He nearly threw away his football promise. After brush with the law, Justin Joyner is thankful, thriving at Kempsville.

Justin Joyner had a lot to be thankful for as he celebrated Thanksgiving.

He said this week he was thankful for family and friends and their support, but the Kempsville High running back was most thankful for a second chance.

Joyner, 18, will be on the field Friday when the Chiefs play at Green Run for the Class 5 Region A title at 7 p.m. The winner advances to the state semifinals.

Joyner’s path there, though, was interrupted. The one-time middle school phenom — his exploits drew a college scholarship offer when he was an eighth-grader — was arrested for what he calls “a string of robberies with one of my friends.” After three years in a juvenile detention center, Joyner returned to football and has thrived this season at Kempsville.

“I feel so grateful because I know where I came from,” said Joyner, who is 6-foot and 210 pounds. “I know how I used to think and how I used to act. So, when I look at all that I have achieved, I just have to pat myself on the back. But I also know that it’s not over. I still have a lot to conquer. I still have to keep going. I still have to keep grinding. But it feels great.”

Joyner was 14 and an eighth-grader at Brandon Middle School in Virginia Beach when he drew the attention of college recruiters, drawing an offer from Southern Miss and interest from at least two national prep school powers — IMG Academy in Florida and St. Frances Academy in Maryland.

“I thought I was a superstar,” said Joyner, flashing a wide smile. “But it kind of went to my head. I felt like I was going to go to a big college. I felt like I was going to dominate on the field.”

But Joyner also was hanging out with bad influences and making bad decisions.

“I had got caught up in a string of robberies with one of my friends,” said Joyner as he shook his head in remorse. “Unfortunately, we weren’t thinking. We were only thinking about the rewards we could get from the robberies. We didn’t think about what could happen.”

Joyner was sentenced to three years in a detention center.

“Everything was stripped away from me,” he said. “School, sports, family because of me not being able to think. I didn’t think nothing about my future in football or my family. It was me acting in the moment.

“There was a lot of nights that I cried, a lot of nights. Especially when I knew it was going to be a long time. I didn’t think I was going to step back on a high school football field.”

Joyner was put in the Community Placement Program, which focuses on positive youth development and increasing competency in education, vocational preparation, life and social skills, thinking skills, employability skills and anger management.

The program also comes with a review, and a judge decides if participants should be released early.

Joyner was released last month, but still must wear an ankle bracelet — removed only during games.

Joyner attended Renaissance Academy, an alternative school in Virginia Beach for students who have academic, discipline or behavioral problems, but he didn’t stay there long.

He transferred to Kempsville last month.

No one was happier for him than Quran Boyd, a teammate of Joyner’s in middle school now also at Kempsville.

“I was so glad that he was getting another opportunity to do what he loves to do,” Boyd said. “And he came back a better man. He didn’t let the setback hold him back. He became better as a person and individual. He doesn’t take any moment for granted.”

Joyner was cleared by the Virginia High School League to play, but paperwork put his status on hold and in doubt.

Kempsville coach Daryl Cherry called it “frustrating,” but he hoped it would get resolved.

“It was a hassle just to get him transitioned to the public schools as far as the paperwork and the checks and balances,” Cherry said.

Joyner finally got clearance to play when then-No. 6 Kempsville played No. 13 Salem in the eighth game of the season. The Chiefs were banged up with seven starters out of the lineup, including star running back NaiQuan Washington-Pearce.

“I was hyped just to have an opportunity to come back out here,” Joyner said, “but I was definitely nervous.”

He wondered how long it would take him to get acclimated to the skill and speed of the game.

It didn’t take long. Joyner scored the game-winning touchdown on a 3-yard run with 45 seconds left.

After the game, Cherry asked Joyner if he could share his whole story in the postgame gathering.

“It’s important for him to have people around him who see him for him, and not hold onto his past, and not be quick to judge him,” Cherry said. “Everyone makes mistakes, and you can see how he’s learned from those mistakes. There’s so many people in this community who want to see this kid succeed. We’re all excited to see him get a second chance in life.”

Joyner agreed, and after hearing Cherry speak, some were in tears.

“I think it opened our eyes a lot because not many (people) know his story,” Boyd said. “Not many know what he’s been through. Me and him stayed in touch throughout the whole time. I just tried to tell him to stay positive and keep his head up. I told him there would be a time when he would get another opportunity.”

Added Washington-Pearce: “You don’t get many second opportunities in life, but when you do, you have to take full advantage of it. And that’s what he’s doing right now.”

In five games, Joyner has rushed for 245 yards and four touchdowns on 19 carries. Off the field, he learned this week that he made the honor roll and has a 3.5 grade point average.

He’s getting some soft interest from several college programs, including Maryland, Old Dominion and North Carolina Central.

Cherry said he can only imagine if Joyner had played his entire high school career.

“Listen, if he had four years, it would be no question that he would be one of the top guys in this area. Hands down,” he said. “Just imagine the football training he could have gotten, and the experience and the exposure. He would definitely be a top Division I recruit.”

For now, Joyner’s sole focus is on Friday and the region championship game against the Stallions.

“I know what my teammates have been through. I know they’ve lost the last three times they’ve played them,” he said. “I’m sky high for this game because I know what my teammates want, and I know what I want.”

Larry Rubama, 757-575-6449, larry.rubama@pilotonline.com Follow @LHRubama on Twitter.