Isaac Samuel laughs often, especially when discussing his nickname. The 6-foot-5, 275-pound defensive lineman occasionally goes by Big Slim after losing 20 pounds before his senior season at Centreville (Clifton, Va.) High.
Samuel embraced the name, just as he did the nose guard position, and just as he did his impoverished and tumultuous upbringing.
He lives in a single room with two sets of bunk beds at the Katherine K. Hanley Family Shelter with his mother and two younger brothers. He keeps clothes in a suitcase tucked under a bottom bunk. An orange shoebox that previously stored Nike Air Force 1s is filled with letters from his brother, written when he was incarcerated.
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Samuel has been homeless four times throughout high school. Despite his circumstances he’s continued to apply himself in the classroom and on the field. Last season he developed into one of the Wildcats’ top players en route to the Virginia 6A state title and the No. 14 spot in the USA TODAY Super 25 high school football rankings.
Samuel’s commitment to pursue excellence and transform himself into a role model for his family and peers isbeing honored by USA TODAY High School Sports and the Army National Guard with the Inspiration Award, presented to 15 student-athletes across the nation who go above and beyond in their communities, and whose loyalty inspires others to better themselves.
Centreville football coach Chris Haddock recalled the first time Samuel caught his eye as a 300-pound freshman in the school’s cafeteria. He immediately approached him about playing football. Samuel just laughed.
His knowledge of the sport was limited to watching college and NFL games on TV. Though he longed to play, moving from one apartment to another made it difficult for him to commit. It wasn’t until Samuel’s junior year, when his family moved into an apartment near the school, he felt his life was stable enough to try out for the team.
He showed up to practice out of shape and struggled with conditioning. But within two months, he’d applied himself enough to earn playing time on junior varsity. By the end of the season, Haddock was convinced of Samuel’s ability.
But Samuel wasn’t content with just being on the field. He wanted to make an impact and worked out in the weight room daily during the offseason. His dedication surprised Haddock.
“I knew he was hungry to get better, but even the best of the best weren’t in there every day,” Haddock said.
One day, Haddock asked Samuel when he intended to take a break, to which he replied that he’d rather not go home.
Haddock was stunned when he learned of Samuel’s background. Samuel’s family fled Beirut and lived as refugees in Sudan before moving to the United States when he was 5 years old. His parents and five siblings survived on government housing for six months in Alexandria before moving to Centreville.
They bounced from one apartment to another until moving into the shelter last year, after his mother could no longer pay the bills. She’d injured her back and had off time from work as a floor manager at BJ’s. Samuel doesn’t mind living in a small space — he’s just grateful to have a roof over his head, he said. When he wants time for himself, he retreats to the weight room.
“The way he carries himself with the burden he has is remarkable,” Haddock said. “I would be lying if I told you that I haven’t shed a tear over him.”
Samuel’s father is incarcerated and his older siblings have had run-ins with the law. As a freshman, Samuel was on a troubled path, too: fighting, drinking and getting suspended.
Football changed him.
“I realized that if I wanted to keep playing, I’d have to stop making bad choices,” Samuel said. “Football kept me off of the streets and kept me focused.”
Samuel limited his schedule to doing homework, lifting and going to the shelter to sleep.
Instead of going to parties, he chose to play spades at the shelter with his younger brothers. He not only wanted to transform himself, he felt obligated to be a positive influence for them.
“I’m proud of him,” said junior quarterback Joseph Ferrick, one of several teammates whom Samuel relies on for his 2-mile commute to and from school. “He’s made me see the bigger picture and made me understand how hard life can be.”
A couple of years ago, Samuel said attending college didn’t seem within reach, let alone playing football after high school. Now, Samuel has been invited to play at Ferrum College and Shenandoah University in Virginia and was accepted into Louisburg College in North Carolina.
Samuel wants to study business and eventually open a car garage. He wants to earn enough to take care of his mother, whom he said is his biggest support system.
“People can change,” Samuel said. “No matter what happens in your life, you can come out on top.”