Lakeland senior’s indomitable spirit in adversity has him near his pro football dream

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Lakeland senior’s indomitable spirit in adversity has him near his pro football dream

Courtesy of Isiah Calhoun

Courtesy of Isiah Calhoun

Courtesy of Isiah Calhoun

Isiah Calhoun (8) celebrates in a Lakeland game.

Danny Spatchek, Managing Editor

When Isiah Calhoun announced in one of his freshman classes that he wanted to play professional football, the teacher laughed.

“The instructor kind of giggled, like it was a joke,” he said in the Campus Center, his big eyes narrowed like he’s being offended all over again. “It’s just more fuel to the fire. I’ll never forget that day.”

Now that Calhoun has advanced to a national tryout, the teacher might want to.

Calhoun, a senior sociology major and a first team all-conference cornerback for Lakeland’s football team last season, was one of 14 players to advance from an area regional combine in March to the NFL National ELITE Combine this weekend in Detroit.

For Calhoun, who found out he advanced in an email, being selected from a crop including many division one players represents his first step toward validating his pursuit to play in the NFL.

“I was in the computer lab and my eyes watered up because it was the first time you actually see all your hard work begin to pay off. I’ve always said, ‘Tears of joy I have never felt before,’ but I almost did that time. I didn’t cry, but my eyes did water,” he said.

It’s no wonder. Since arriving on campus in 2006, Calhoun has worked single-mindedly toward a goal like few others have.

People who spend a lot of time in Lakeland’s weight room, people who spend a little time there, have probably seen Calhoun, and have probably stopped their own workouts to watch his. There’s something different about the way he lifts weights. It’s not just the big weights he throws around. It’s the way he bounces around from machine to machine, in rhythm with the music playing in his huge headphones, the way he stares at his 6-3, 200-pound frame reflected in the mirror. He’s here for a reason.

“Some people say it’s not good but my goal is, ‘I work out until it hurts,’” shrugs Calhoun, oblivious to how he should feel about pain. “Every single rep that I push out should be a mental challenge. I’m doing as much as I can, as many times as I can, for as long as I can. A lot of people see me in the weight room, and they come 30 minutes after I get there and they leave 40 minutes before I’m even done. When I leave, I want to know that I was the person working the hardest.”

But as scary as he sometimes appears in the weight room, he’s really kind of a softy, people who know him say. He plays with kids at the Sheboygan YMCA, where he works. Admits to being a momma’s boy. And he’s humble, too.

“I just want to make sure everyone knows this is all God’s work,” he says. “I put in some work as far as going to work out and things like that, but God gave me the opportunity and God gave me the gift.”

But soft or scary, he’s pretty shrewd.

Realizing pro football scouts would be more likely to notice a player of his size and athleticism on defense rather than offense, he switched positions after his sophomore year, moving from wide receiver to defensive back, and as a senior to cornerback.

Playing his third position in three years, Calhoun knew he needed to learn fast and did by observing techniques veteran corners used—from Lakeland’s other senior corner Keith Woodson in practice to NFL players on YouTube.

“A lot of people watch football games for excitement, but I learn from games,” says Calhoun, who had six interceptions in ten games in his final college season. “It’s almost like a film session. You can catch me out there in the computer lab watching Darelle Revis, watching Nnamdi Asomughu, some of the best cornerbacks in the game, just trying to pick up on every little thing.”

Woodson, a second team all-conference selection last season who’s played in the Arena 2 football league, said, compared to most cornerbacks, Calhoun’s “a beast.”

“He’s a very strong person,” Woodson said. “It’s not like he’s out there getting bullied. He’s the bully, and you can’t say that about too many corners in a league or conference. He can react real quick on things, too. If he makes a mistake, he can always pick up speed and recover.”

Calhoun will look to showcase some of that speed and strength at this weekend’s combine, from which players could theoretically be noticed and drafted or given an individual workout by NFL teams.

But Calhoun admits he wouldn’t even be in a position to get noticed if not for a knock on his door from someone he didn’t even know.

A few months ago, David Simon Jr., Lakeland’s assistant director of security, was intrigued when he heard someone on campus wanted to play in the NFL. Simon played offensive line for Lakeland from ‘94 to ’98, before making it to the third round of cuts in a tryout with the Detroit Lions and eventually injuring himself in a later tryout with the Chicago Bears.

“I heard that he wanted to go to the NFL, but he didn’t know how, didn’t know what to do to put himself in a position to try out,” Simon said. “I overheard these conversations, and, once I found out who he was, I went to [Calhoun’s place in] the Suites and approached him, and I talked to him for a minute, and he was open about it. I started speaking to him to see where his head was at. Was it something that he was just talking about, or was it a dream that he wanted to fulfill? The conversation clicked from there. We have a little bit in common because he’s from Pontiac, which is in the Detroit area, where I’m from.”

Since then, Simon, who works nights, has used three to four of his lunch breaks each week to work with Calhoun, putting him through many of the same conditioning drills he did as a player and as a police officer in the Detroit Sheriff’s Department.

“He helps me out with everything—getting me in touch with the right people, calling places seeing if I can get a pro day. He’s doing everything in his power to help me get to the next level,” Calhoun says.

Simon said he was excited for a chance to help a person as passionate as Calhoun get to the NFL, and, with all he’s overcome chasing his dream at Lakeland, it’s hard to deny Calhoun’s passion.

There were the people like the teacher who doubted that Calhoun, a player at a division three college, was really talented enough for the NFL, or, even if he was, would ever be discovered in the middle of a cornfield. There were the bad grades in his freshman year that he needed to quickly improve to stay eligible. And, perhaps most trying for Calhoun, there was the position switch from wide receiver to defensive back in his junior year that felt like a landslide success, that looked like one because of the five interceptions he had, that seemed like he had finally found his niche—until he found out he’d done it all on a torn ACL and would have to sit out the next season.

Calhoun felt lost in his year without football.

“It hurt because that’s my identity,” he said. “I’m a football player. That’s what everyone actually knows me as. I don’t go out and party. People don’t really see me out. I stay in my room, and I play football. That’s what I do. Having all that free time and not being able to play football—it was almost like, ‘What am I supposed to do now? Who am I for this year?’”

But really, Calhoun’s always known who he is.

Friday, he’ll take a train to Detroit. It’s a long ride. With all he’s been through to get there, he’ll have more than a few concerns on his mind.

Maybe, his teacher’s laugh will be the least of them.

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