Isaiah Woullard: Weathering the storm

Posted on Feb 10 2017 - 8:01am by Brian Scott Rippee

The game he plays is fast and violent, leaving no room for fear or trepidation. Ole Miss signee Isaiah Woullard–Mississippi high school football’s all-time leading rusher–is fast and fierce. A running back, like his father Reggie, who played for the Rebels in the 1970s. 

His high school coach, Joey Hawkins, calls him a “one cut” back, plowing over any defender trying to contain him.

But in the early hours of Saturday, Jan. 21, Woullard found himself held captive, trapped in a bathroom in his home in Hattiesburg. Moments earlier around 3:30 in the morning, his mother had been woken up by storm sirens going off.

Joyce Woullard flipped on the television as the power flickered on and off. There was a storm coming. The wind outside their home was howling loudly. The TV flipped back on long enough to display a map on the screen. She saw her sons’ school–Presbyterian Christian School–on the screen. She heard the meteorologist mention a tornado and then the name of a nearby street. It was coming, and fast.

“I’ve often heard when other people tell their experiences, that when they see a tornado or are in or tornado, they say it sounds like a freight train,” she said. “Well, I’m glad I heard that, because it sounded like a freight train. I could hear it coming, so I hit my husband and said ‘Get up! It’s coming.’”

Joyce and Reggie woke up Isaiah and his 14-year-old brother Cameron and got them into a bathroom. Fifteen seconds later, sounds of popping and crashing boomed around them. Chunks of the roof were being ripped off their home. Debris was flying and walls were caving in.

Reggie got up to go to the next room to grab a mattress to put over their heads. The force of the wind was so great it picked him up off of the ground and threw him against a wall.

“He literally felt the wind pick him up in the air, so he laid down and put the mattress over him,” Joyce said. “Meanwhile, we are in the bathroom and Isaiah is screaming ‘Dad, Dad!’ and it had gotten quiet.”

A couple of minutes went by. There was no response.

“I’m okay. Y’all stay there. Please stay there,” they finally heard him say.

“I honestly thought that we were about to die. I really did,” Isaiah said,  “God, he watched over us. We are extremely blessed.”

Twenty harrowing minutes pass as the storm destroyed everything in its path, including the Woullards’ home. Cameron was gripping his mother so tightly it sprung pain. He began to tell everyone he loved them.

“After the big winds came in, we got out of the house because the roof and walls were caving in and we didn’t want to get hit,” Isaiah recalled. “So we walked in the dining room. It caved in on us. Then we went out of the house.”

The four left the bathroom to a heavy, chilling rain pounding down on them in pitch black darkness. A wall in their dining room had caved in. They had to get out.

The family made a break for a neighbor’s house up the street where the damage wasn’t as bad. Most of their neighborhood sought refuge there. Isaiah recognized an elderly man who was his next-door neighbor. He had a gash on his calf, and Woullard could see the panic in his eyes.

“He told us that they’re trying to find his wife,” Isaiah said. “We were just praying and hoping.”

The man’s wife had gotten trapped under a pile of debris and died in the storm.

The Woullards waited at the house until daybreak and the rain subsided. They made their way down their street that now looked like a war zone, all the way to see the remains of their Nellwood Street residence that Reggie and Joyce built–one they’d called home for 16 years.

“Everything was torn in half. TVs were broken. Cabinets, drawers were thrown outside,” Isaiah said. “Chairs were all over the house. Everything was broken. It was all gone.”

He’d run through defenders and opposing backfields hundreds of times, absorbing harsh blows en route to the end zone. But on this eerie morning, Isaiah and his family were trudging through the pieces of their material life, trying to salvage anything they could. They passed through their dining room, where months earlier they’d hosted family Christmas, their favorite holiday. Now, the walls were caved in and a neighbor’s electricity box sat in the middle of the rubble.

“Everything that you’ve worked so hard for and everything that you’ve accumulated through the years is just gone,” Joyce said. “I wanted to try to salvage some pictures and things that can’t be replaced, pictures of our family.”

To add another dimension to all of this, it was crunch time in recruiting season. Isaiah’s dream was to attend Ole Miss, but an offer hadn’t come yet, and it was largely due to the stigma that comes with skill players in a private school league.

“It drove me all the time,” Isaiah said. “There wasn’t a day that it didn’t cross my mind. I thought about it all the time. When I worked out I thought about it; in the games I thought about it. It was always on my mind.”

He’d gone to bed every night for the last year wondering if the offer would come and why he was passed over. Getting overlooked was something he’d dealt with all of his life. But now all of that seemed miniscule.

