HAMILTON — The defensive back is running towards the end zone. He's picked off a Henry Burris pass and, even though it's practice, he's steaming towards the goal line as his fellow DBs whoop and holler encouragement.
Offensive tackle Joel Figueroa does not like this. He's running full speed in pursuit, weaving through coaches, equipment guys, and teammates, 20 yards, 30 yards, now 40 yards. The defensive back starts to pull up. Figueroa does not.
Professional football players don't tackle in practice and they certain don't flatten their teammates. Figueroa knows it's wrong — this is not the first time he's done it — but he's like a kid who can't help but touch the hot stove, even though he knows better.
"I don't like turnovers and when it happens, I see red and I attack. The DB wasn't moving as fast as I thought he was and I kind of just ran into him," Figueroa explains, somewhat apologetically (but not really.) "If you intercept the ball or pick up a fumble and run, then it's live. If you stop, then I'll stop. I'm not going to let you score, even in practice."
It is entirely possible that Joel Figueroa is 12-year-old boy trapped in a giant body. He plays the game with an energy and enthusiasm that's infectious, almost playful. Ask his teammates about him — even his head coach — and they inevitably begin to chuckle.
"We love Figs. He absolutely loves the game and we love players that love football," said Kent Austin. "He'll block anywhere. He'll block in the stands if has an opportunity to, if the whistle hasn't been blown.
"I'm from the deep South — we like physical football players."
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Miami, Figueroa played his college ball at the University of Miami and seemed on track for a pro career before a rash of injuries cut into his playing time. Back surgery before his senior season — he was given another year of eligibility due to its severity — scared off all of his potential NFL suitors.
He sat out a year after graduation, staying in shape and working out, hoping for an opportunity. But he also did something far more valuable with his time.
It was nearly two years ago that Figueroa's brother-in-law was killed in car accident, leaving behind a pregnant wife and young son. The entire Figueroa clan stepped into the breach — Joel is the youngest of three in a tight family — including "Uncle Joey."
"Every chance I get, I look after those kids like they're my own. There's a lot of motivation to make sure they grow up happy, finish school," Figueroa said. "We play around all the time, trying to tire them out. They end up wearing me out though.
"Their love and support keeps me focused."
After a steep learning curve — Figueroa admits he didn't know it was three downs, 12-men or a bigger field when he first got here – the six-foot-six, 320 pounder has now settled into in a starting role the last two weeks. He naked aggression has been integral in the Ticats finally establishing a much-needed running game and improving Burris' protection.
"At times we have to dial him down but it's easier to dial a guy down than to dial him up," Austin said.
The coach adds one more caveat.
"We don't want Figueroa tackling our guys. That six-six, 340 landing on our little DBs," Austin said. "We don't need that."