“If she don’t like you when you’re down and out,” he says, “she’s not gonna like you at all.”
Rinker knows about one of the girls who’s been driving Isaiah crazy. He shares that stuff now. He still argues with Rinker about going to Life Skills, but that’s not personal. “I know how to go get my own state ID,” he tells her. “I’ve been on my own since I was young.”
“What about handling a checkbook?” she asks.
“Yes,” he says. “Don’t use it unless you really, really need it.”
Isaiah didn’t want to go to the FutureBound holiday party at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Chevy Chase. Everybody had to dress up. No sagging jeans with boxers showing. It was going to be a nice dinner. An adult dinner.
He didn’t want to put a suit on. Neckties made him nervous—you could get strangled that way. If you wore a suit in Baltimore, you were going to a funeral. He has three funeral programs on the wall in his bedroom, symbols of a life he’s trying to leave behind.
Maggiano’s private dining room was nicely decorated, and servers brought out Shirley Temples. Isaiah sat with a kid who’d done time for robbery and a girl who’d once climbed out a window so social workers wouldn’t take her from her mother. Two of the teens at his table were fathers; none had grown up with one.
After dinner, NCCF’s Sheryl Brissett-Chapman stood up with a candle in her hand and spoke about hope and forgiveness. “We are more than what has happened to us,” she said, “much more.”
All of the teens lit candles of their own—for someone who had hurt them or helped them, or for someone they missed. “I’m lighting this candle in remembrance of my mother,” Isaiah said.
They’d just finished singing “Silent Night” when Isaiah took out his cell phone and a FutureBound case manager tapped his arm and told him to put it away.
“Get the f--- off me!” Isaiah said, loudly enough for everyone to hear. He still doesn’t like to be touched—only certain people can hug him, like his English teacher, his aunts, and Rinker. He has to trust someone first.
Chapman told everyone to go on with the next song, a hip-hop version of “Jingle Bells,” and she and Deon Smith sat down next to Isaiah. Isaiah told them about his past and how being touched can set him off. He said he was sorry.
What should you have done? Smith asked him. He’d talked to Isaiah about his temper before.
“I should have gotten up and walked away.”
In the first football game of the year last fall, Isaiah had three sacks against Einstein High School, but his team lost in four overtimes. It ended up going 0–10.
“We’ll do good all the way up to the end zone, then there’s one pass someone drops, and that’s the end of the game,” he says. “Next year I’m running the ball.”
Isaiah likes football because he gets to hit people. He thinks about what’s been done to him and takes it out on the player in front of him. He’s worried about college: He gets chill bumps when he watches football on television, but scouts don’t come to see teams that don’t win.
He met his friend Max through football. They got to talking and realized they’d both grown up without a father. They laugh about the fact that Max was born in Austria and Isaiah had never heard of it.
Max calls Isaiah his brother, but it took a long time for Isaiah to call him a friend. Until recently, he had only “associates.” A friend was someone he could count on for anything. He had a best friend in Baltimore, but that guy died. Teammates were teammates. He wasn’t interested in friends.
He went to Max’s house for Thanksgiving last year. He was nervous about it—he didn’t want Max’s mother to know he’d been locked up. Max is going to college next year and planning to be a chiropractor. But she asked about his life, so Isaiah told her he’d dealt drugs and gotten caught.
He laughs: “There was like a moment of silence.”
Isaiah told his father he loved him once, about two weeks before his dad died. By that time, Isaiah says, he could see the man’s bones.
Isaiah wants to get married someday and have a son. He’ll name him Isaiah Paul Spriggs IV.
“If I do make a child, and me and the mother’s not getting along? I’m there every day—regardless,” he says. “Even if we not in the same house, I’ll be there at 6 to pick my son or my daughter up, take them to and from school, take them out on the weekends, do family activities.”
There are days he wakes up and wants to talk to his mother, times he wishes he could say to a friend, “Hey, look what me and my parents did. Me and my family.” He doesn’t have a picture of his mom, but he can see her face in his mind. He thinks about her when something big happens. Eighth-grade graduation. A good play in a game.
“You know her spirit is still with you,” Roberta Rinker once told him. “That’s probably why you’ve gotten as far as you have.”
Yeah, he said, I know.
If he doesn’t get to the NFL, he’ll be an electrician—he used to break VCRs just so he could fix them. Either way, he says, he’ll go to college and own a business. He’s turning 18 next month. His worst fear is not doing everything he says he’s going to do.
“People would be sitting at home like, ‘I knew it. He didn’t do nothing with his life,’ ” he says. “I’m doing what I gotta do now to accomplish good things for my child, so I can be like, ‘See? I did that.’ ”