn’t find 85 on the sideline,” Joseph said.
Before Joseph became a letterman in track and field, football and weightlifting, he was an 180-pound high school freshman bullied because he couldn’t do a pullup. Joseph, whose charitable foundation supports youth development and bullying prevention programs, said he’d leave school and “do 500 pushups every day.”
“It put a fire under my skin that I’m going to show you. I’m going to show all of you,” Joseph said. “Once I became stronger, it was, ‘Oh, he’s the strongest one in school. Oh, he’s the strongest one in Florida. Oh, strongest one in the nation.’ Praise came with it. I always use negativity and turn it into a positive. I’ve always been like that.”
He grew into the heavyweight Florida state weightlifting champion as a junior with a 415-pound bench press and 320-pound clean and jerk.
“It was pretty frightening when he’d let it down,” Pritchett said. “It was a lot of force coming down.”
Joseph “was pretty much in a class by himself,” according to Pritchett. He wouldn’t lift until an hour into most competitions. Other competitors would exhaust all three of their lifts before Joseph stepped in to top the field’s best mark “with my warmup” lift.
More than a decade later, Joseph is still driven to stay on top of the game.
He’s just raised the bar even higher.
“The fire still burning under me is I promised the state of Minnesota I’d get them a Super Bowl,” Joseph said. “That’s the only thing I haven’t delivered.”