A 27-3 loss to Villa Rica High School the first week of their season would be their best outcome. The Wildcats would go on to be outscored 206-0 during their next five Friday nights. A 49-0 loss Sept. 20 ensured Woodland its 15th year of not having a winning season in 16 years of existence.
"It was tough," acknowledges Ross, a senior at Woodland High School and member of Burnt Hickory Baptist Church in Powder Springs, Ga. "I was struggling and down on myself."
Things hit a low point Sept. 27 against North Paulding High School. 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 it would have been equally as important for Woodland to finally score its first touchdown of the year, albeit a month into the season.
Neither happened, as the Wolfpack pummeled the Wildcats 56-0.
"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
A few years ago, Jon Vernon, an assistant football coach at Woodland, took note of Ross, an 8th grader at the time from South Central Middle School –- which fed into Woodland High School. Ross participated in drills with the varsity. Ross' 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," Vernon says. "What I saw about him, though, was his spiritual maturity."
Ross says that maturity began to develop early in his life. "I was saved in the fourth grade, but lived for myself. For a long time I wasn't growing as a Christian."
When Ross was in the seventh grade, he and his 12 siblings were placed under the care of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) and were divided up among several foster homes. That time would have been tough for any kid dealing with his middle school years, but the concept of "family" is important to Ross, who describes himself as a protector, particularly of his sisters.
That summer Ross went to a church camp, where "God showed 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 (FCA) group at South Central Middle. Starting with a small number, regular meetings soon began 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 Baptist Cartersville, Ga. Now in his new home, Ross' discipleship would continue.
That growth would be tested this season, one in which Ross had put so much emotional equity in helping to bring the Wildcats another elusive winning season. "Isaiah loves Woodland and wanted to contribute," Vernon says. "He was invested in putting in the work to turn around a mentality in the football program brought on by losing."
Ross says, "God gave me a heart for my school. We'd faced a lot of adversity ."
A few days before an Oct. 11 game against Paulding County High, Ross was asked to give a motivational speech at the pep rally. Like sons do when they want advice, Ross went to his dad. The conversation with Vernon kept coming back to 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.
During the game, a fired-up Woodland squad went before a fired-up home crowd and promptly fell behind 14-0 to the visiting Patriots thanks to two long pass plays.
Late in the first half, though, things began to change. On third down Ross exploded for a long run up the middle; he carried several defenders before being brought down inside the 10-yard-line. Two plays later a touchdown pass officially ended the scoring drought.
An inspired group of Wildcats went 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 fell behind 14-0 early, this time to the visiting Hiram Hornets. For the third game in a row they came back, with the 28-23 win preserved by a tackle on the 5-yard-line as time ran out. Ross finished the game with 10 tackles on defense and 23 yards rushing. For good measure, he was voted homecoming king.
An established leader on the football field, Ross' influence could be said to go further off of 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."
That leadership had one more test with the final game of the season. The whispers about Woodland's three wins were that they came against teams that struggled just as much as the Wildcats. Now they faced traditional power Rome High, a team fighting for a playoff spot and one WHS had beaten only once in school history.
Woodland kept the score close and sent the game into two overtimes. Georgia high school football rules mandate that teams must go for 2-point conversions in the third overtime. After they scored on their possession, Woodland head coach Vince DiLorenzo looked at his players in the huddle before the 2-point try and was met by the words of quarterback Mason Robinson, a converted wide receiver who had gone to the bench during the six-game losing streak before he reclaimed his job.
"Coach, let's give the ball to Isaiah."
Confirming nods all around followed. On the snap Ross plowed through defenders to complete the conversion. Rome scored a touchdown when it got the ball but didn't make the 2-point conversion, giving Woodland a 36-34 victory and its longest winning streak in 13 years.
For Ross, Vernon's coaching and influence on his life has gone far beyond the gridiron.
"He was my favorite coach in ninth grade," Isaiah said. "I was always watching him and I still do -– how he lives his life. 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.
Scott Barkley is production editor of The Christian Index.
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