Joe Kim’s life pivoted when he was almost 5 years old and his massive, expensive eyeglasses with bi-colored lenses were smashed by a bully.
His mom took him to a martial arts studio so he could gain self-confidence and learn to defend himself. Six years later he earned his black belt in taekwondo. He became a national champion and GrandMaster.
“I’m one of those people who believe everything happens for a reason,” Kim told The Chronicle-Telegram last week. “I’m so grateful she did that.”
Kim’s journey took another hairpin turn when a fancy sports car showed up at the dojo in 1992.
“I remember vividly being in my father’s North Ridgeville martial arts school,” Kim started. “A red Mercedes-Benz pulls up and big dudes get out of the car and started walking toward the window.”
Browns defensive linemen Michael Dean Perry, Rob Burnett and Anthony Pleasant were sent by coach Bill Belichick, who looked for every edge even then. He had seen an article about Kim moving back to Northeast Ohio after living in Colorado Springs at the Olympic training facility, and Belichick had worked with Giants Hall of Fame pass rusher Lawrence Taylor, who was active in martial arts.
Kim soon met with Belichick, Nick Saban and others at the new facility in Berea.
“He said, ‘I think you could help us,’” Kim recalled.
So began his unlikely career in the NFL.
More than two decades later he is back with the Browns as part of the reconstructed and beefed-up strength and conditioning staff, specializing in skills development. His third tour with the hometown team follows stints in 1992-95 and 1999-2000 and is his 13th stop in the NFL.
“It’s an amazing blessing,” said Kim, who turned 47 Saturday. “It’s fantastic. I’m so excited.”
Based on unsolicited praise from players, Kim must be considered for unofficial MVP of the offseason.
Throughout the three-day minicamp this month, players and coaches raved about Kim’s influence and the impact his instruction will have once the pads come on in training camp and the games begin in September.
“He has helped us out tremendously,” said outside linebacker Nate Orchard, who’d never worked with a martial arts expert. “It’s a shocker. You look at the guy like, ‘Oh, he’s got no moves.’ Next thing you know he’s whipping his hands around, it’s like, ‘OK.’
“So you give him some respect and so I’m really excited and so is everybody else because a lot of guys, this is their first time working with someone like this.”
Kim is known for his work with pass rushers — Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Jason Taylor, Justin Tuck — but the Browns have him helping at all positions besides quarterback and kicker/punter. He specializes in hand placement, footwork and hip movement, which are critical in taekwondo.
The Browns established a seven-person high performance staff led by director Adam Beard, who installed a strength and conditioning program for every position. Kim is part of the staff, but his everyday work with players is in addition to their regimens with the training and coaching staffs.
“I like to get my hands on every player,” he said. “I have a passion for doing what I’m doing. I don’t want to get locked in on one (position).
“Every drill is purpose-driven and is going to transfer to your play on the football field. Training is conducive to each position group. All position groups need something different.”
For the defensive line, it’s beating the offensive line with quick, powerful hands. For the offensive line, it’s shooting hands in the perfect spot to neutralize the pass rusher. For the tight ends and receivers, it’s using hands and feet to gain separation at the line of scrimmage.
Everything’s about reactivity.
“We don’t want to anticipate things,” Kim said. “On the field it happens too quick, it’s too violent. You have to train your body to be reactive.
“Bruce Lee said, ‘I’m not afraid of the man that knows 10,000 kicks. I’m afraid of the man who’s practiced one kick 10,000 times.’ When training these guys, I keep that in my head.”
Kim credits owner Jimmy Haslam and coach Hue Jackson for embracing the large and diverse high performance staff.
“Finally, somebody gets it,” Kim said. “More importantly, you have an organization willing to invest in that idea.”
Learning from the best
Kim grew up in Bay Village as a Browns fan. That was the extent of his football experience when he met with Belichick in 1992 and was hired as an assistant strength coach.
“He wanted to call upon my expertise and help martial arts make its way into the football world,” Kim said, adding Belichick has remained a mentor. “One thing Coach does is he develops people. Look at the history of some people that worked with him.
“With me, he just truly educated me on the needs of a football player and where the combative system can transfer over to the football field.”
Kim knew he had catching up to do in the world of football, so he spent hours watching film on the beta cam with coaches Jim Bates, Steve Crosby and Hal Hunter. Late at night, Belichick would tutor him.
“I just took so much in in the early stages,” Kim said. “Most importantly, they taught me how to watch film.
“Now I’m watching individual battles, watching individual combatives on the field. I know exactly what their strengths are, where they’re in bad positions.”
Kim learned fast and quickly established himself as a known quantity throughout the NFL. He’s worked for Dallas, Miami, Green Bay, Denver, Buffalo the New York Giants, Kansas City, Chicago and Washington, mostly as a pass rush consultant.
Defensive line coach Robert Nunn was his connection to coming back home. They’ve worked together for nearly 17 years.
“One of the first discussions I had with Hue was about Joe,” Nunn said. “Joe is a great teacher. He has great energy. When he’s around guys, if he’s teaching, martial arts or football or how to drive that tractor over there, he can teach.”
The road less traveled
Kim’s path to GrandMaster was even more unlikely than him becoming a football coach.
He was born to a single mother and was nearly blind in both eyes. He had three surgeries in two years, then needed to wear “crazy sci-fi” glasses with one blue lens and one red lens. He didn’t fit in and struggled to find his place among boys his age.
Then Billy Raymond smashed the $500 glasses. Too much for his mom, a school nurse, to easily replace.
“She said I cannot afford for you to continue to be a sissy basically, not have confidence to stick up for yourself,” Kim said. “I’m so grateful.”
He trained as a boy under Eternal GrandMaster Myung Hwan Kim, who later married Kim’s mother and became his father. Joe Kim won the bronze medal in taekwondo at the Pan Am Games in 1990, was a two-time national champion and is a seventh-degree black belt.
“I have never had a black belt on a coaching staff before, and I’m not willing to find out, either,” outside linebacker coach Ryan Slowik joked about mixing it up with Kim.
“He brings a lot of energy for the whole team, really,” nose tackle Danny Shelton said. “We’re all kind of new to the martial arts type of stuff but it’s pretty cool to see these guys have fun and have a different kind of feeling and energy.”
During his travels across the NFL, Kim always kept his home in Avon Lake and Kim’s Martial Arts School in Avon. He would spend the offseason and many weekends during the season at home with his wife and two daughters.
“To come back for a third time is a great blessing,” Kim said. “I’m so grateful I’m in a position I can make an impact in somebody’s life.”