AT 48-YEARS-OLD, pretty much the last thing in Joseph Toles’s life plan was to become a father. He was not married, never had been. Then he met Xavier, a 17-year-old foster child and, without reservation, Toles adopted him. A year later, he adopted Johnathan, 15. Then Ronny, a 14-year-old. A few years later, Creemel, who was 20, joined the family. Then Kamren, 14, followed by Cinsere, the youngest at 13. Ten years later, Toles is in the process of adopting Jhon, a 20-year-old with learning disabilities.
“I thought as a single father, adopting one was a huge step,” Toles said. “Now I’m about to be the father of seven sons. It’s really hard to say no to a teenage boy when all he wants is to be loved and to belong to a family. Things I can relate to so well.”
Toles spent his entire childhood in foster care, where he suffered physical and mental abuse from his foster parents and sexual abuse at the hands of another child. Yet, he never spoke of any of it outside his home. Not to teachers or friends. Not to his coach or teammates. Not to anyone.
One afternoon in 1974, Uniondale (N.Y.) High School Head Track Coach Al Krauser noticed a boy cutting in and out of his athletes as they ran drills.
“I grabbed him by the arm and yelled at him to stop before he tripped one of my runners and ruined a career,” Krauser said. “Then, I saw his eyes. They were so sad, and it immediately affected me. I calmed down and invited him to join the team.”
That invitation changed Joe Toles’s life. Completely.
The next season he joined the track team and, for the first time, he found a place where he fit in; where he truly felt like he belonged.
“I was in a really tough situation,” Toles said. “Then, I met Coach Krauser and that changed everything. He was like the father I never had. I would get nothing but negativity at home, but at school, coach would build me up. He didn’t know my situation; he just saw potential in me and encouraged me. Thankfully, by the grace of God, I fully trusted and believed what coach told me more than what I was hearing at home.”
LEFT: Toles as an All-American distance runner at Auburn RIGHT: Toles with fellow War Eagle Girls and Plainsmen (l-r) Jim Kay ’82, Amory Benton ’83 and Clay Brown ’83
In his senior year, Toles was voted team captain and was breaking middle distance records all over the Northeast. Former Auburn Coach Mel Rosen offered him a full scholarship to run track and attend school at Auburn University. He jumped at the chance.
With his brutal upbringing now a thousand miles away, Toles took advantage of every opportunity at Auburn. He was a three-time All-American, and again, was voted team captain his senior year. He was president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and was selected to represent the university as a War Eagle Girls and Plainsmen (WEGP). Former Assistant Dean of Students Al Sistrunk remembers Toles as a confident young man full of potential, not a victim of a horrific past.
“Joe made friends easily,” Sistrunk said. “He loved everybody and everybody loved Joe. As an advisor for WEGP, my wife and I would have the group come hang out at our house with us and our three young children. We treated all of them like our own, and I am guessing that might have been where Joe was first exposed to a real family. He began to open up, sharing his story with me.”
“Like Coach Krauser, Al Sistrunk was a strong father figure for me,” Toles said. “I absolutely would not be the person I am had it not been for the love, influence and belief in me both of these men had – and still have.”
Toles and youngest son, Cinsere, with Aubie on March 2, 2019 at Auburn Arena watching the Tigers defeat Mississippi State 80-75.
Toles earned his degree in psychology from Auburn in 1982, followed by a master’s in sports psychology from Brooklyn College in 1985. He spent his career in New York as a high school teacher and counselor, track and field coach and as a licensed mental health professional and university instructor. In 2005, he founded the Joseph Toles Foundation, an organization that provides services to underserved children in New York.
Toles recently purchased a home in Auburn and will be relocating to Alabama this summer, bringing three of his sons with him (four are on their own). He plans to partner with other nonprofits to bring his camp to the Plains to serve teens in Lee County. He said he knows Auburn is where he belongs, and he cannot wait to get involved in the community and the university he loves so much.
“There are really no words to adequately describe what Auburn University did for me and what it means to me,” he said. I am really excited about coming back. This is where I found my feelings and where I found my voice; it’s where I thrived. Auburn absolutely made me the man I am today.”