CONCORD — The past two seasons, quite honestly, have been perhaps the toughest in Concord High School’s football history.
Over their past 21 games, the Spiders have won just two of them. Those are sobering numbers for a storied program that has three state championships and a pair of runner-up plaques in its trophy case.
Second-year coach Marty Paxton and his staff have done their best to kept optimism high, but the reality is it’s difficult to keep teenagers fully engaged week after week when they’re getting physically and emotionally beaten and the scores have been so lopsided.
But one good thing — one low-key, high-performing presence — for the Spiders has been Joseph “JoJo” Bond.
The versatile senior is extremely understated. He doesn’t show a lot of emotion, and he says even less with his voice, on or off the football field.
But in many ways, that’s been exactly what the Spiders have needed as they’ve endured their litany of tough days.
In Bond, the Spiders have a calming influence from one of their peers as they try to tune out noise from disgruntled fans, and they have a player who exemplifies that the standard for quality play doesn’t have to be compromised because of their win-loss record.
In a sport like football, with so many moving parts, one player usually can’t be the difference in wins and losses, and that’s especially the case for a Concord team that’s been besieged by injuries and a mass exodus of athletes transferring to other teams.
But one player — the special ones anyway — can lift morale in the locker room. One player can exhibit confidence, sacrifice and class that permeates throughout a team and maintains a sense of pride.
And for Concord, that player has been Bond, who’s played at least four different positions this season.
Asked what Bond means to the Spider program, Paxton takes a deep sigh.
“The best thing I can say is ‘everything,’” Paxton replied. “And that’s big. Last year, we said, ‘JoJo, come and long-snap. Let’s see if you can do it.’ And it’s on the money. We said, ‘JoJo, go play receiver.’ And he gets out there, he’s one of the best receivers we’ve got. And then we said, ‘JoJo, let’s see you throw a ball.’ And he can throw the ball. I mean, he’s one of the best natural athletes that I’ve been around.
“He’s got a calm, cool, collected demeanor about himself,” added Paxton, who’s also been the head coach at Hickory Ridge and Mooresville. “He’s never really up, he’s never really down. Sometimes I wish he had a little bit more (outspokenness). But I guess, with him being in that quarterback position now, you don’t want that; you want someone who’s level-headed and keeps everybody else level-headed.”
As evidence, Paxton points to a series of games Bond missed while dealing with an injury this season. With Bond gone, Paxton said, the Spiders lacked energy at practice, which led to more struggles on Friday nights. Tough times got even tougher.
But when the Spiders’ leader returned, so did their emotional balance.
“The day he came back, you could feel the energy back at practice,” Paxton said. “You could feel the respect in the huddle. You could feel the respect on DEFENSE, and he doesn’t play much defense right now because we’ve needed so much help on offense.
“But you can see it, you can feel it. He just has an aura about him that the kids respect.”
More than a role playerBond has been on the Concord varsity for three seasons now. Last year, he spent much of his time as a strong safety since the Spiders had Dajon Johnson, now at Central Cabarrus, as the primary starting quarterback. But when necessary, Bond filled in and passed for 322 yards and four touchdowns.
He also ran the ball 74 times for 208 yards and was one of three Spiders to score a rushing touchdown. And when he was a safety, he was a terror for opponents, ranking third on the team with 88 tackles behind standout linebackers Jourdan Heilig and Clint Bost.
This year, when healthy, Bond has been the Spiders’ main quarterback. While often scrambling for his life, he’s passed for a modest 433 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions.
As a rusher, he’s gained 119 yards — ranking behind Jacori James and (289) and Trey Wilson (125) — and scored a touchdown.
While still occasionally putting in time at safety, Bond has registered 25 tackles going into Friday’s “Battle for the Bell” game against Concord.
Bond said he doesn’t go out of his way to be a team leader. He just focuses on being his best and lets the rest take care of itself.
“I just think it’s my attitude,” Bond said. “You’ve got to bring it every day — every single day.”
Playing with true painThe going has been tough on the field over the past few years, of course. But over the past few weeks, Bond has been dealing with something much more difficult away from the gridiron.
On Oct. 20, Bond’s father, also named Joseph, died after an undisclosed illness at the age of 37. Three days later, Bond was back at school and agreed to sit down for an interview with the Independent Tribune for this story, which had been planned long before his father’s passing.
There were no tears, but Bond’s eyes were a deep red that day as he sat in the Concord locker room just before practice. It was evidence he was going through a tough time, but it was also evident that he was determined to take care of the immediate task in front of him, which was to help his team prepare for that Friday’s game against Central Cabarrus.
“He seems to be dealing with everything pretty well,” Paxton said of Bond. “He comes to practice and works hard. You can’t tell any different, really, in how he is right now. That’s just the kind of person he is. He doesn’t say much.”
Bond told the IT that he didn’t want to speak intimately about his father, which the newspaper accepted and agreed to continue with the interview without asking such questions. But throughout the 20-minute conversation, Bond made several references to his father, and the impact Joseph had on him became abundantly clear.
For instance, Bond said he fell in love with football because of his father, a native New Yorker.
