We were introduced to Joseph “JoJo” Polk through his wife, Shirley, owner of Studio Cicada, located in Glenwood South’s Carter Building. JoJo, co-owner of CORE Fitness Studios, is the epitome of “Hustle Hard”. Through research, we knew that JoJo was a former arena football player who suffered a horrific neck injury leaving him paralyzed. We also knew that through determination, intensity, and guts, he fought back from paralysis to not only walk again, but to play football at an even higher level. We sat down with this former football player turned small business owner, fitness guru, and motivational speaker, to get the full story in our newest edition of Raleigh Hustles Hard.
Coming out of college in 2000, JoJo was a D2 All-America defensive back at Northeastern State in Oklahoma. After being undrafted, JoJo was lucky enough to pursue his lifelong dream of playing professional football with the Tulsa Talons. During his rookie season, he had seven picks in six games and started getting a bit of attention from the NFL. Towards the end of the season, he got a call from the Kansas City Chiefs and was invited to fly out for camp one week later. JoJo tells me, “It’s all I could think about. I had already told my mom that I got picked up. But, we had a game the Friday before, that would determine whether or not we got into the playoffs, and I always put team first, so I saw it as a win-win.” Instead of skipping the game and resting for camp, JoJo suited up. On the third play, he tripped over a fallen receiver, slamming into a padded wall and breaking his C-6 vertebrae, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. “I’ve always been a positive person, but when it happened I cried like a baby. I went from an athlete able to do all these things to being able to do nothing.” But by the second night in the hospital, JoJo knew he had to be strong for his mother, which pushed him to a positive place. “I started thinking about the Special Olympics and all the other opportunities I might have, just to try and make the best of it.” JoJo says it showed him his true heart. “I had to dig deep within myself to get through this.” It also showed him the good in people, which helped during his struggle. He credits prayer and support as being the keys to his recovery, but internally he had to possess a constant focus to remain motivated.
JoJo created a mantra; taken in part from a former coach who always yelled, “Dig!” “It really motivated me but I had to figure out how to make it my own, so I came up with Determination, Intensity, Guts. That really embodied what I was going through at the time.” JoJo told me, almost tearing up, that there were days where he wanted to quit. He didn’t think he could work toward recovery anymore – it was just too hard. DIG kept him going. “No matter what you want to do in life you have to have the determination to start and the intensity to hustle hard. But the key, are guts. It’s going to get hard, there’s going to be times where you don’t want to do it anymore but are you going to have the guts to push through it?” Today, he carries that message to every person who walks through the door at CORE. JoJo experienced what some call, a “medical miracle”. After three months, he was walking and eventually made a full recovery. He returned to arena football a year later where he won the 2001 Most Inspirational Player and went on to win Two AIFA Championships during his eight seasons. JoJo retired from football in 2009 and relocated to Raleigh where he began working as a trainer at Seaboard Fitness & Wellness (later O2 Fitness). JoJo trained at HEAT briefly, but in late 2014, was offered co-ownership in CORE Fitness Studios. He jumped at the opportunity. “That was almost a no brainer. I’ve always wanted to own my own gym; this is a good place with good people so I knew I had to do it.”
His priority when arriving at CORE was to build a great team of individuals that provide a unique dynamic and a variety of training abilities. Today, all nine trainers share the same passion and enthusiasm for wellness and community engagement. “We want people who are interested in more than just our gym, but helping to change Raleigh as a whole.” As a fitness nut, JoJo sees his current situation as a bonus. “Once I get done with all the administrative work of being an owner, I get to go teach classes which is just fun!” With ownership come responsibility, but also the opportunity to influence decisions. “I had all these ideas as a trainer but wasn’t in a decision making position. It’s almost surreal that I’ll think of something and remember I can actually do it now.” He’s quick to praise his partners, Katherine and Rand Williams for giving him the opportunity to play this larger role at CORE. In turn, he and Katherine keep all the trainers heavily involved in decision-making. CORE offers quality workouts and the staff have a vision to get their clients starting to think about eating healthy. They partner with Nutrition Partners to provide meal plans and advice to clients, as needed. JoJo hopes to improve personally in this area. “As a trainer you can always get better and grow, and nutrition is somewhere that I would like to expand my horizons.” His ultimate mission at CORE is to build an environment that motivates people and creates a feeling of family and community. “It’s about caring about the individual, not just their workout.” JoJo says emphatically.
When he’s not at CORE, you can find JoJo planning or emceeing at The Big Muddy Challenge, a family oriented fitness challenge he co-created in 2013. “We saw all these tough mudder competitions that looked fun but required you getting a babysitter. We wanted to create an experience for the whole family.” The challenge, which takes place six to seven times a year at Hill Ridge Farms in Youngsville, NC, is branching out with an event this year in Richmond, VA and in Washington, DC in 2016. JoJo hopes to find additional time for more motivational speaking and delivering the DIG message. In the near future, he would like to branch out and begin speaking not only to schools, but camps, businesses and other organizations. “If it weren’t for certain people in my life along the way, I wouldn’t be the man I am today so I feel like if I can pass that along to at least one of those kids, then it’s worth it.”
Thanks for stopping by the porch,
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