Football Helps with the Painful Loss

Auburn High School's Sonta Whatley and Isaiah Person will enter their senior season of football this fall. One will play on defense, and one will play on offense. These two young men are friends and know about winning. They also know about losing. Sadly, they know about a kind of loss you don't leave on the football field.

Isaiah was born the fifth of five children in Union Springs, (Ala.). He lived there with his mom until he was eight years old.

"My mom was a substitute teacher and a part-time nurse back then." Isaiah said. "My dad really wasn't around a lot."

Sonta was the fourth of five children and lived in Opelika, (Ala.) with his mom until he was 12 years old. Sonta tells us, "My mom was a factory worker."

Sonta recounts, "I was nine years old when my mom got sick with cancer. She underwent treatment and it went away. A couple of years later, it came back."

Mary Jackson, Sonta's grandmother, tells us, "We had told Sonta that his mother was very ill and that she might not make it."

Sonta's worst fear was realized when his mother passed away. Sonta was 12 years old. His mom was only 36.

The loss of the mother Sonta adored was very hard on him. "I went to live with my dad for a couple of months, and then I went to live with my grandmother in Auburn," he said.

"I was just hurting so much and was getting into all kinds of trouble. I had to see a counselor but, it didn't work for me. It just made it so much worse to keep going over and over it. I felt stuck. I begged my grandmother to let me stop seeing her, and she finally agreed."

"After that, I just pulled it together and decided that sports were going to be a way for me to get through this."

Ms. Jackson agrees, "Sonta always liked sports. Liked to play football and basketball. Sports gave Sonta an outlet and motivation. Sonta is really quiet and keeps to himself around home. He is outgoing with his friends but, spends a lot of time alone in his room. He's very independent."

Auburn High School head football Coach Tim Carter says of Sonta, "He is a tremendous athlete. He can do anything. I can put him anywhere on the field. He has played wide receiver in the past but, he's going to battle for the quarterback position this season. One thing is for sure. We will have Sonta on the field. He's a playmaker."

Coach Carter went on to say, "He's very self motivated, driven and also very independent."

Sonta's cousin, LaDextric Oliver adds, "I tried to help him through some of those tough times. It wasn't easy for me to know how because I was just a kid too."

"The first season he took part in football he was 14. He played tight end, and he was really good at it. It just came naturally to him. He played basketball, and he was having a great year in that also. All of a sudden he hit a low. It was like his focus just went away."

"We talked a lot about what he was feeling, and he admitted it was his mom. The fact that she couldn't see him doing these great things was so hard for him."

"I told him, "Sonta she still sees, she does see." After a while the focus came back. He has a ton of ability, and it all came back."

LaDextric is sharing road trips with Sonta this summer as they travel to college football camps.

"I just tell him he's got to outwork the next guy," he said. "I played quarterback so I've been working with him making sure he has good mechanics. I told him we need to keep going to the wide receiver camps too. He was one of the top three receivers at Louisville's recent quarterback and receiver camp that had 200 participants."

Sonta states, "When I walk onto the field, I go into a zone. No one is my friend. It's just me and my mom in my heart. I play my best for her. She always told me I would be an athlete one day. What I do on the field, I do for her."

We asked Sonta about recollections of his mom. With a boyish sweetness he tells us, "I still remember that she told me she loved me everyday." He pauses, "I like to look in the mirror because I see my mom's smile. I think that's why I like to smile a lot."

Isaiah's story is different but, equally as tragic. Holidays are a wonderful time of the year for families and the Person family is no different.

In Isaiah's eighth year, cousin, Bruce Person, tells us, "We had taken Isaiah with us to New Orleans for Christmas shopping on December 23rd. His mom had a boyfriend that she had been trying to end a relationship with. He called and said he had a Christmas present for her. She felt that she needed to see him in person to tell him again that it was over."

"When she tried to leave, he stopped her. He shot and killed Isaiah's mother."

"When we came home the next morning, Christmas Eve, we saw all the cars at the house. We knew something bad had happened."

Isaiah's mom was only 32 years old when she died.

"We called a family meeting, and it was decided that I would take Isaiah and his nine year old sister," Bruce said.

Bruce was only 22 at the time and newly married. Isaiah's aunt would take his other three siblings.

Like Sonta, Isaiah found trouble after the loss of his mom.

"My aunt and Bruce and his wife Deana were all so good to me, but it's still not the same as having your own mom," Isaiah said. "It was just so hard for me to lose my mom. My grades started getting bad. At some point, I realized I had to find some way to get my mind out of the sadness I felt."

Bruce recounts, "He started looking at my football trophies and one day we just started throwing the football around."

Isaiah adds, "Money was tight. I didn't get to play on a team until I was in the seventh grade."

"When the time came that he could play football, we had a sit down talk with him," Bruce said. "We told him that the only way he could play was if he could keep his grades up or we wouldn't hesitate to pull him out."

"He's never looked back," Bruce boasts.

Coach Carter tells us, "Isaiah is one of the best kids I've ever coached. If the school is open, he's here. He's dependable. He's a great leader. He's overcome and adapted. The kids all like him, and on Friday night you can count on him. He played nose guard and guard as a sophomore then moved to linebacker as a junior."

"Isaiah is a throw-back type of player. He loves football. He has all the intangibles. He studies the game, and he works hard at it."

Coach Carter laughed and continued, "He wears sweat bands and jerseys to class and begs me to let him play fullback. He is working at the school this summer. He comes in and does his work-outs from 6:00 a.m. until 8:00 a.m. and then, he works at school from 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. We just think the world of him."

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ Bruce and Isaiah are enjoying their weekend trips this summer to college football camps at places such as the University of Alabama, Jacksonville State, and the University of North Alabama.

"And, any others we can find," Isaiah adds. "Southern Miss has already offered me a partial scholarship but, I'm going to wait on a full scholarship. I think I can earn that this fall."

We asked Isaiah his most vivid memory of his mom and he answered, "When I had a test in school my mom would always say "pass it with flying colors." Isaiah says wistfully "flying colors."

"She would always smile and tell me to go out there and make her proud."

We asked Isaiah if he thought he had made his mom proud, "Yes ma'am, I think so."

Bruce adds, "very, very proud."

High school athletics can lift young men and women like Sonta and Isaiah from adversity and offer them opportunities at leadership and higher education. That's a cause we all should support.

Rebecca Johnston is a feature writer for ScoutSouth.com. Discuss this story and other Alabama high school athletes at ScoutSouth.com's free message boards.

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