EAGAN, Minn. – Linval Joseph picked up a black cleat, turned it on its side and smiled.
There it was – a hand-painted mascot, but perhaps not the one you might expect. "Bully the Bull," down to the gold nose ring and cheerful expression, had been recreated on Joseph's cleats.
On the inside panel, a simple yet powerful saying had been meticulously painted onto a green backdrop in white lettering: Real players don't bully.
"It's starting to become a bigger [message], and that's all we're trying to do," Joseph said. "We're trying to make the world a safer place."
Next month, Joseph will debut the shoes against the Dolphins for the Vikings "My Cause, My Cleats" game that allows players to promote causes important to them using custom-designed kicks.
This will be the first year for Joseph to participate in the initiative because he wanted to feel personally connected to a cause rather than randomly choosing one. Now that he has, he's jumped in with both feet.
Joseph is feared by quarterbacks and offensive lineman across the league.
He's a force to be reckoned with, anchoring a tough Minnesota defensive line and making plays – and even a 64-yard touchdown run after a fumble recovery – that aren't often expected from a 329-pound defensive tackle.
Joseph is an attacker on game day. Off the field, however, he's a protector for those who need a voice.
"I feel like by using my platform and [sharing] my message, just putting it out there, it will help make this world a safer place," Joseph told Vikings.com.
Followers of Joseph on social media might have seen Instagram posts earlier this summer in which he encouraged fans to text to donate to the fight against bullying. Last month, he donned a shirt with the tagline he's adopted.
It's a cause near to his heart.
While likely hard for fans to imagine, Joseph says he was bullied himself when he was younger. He explained that he used those experiences to better himself as a person – but not everyone responds in that same fashion, and he now wants to be an advocate for those.
Joseph believes that everybody at some point "gets bullied in some form or another." People most commonly associate bullying with something that happens only in school, but Joseph reminded that the victims of bullying range from young ages through adulthood; scenarios can include "getting picked on," dealing with physical altercations or even unfair treatment or harassment by a superior in one's workplace.
Joseph took to social media with the goal of "showing the world what's really going on right here in front of [our] eyes – but we're really not paying any attention."
And then, he started getting responses.
A number of young people reached out to Joseph through Instagram or responded to his post, thanking him for having a voice. A few of those messages especially struck him.
"Once you get five or 10 emails or Instagram messages saying, 'Oh my [gosh], thank you. I was getting ready to take my life today,' " Joseph said. "When they saw me speaking up for it, it made them feel like they're not alone. And by me getting that feedback, it really made me want to do more."
What does that "more" look like? Joseph said he has a few ideas up his sleeve that are coming down the pipeline, but he's taking things one day at a time.
To start, the defensive tackle has gotten the support of teammates and even a usual opponent. Fans are used to seeing the Vikings-Packers rivalry heat up during the season, but Joseph has connected with Green Bay's Mike Daniels, who has also taken on bullying head-on.
"I can't wait to get a chance to sit down and talk with him," Joseph said. "We have a lot of guys getting on board … there's a lot of support.
"This is bringing us together. Hopefully next year we can get different teams and it can be more of a unit," Joseph continued. "I want this to one day take a bigger step than what it's taking now. I feel like right now we're doing good, but it's still a lot more room for improvement."
One of Joseph's goals is to establish additional day labs or call centers in Minnesota that people of all ages can call if they are being bullied by classmates, co-workers or even family members.
"I remember being young, and I would come home and say, 'This person is doing this,' and [the response was], 'Oh, be quiet … he'll leave you alone.' That's not a good enough answer for a kid in this generation," Joseph said. "By ignoring their feelings and what's going on with them, you don't know [how it will affect them]. Having some sort of communication or line to call and talk to somebody, it doesn't matter if you're 5 years old or a grown adult. Like I said, bullying doesn't have an age."
Joseph came to learn of Bully the Bull, the mascot depicted on his cleats. The character was created by a father in Memphis, Tennessee, who watched his daughter be bullied relentlessly, to the point that she contemplated self-harm, and decided to take action.
"He stopped work … to focus more on his daughter's needs, and he became Bully the Bull, and it really changed that school and other schools in Tennessee," Joseph said. "Now he's traveling, and it's all over the world. It's working slowly, but it's working."
As a father, Joseph relates to the idea of doing anything to protect one's child.
Joseph said it's easy to watch the news, see reports of affected students or – in extreme cases – suicides or acts of violence tied to bullying, and feel upset about it but not take any action.
"You think about it, but you don't want to engage in it yourself," Joseph said. "But what if it's your daughter [who becomes a victim in a school shooting]? What are you going to do now?
"If that happened to me, I would want to be more hands-on; I would want change," Joseph added. "So why do I have to wait for something tragic to happen to try to make a change? That's just how we're really trying to approach it."