“My father was a Giants fan, so I liked the Giants, too,” he said. “When (the Giants) won the Super Bowl, I realized I wanted to be in that atmosphere one day.
“It just looked fun. My dad told me stories about when he played, and then I wanted to be like him. He played in New York. My grandfather (Joseph Huston) had his own (non-school) team, and my dad played quarterback for his team.”
Bond said he didn’t show talent as a quarterback when he started playing in middle school, so he focused on defense, often trying to channel the style of his favorite player, former Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed.
Along the way, just as he’s been for the Spiders lately, Bond said he had a consistent presence of his own that helped him grow as a player: his father.
“He had a large influence on me, he really did,” said the Concord star, whose birth name is Joseph Martin Bond while his father’s is Joseph Daniel Bond.
“But once he got sick, it went from him coaching me to me taking care of him. Then I had to coach my own self. But then again, he was telling me how to do it. He was talking to me through things, and then I just had to execute it.”
That’s a major reason Concord football fans have the multi-talented, selfless player they see wearing jersey No. 7 on Friday nights.
The elder Bond was buried on Oct. 27, and many Concord supporters attended the funeral. In the process, Paxton said he really got to know why his quarterback is the young man he is today.
“When they read his dad’s eulogy and his dad’s (high school) coach spoke about his father, it was like he was speaking about JoJo,” Paxton marveled. “It was crazy. I had several coaches that came up to me afterward and said, ‘Man, he’s talking about JoJo!’
“(The eulogy was) just about how he was a leader, how he commanded respect with no words, how he walked around school with a positive aura. It’s amazing, man, because JoJo is like that. You see where he gets it from.”
A Spider for life
Bond said he’s had to fight other emotional battles over the past few years while playing for the Spiders. One of the main ones was seeing so many of his friends leave to join forces with others squads.
“It’s changed so much over time,” Bond said. “Players left, and then more players had to step up. And then some more players left. My freshman and sophomore years, it was fun because of the people I played with. The coaches were fantastic. But my junior year and senior year finishing up, it’s been tough. Don’t get me wrong: The coaches are still great. But losing teammates, my friends, it’s been really tough.”
Then Bond puts things in perspective with the maturity that has wowed coaches over the past few years.
“Things happen for a reason,” he said. “You just have to be prepared for what hits you in the face.
“It was good playing with them, but now you’ve got to play against them. And you have to play for real. But they’re still my dawgs.”
Asked if he ever contemplated leaving the program after so many of his buddies moved on to other schools, Bond was honest.
“Yeah, I considered it,” he said. “But my dad wanted me to stay at Concord, so I decided to stay.
“Plus, I’ve always been a Spider. It means a lot. Concord just holds a lot of weight for me.”
Ready to battle for the BellBond is a three-sport athlete at Concord.
This winter, he’ll be one of the top returning players for the Spiders’ basketball team after averaging 7.4 points and 5.3 rebounds last season. And when spring comes, he’ll play baseball for Concord after having picked up the sport, for the first time ever, just last year.
Again, his father’s presence is felt.
“Baseball seemed fun,” said Bonds, who plays left field for the Spiders. “My dad was a good baseball player, too, and I wanted to play because he told me to play.”
Friday, however, will be the last time Bond dons a Concord football uniform.
Like anyone affiliated with Concord or A.L. Brown, the “Battle for the Bell” means a great deal. But it’s been particularly painful for the Spiders, who have lost the past four contests against their rivals.
“I’ve never won the Bell,” Bond said. “And to get it my senior year, it would mean a lot. It would be fun. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be a fight. But I just want the Bell back. This is my last year, and I’m going to do everything to get it back.”
Bond said his greatest football memory was the 2017 “Battle for the Bell,” which the Spiders lost, 14-12, after a late two-point conversion pass attempt in the back of the end zone was ruled incomplete.
“We should’ve won, but it was a great game,” Bond said. “They should’ve called that (conversion good), but they didn’t. It was at Kannapolis, and their stadium is pretty big. There were a lot of people there, so it was a great atmosphere.
“That’s the thing about the ‘Bell’ game,” Bond continued. “People will come and support you because it’s a big rivalry game. There’s a lot of love going on, but there’s a lot of hate. The first play, the bubbles are going to be in your stomach. Them, the butterflies will be all out. After that, it’s just time to put on a show.
“It’s like, ‘Wow! All these people came to see us play!’ Then you just have to play hard and execute.”
There won’t be many who expect the Spiders to win. Concord is 1-9, while the Wonders are 6-3 and No. 4 in the Independent Tribune’s Cream of Cabarrus Football Rankings.
But the Spiders do have two things working in their favor: This is a rivalry game, one in which stranger things than the team with the worst record winning have happened, and they’ve got a quality player who’s traveled his own road to being a leader on their side.
“He’s a unique individual,” Paxton said of Bond, “but he’s what a coach loves and what you’ve got to have in your program.
“I’ve never had a silent leader, but he’s a silent leader. Everybody beats to his drum. He’s different. He does it, and they follow. He’s just a special kid.”