Physical pain is something Science Hill senior Tate Isbell embraced. But dealing with the emotion of a season-ending knee injury is more difficult to get his arms around.
Isbell tore an ACL in the fourth quarter of last week’s home win against Daniel Boone, and shortly after he crossed the sideline of Steve Spurrier Field he knew it was for the final time.
“When I got to the sideline and Dr. (Todd) Fowler checked me out and he kind of looked at me, you know, with a down face and he kind of shook his head and he told me what I did, I did bust out crying,” Isbell said. “I mean, that was tough to hear, and everything was kind of running through my head.”
Hilltoppers teammates gathered around Isbell.
“That really hit the heart when they all did that,” Isbell said.
Isbell left his tears on the field, but found more greeting him at home.
“When I got home to see my mom and everybody ... they were crying,” he said. “So I was trying to fight back and tell them it’d be okay and be strong for them, instead of the other way around.”
Isbell was a second-year starter at linebacker and, after moving up from 195 to 215 pounds since last season, a first-year starter on the offensive line. Isbell and Grant Janeway were essentially the quarterbacks of the defensive front seven, and Science Hill coach Stacy Carter said it’s hard to quantify everything Isbell added to victories.
“Tate’s leadership has been unbelievable for us,” Carter said. “I mean, really, he has just been — him and Grant Janeway have been kind of the rocks. ... It’s hard to lead a team with a lot of talent; it really is. But he’s done a good job and the kids respect him a lot.
“He’s played both sides of the ball for us and worked his tail off in the weight room. His leadership was the most important thing. And he’s played well for us. I know we’ll miss him.”
Being blindsided by the end of your career is tough to absorb, especially when Science Hill is 7-0 for the first time since 1979.
“Watching my teammates practice … was pretty rough,” Isbell said. “Coach Carter’s always talking about giving it our all so we can do our best for the guy next to us and hoping he can do better than us, you know, or just as good. And it sucks to know that I’m not gonna be out there with them pushing them to get better and them pushing me to get better. ...
“I’ve played with some of those guys since seventh and eighth grade and we’ve gotten close. It’s gonna be weird not being out there with them and just enjoying the sport.”
Those taking over for Isbell, Gad Nagba at linebacker and 295-pound Anthony Head on the offensive line, are experienced and capable.
“That’s one thing that has made this is easier,” Isbell said. “Gad, I mean, he’s the best man for the job. He’s a really great linebacker. He’s not scared to hit somebody. Who else would you want out there, you know?
“And Head, I mean, if I’m not there I want him out there. Of course, I feel fine with him taking over, because he’s huge, he’s big, he’s strong, he’s mean. He’s gonna get the job done.”
Isbell and Head played right tackle and right guard, respectively, last week, and Head has seen considerable action for two seasons.
Isbell will miss trading licks in the trenches, and the tough, technician he had in offensive line coach Andrew Beck.
“My first year playing offensive line (since seventh grade), I feel like Coach Beck’s one of the reasons I really enjoyed it,” Isbell said. “He did teach me what it means to play the offensive line, and it does mean something. … I feel like me and him are somewhat similar because we’re hard-nosed and we’re not sensitive about things and get straight to the point, you know?
“He always wants us to be as mean as we can on that field, and I feel like that’s the game of football — be mean and do what you’ve gotta do to beat the guy in front of you.”
Isbell raved about how far Carter’s brought the program in three years, laughs thinking about linebacker coach Doug Cooper’s sense of humor and admires assistant Benny Tolley.
“You can play your eighth-grade year and Coach Tolley will remember you 30 years down the road,” Isbell said. “Coach Tolley, he’s awesome. I would seriously do anything Coach Tolley asked me to do … because I know if I needed anything in this world he would provide it or he would help me with it.”
Science Hill’s leading receiver, sophomore Malik McGue, suggests that Isbell had essentially become a coach on the field.
“Tate’s definitely, like, no doubt about it, the hardest worker on our team,” McGue said. “He wanted to win more than probably anybody on our team. He was the best leader on our team … in my opinion. He was always vocal, and not just vocal; he led by his actions.”
If any college came calling, Isbell would listen. But if he never plays another snap, football has helped prepare him to tackle anything life throws at him.
“Tate has come so far as a leader and he’s done so much that he’s gonna be a leader wherever he’s at,” Carter said. “I’m just very pleased with what kind of young man he’s turned out to be. He’s one of my favorite kids … a super kid.”
Isbell is eager for any sliver of solace in the short run, but said he has made peace with his fate.
“It’s been tough, but God’s got a plan and everything happens for a reason,” he said. “That idea right there has been helping me out a lot more than anything.”