Just hours after he’d laid his head down to sleep that night, he got in the back seat of a car as his family members took off with all their belongings in two trash bags, not knowing where they were headed. Uncertainty was wracking Isaiah’s 18-year-old brain on multiple levels.

“What do we do? We are homeless. We don’t have anywhere to stay. We have nothing. It’s just like, what do you do? It was very overwhelming,” Joyce said. “We had no structure, no normalcy, being uplifted like that. Trying to wash what you did salvage to have some clothes to put on.”

Joyce said in the days after, she’d be out running errands and find herself driving toward Nellwood Street before remembering that it was all gone. They had no home, and really no direction.

A family friend took them in for the next six nights. Isaiah was scheduled for an official visit at Ole Miss the next weekend. Maybe then the offer would come. But how would they even make it? His humble nature surfaced. He fully understood the gravity of the situation.

“Mama, I don’t guess we will be going to Ole Miss, are we? We don’t have to. I understand.”

“No. We are going, I don’t care what we have to do. We are going.”

Friday, Jan. 27, the Woullards hopped in the car again with everything they owned, and traveled north to Oxford. Escaping the harsh reality they faced, it was a change of scenery–one more pleasant than passing by the remains of their now shattered home.

“This is good. We need this,” Joyce said she thought. “It was an escape, a change of pace not going to see your destroyed home every day. It was a nice escape. We felt that we needed to go. Isaiah was so excited about going.”

They took their tour of Oxford and Ole Miss, Reggie entering the same stadium in which he used to play. The Woullards returned home on Sunday and checked into a hotel, their third move in a week. There was still no offer. National Signing Day was three days away.

“It was disappointing. Just knowing how much he wanted it,” Joyce said. “We were strong. We kept our faith. We knew God had a plan and we were going to hold out. We said, ‘Isaiah, keep your head up,’ and he is such a strong kid mentally. It takes a lot to get him down. He doesn’t let what people say get to him. He just keeps working.”

That’s what Isaiah is known for. When all else fails, he goes to work. He immerses himself in his craft. He’s 5 feet 9 inches tall, 195 pounds and can’t control that, but he can harness his work ethic.

“He rushed 1,191 times for us. That’s almost 300 times a year. He rushed for 8,334 yards, the most in Mississippi history, and he never missed a practice. The guy never missed a practice or a game,” Hawkins said. “He’s durable. He’s tough. His work ethic is just off the charts. You wouldn’t believe what we are doing in the offseason right now, and he’s right there with us.”

Tuesday, Jan. 31–it’s just hours away from National Signing Day, and still no offer from Isaiah’s beloved Rebels.

Joyce noticed a change in his demeanor. She could tell he was getting discouraged. Perhaps they should go get something to eat. They decided on Crescent City Grill. The mood at the table was quiet. Everyone was distracted by the same thing. Was a phone call coming?

Isaiah’s phone rang halfway into the meal. It was Ole Miss head football coach Hugh Freeze, and he bore a scholarship offer. The son of a preacher was going to be a Rebel like his father.

“It was almost like a dream,” Isaiah said. “Wow, this is going to happen. I told him that he wouldn’t be disappointed.”

Isaiah Woullard

Isaiah Woullard, Mississippi’s all-time leading rusher, smiles after signing with Ole Miss on National Signing Day. Woullard received an offer from the university Tuesday, Jan. 31, the night before National Signing Day and just days after his home was destroyed by a lethal tornado. (Courtesy: Zac Chamblee)

His family was overcome with emotion. For the first time in the two weeks since their lives were turned upside down, the Woullards celebrated. The offer represented an opportunity, but more so an invaluable boost of morale to a family that certainly needed it.

“I was just so happy for him,” Joyce said. “I didn’t want to see him continue to go through that, and to get the call and not be disappointed after everything that had happened, I was relieved. I was so happy to see a smile on his face.”

This time, he hadn’t been glanced over. Someone gave him a chance, which was all he needed. Isaiah went to bed that night with a sense of peace. His wildest dream had come true. He was going to play in the SEC, in his home state, at his father’s school and represent his community, one that is currently healing.

“Isaiah is so loved in this community. Everyone loves him,” Hawkins said.

The family is currently in an apartment and more settled than they’ve been in weeks. Joyce and Reggie are thankful for some semblance of normalcy.

“At least we know where we are going every day now, for a while anyway,” Joyce said. “At least we can put some clothes in our closet or something and actually have things we can reach for. We have a dresser we can put clothes and stuff in as we need it.”

Isaiah Woullard is no longer overlooked. He’s an SEC running back. He kept his faith and maintained his strength, weathering all of the storms thrust in his path.

“It helped out a whole, whole bunch,” Isaiah said. “That’s really what life is, a whole bunch of ups and downs. I’m just glad it turned out the way it did.”