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FOURTH AND LONG

 

Skip Butler/Cartersville Daily Tribune

Isaiah Ross carries the ball against Lithia Springs High, which became the second win of the season for Woodland High School. A member of Burnt Hickory Baptist Church in Powder Springs, Ross’ faith has been crucial in his role as a leader for his teammates.

EMERSON — Obstacles present options. The path chosen develops the story that is told.

For most of this season Isaiah Ross and the rest of the Woodland High School football team have had plenty of obstacles, with the first six games scheduled against the best in their region. A 27-3 loss to Villa Rica the first week would be their best outcome, as the Wildcats would go on to be outscored 206-0 on their next five Friday nights. A 49-0 loss Sept. 20 to South Paulding ensured Woodland its 15th year of not having a winning season in its 16 years of existence.

“It was tough,” admits Ross, a senior at WHS and member of Burnt Hickory Baptist Church in Powder Springs. “I was struggling and down on myself.”

Things hit a low point Sept. 27 against North Paulding High. Primarily a linebacker, Ross had moonlighted in the Wildcat offense as a blocking fullback. Against North Paulding he barely came off the field and carried the ball more in order to provide an offensive spark.

A win would have been a long shot against the 3-1 Wolfpack, but perhaps just as important would be Woodland finally scoring its first touchdown of the year, albeit a month into the season.

Neither happened, as the Wildcats were pummeled 56-0.

“Even through the storm you can find comfort.”
Isaiah Ross

“Of course, I wanted us to win in those first games,” Ross says. “I wanted to have a winning season.”

That goal was no longer possible. Still, this was a team Ross saw as better than its record indicated. Losing had become contagious and so was the resulting self-perception. As the team’s leader, Ross wasn’t about to allow that to fester. There was still something to play for, he says.

“As those games went on, I wanted us to be about getting better and competing.”

In other words, to never give up. 

 

A place to grow

In the spring of 2010 Jon Vernon, an assistant football coach at Woodland High, took note of an eight grader from South Central Middle School – which fed into WHS – participating in drills with the varsity. The player’s physical skills were apparent enough, but something else caught Vernon’s attention.

“Isaiah has a glowing personality and is always smiling. People are naturally drawn to him,” says Vernon. “What I saw about him, though, was his spiritual maturity.”

That maturity began to develop early, Ross testifies. “I was saved in the fourth grade, but lived for myself for a long time. I wasn’t growing as a Christian.”

When he was in the seventh grade, Ross and his 12 siblings were placed under the care of the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) and spread among several foster homes. That time would be tough for any kid dealing with his middle school years, but one has to understand how important the concept of “family” is to Ross, who sees himself as a protector, particularly of his sisters.

Scott Barkley/Index

From passing out doughnuts to helping lead worship, Friday morning FCA meetings are one place Isaiah Ross has become a leader for peers at Woodland High in Bartow County.

That summer Ross went to a church camp, where “God showed me a lot of things.”

“Even through the storm you can find comfort,” he remembers learning. “I felt I was being called for a greater purpose.”

He continued to grow in his faith and became a leader for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes group at South Central Middle. Starting with a small number, soon regular meetings were drawing nearly 200 students, he says.

Vernon saw in the rising freshman something he wanted to help protect and develop. “I was concerned about how he would be discipled in a yet-to-be-determined foster family. I got to know Isaiah and after meeting with his foster parents and DFCS knew he wanted a permanent home. He was very mature for a 9th grader, so I talked to my wife about Isaiah coming to live with us.”

In April 2011 Vernon and his wife, Michelle, officially became Ross’ guardians. Vernon is still an assistant football coach at Woodland and co-leads the FCA chapter alongside head baseball coach Corey Gochee, a member at First Cartersville. Now in his new home, Ross’ discipleship would continue.

That growth would be tested this season, one in which he had put so much emotional equity in bringing the Wildcats another elusive winning season. “Isaiah loves Woodland and wanted to contribute,” Vernon stresses. “He was invested in putting in the work to turn around a mentality in the football program brought on by losing.”

“God gave me a heart for my school,” Ross agrees. “We’d faced a lot of adversity [the first part of the season].”

A few days before the Oct. 11 game against Paulding County, Ross was asked to give a motivational speech at the pep rally. Like sons do when they want advice, he went to his dad. The conversation with Vernon kept coming back to working through perseverance.

“I’d been reading in the Bible about pushing through obstacles and going forward,” Ross says. “Philippians 3:13-14 says we should forget what is behind us and keep moving forward to our goal.”

That message and Scripture reference was given to the entire student body, then as a reminder to his teammates before the game that night.

With that framework, a fired-up Woodland squad went before a fired-up home crowd and promptly went down 14-0 to the visiting Patriots thanks to two long pass plays.

“Guys have been asking me to pray with them, telling me they know they need to make some changes in their lives.”

Late in the first half, though, a change. On third down Ross explodes for a long run up the middle, carrying several defenders before being brought down inside the ten-yard-line. Two plays later a touchdown pass officially ends the scoring drought and signals the elephant to leave the room.

An inspired group of Wildcats would go on to record their first win of the season, 22-14. A week later they got their second, a 21-12 victory over Lithia Springs

On Nov. 1 the Wildcats again go down 14-0 early, this time to the visiting Hiram Hornets. For the third game in a row they come back, with the 28-23 win preserved by a tackle on the five-yard-line as time runs out. Ross finishes with 10 tackles on defense and 23 yards rushing. For good measure, he’s voted homecoming king.

An established leader on the football field, Ross’ influence could be said to go further off it. “I’ve had some say I’m kind of like their big brother,” he says. “Guys have been asking me to pray with them, telling me they know they need to make some changes in their lives.”

Leadership doesn’t mean placing yourself on a pedestal, but understanding your own shortcomings and working to fix them, in the process showing others the way. You can’t be coached without being coachable.

For Ross, Vernon’s coaching goes beyond the gridiron.

“He was my favorite coach in ninth grade. I was always watching him and I still do – how he lives his life,” says Isaiah. “I ask him questions about the Bible and know I can always go to him or my mom for answers.”

Improving in any phase of life would be more enjoyable if it was easier, but that’s not how the math works. Obstacles – like the separation of a family or historical losing streak – inevitably arrive at some point. One option is to give up.

For some, it’s not an option at all.