BRADENTON, Fla. — Isaac Nauta would not change one day of his 18-year-old life.
The nation’s No. 1-rated tight end is one of UGA’s top remaining recruiting targets. The 5-star prospect is getting a private school education in South Florida’s IMG Academy at a price tag of at least $76,000 per year.
Nauta was a part of three state championship teams at Buford and his new team was rated No. 2 in the nation by USA Today. The 6-foot-4 standout tweeted this summer that he would sure like to visit TCU. In less than a day, he had a scholarship offer.
His life must even feel like that Florida sunshine, but he’s also survived months in which his family lived off the generosity of a food bank.
His father Jay was once a successful financial planner who provided his family a beautiful home, new cars and even two private planes. It was a blessed life right up until Isaac was eight years old.
That’s when that bank balance took a devastating hit. The family found a way to be thankful for what they could still afford.
“Riding my bike to McDonalds to get a one dollar McDouble was like a Ruth’s Chris steak,” Isaac Nauta said. “It was to that point. We lost all of our cars. I was riding to football practice on my Dad’s motorcycle. I had my pads and my helmet and I’m sitting on the back of his motorcycle.”
Riches to rags
When his family moved to Florida for a new venture, they were building a multi-million dollar home. It all went away with the market plunge. The two private planes. The two Harley Davidsons. All gone.
“It became a time when it was exciting to be able to grab a few things from the dollar store,” said Lisa Nauta, his mother. “It was a total faith thing. Are we going to be homeless tomorrow? Are we going to have anything to eat?”
That dollar store delicacy was sherbert. The Nauta family sustained itself with a Jacksonville food bank for approximately nine months. That all happened when Isaac was 10 to 11 years old.
Isaac sounds like he’s 30 when he reflects on those days.
“I don’t think about it as in oh sorry me,” Isaac Nauta said. “I saw my dad and my mom struggling with it. They’d never want to see me ride on the back of my Dad’s motorcycle to football practice, but that’s what they had to do. That’s what I think about more than anything. With what they sacrificed for me, the least I can do is suck it up for a three-hour practice and do what I’m supposed to do to become a better player and just make it.”
It was “super embarrassing” for him, but it was not a time to be selfish.
“I don’t want to make it sound like I’ve gone through the ringer here,” he said. “Those weren’t great times for me and my family, but there’s always somebody who has had it worse. There are guys on this team right here who’ve gone through worse. But it is a shocker definitely when you have lived a lavish lifestyle and you are two weeks away from living on the street.”
Isaac even encouraged his parents during those times.
“We remember him even saying back then that everything happens for a reason,” his father Jay Nauta said.
How does a 10-year-old maintain a perspective like that? His family feels it was because his mother, Lisa, believed in the power of purposeful prayer.
Isaac and his older sister Elle are extremely well-rounded for their age. That’s because of the best investment his mother ever made. She put all of her time into raising them. She asked Jay to be an “awesome provider,” which allowed her to stay at home to raise their children.
Lisa was a 5-star parent. She read everything she could. The family kept prayer journals. She threw the ball around and hoped to sow scripture and faith into their lives. She did every bit of that and then some.
“I believe you have until your children are five years old to shape their character,” Lisa Nauta said. “That’s all the time you have to invest in them to determine what kind of people they will be.”
Elle Nauta explained what they learned: “Work hard and put God first even when people are not watching. We do everything unto the Lord to the best of our ability. That’s when success will come.”
Isaac developed physically to the point where he looked like he was four-and-a-half when he was still two years old. Elle has always called him “Dudey” and then “Dude.”
“That’s because he was always a little dude even when he was little,” she said. “He was always more mature than the other kids.”
Lisa remembers when Isaac was in preschool. She went to pick him up and her four-year-old son was off in the corner away from the pack of silliness.
“He told me he didn’t want to go back,” Lisa Nauta said. “He said he didn’t want to hang around those babies anymore.”
The best perspective into what drives Isaac is to review the prayer journals he put together in 2000 along a chapter-by-chapter report on a book called “Do Hard Things.”
Those chronicle prayers to “shrink his stomach” and “not be lazy.” They convey a core desire to never disappoint his parents. Lisa can honestly say her son has been disciplined less than five times in his life.
His thoughts on those days cannot be easy to recall, but he shares them with little struggle. He has moved eight times in the last nine years but spoke openly about those days because they represent an answered prayer.
Isaac prayed back then for God to use his life as an example for others. He knows another kid might also be going through a time when the dollar menu also means a great deal.
“It is nothing to be ashamed of to go through hard times,” he said. “Those shaped me into who I am today. It has also made our family so much stronger because we went through all of that together.”
Elle’s college friends wish they could meet a guy like him.
“They want to date my younger brother,” Elle Nauta said. “That’s because he’s more mature than the guys they meet their age. He’s my younger brother, but I’m not ashamed to say I want to marry a man with the same character and values as Isaac.”
His favorite book was written Ernest Hemingway, but he’s not perfect. Isaac engages in smack talk like any other player, but just the sort that Tim Tebow would approve of.
“I know that this must be frustrating for you but this will be all over soon,” Lisa Nauta said. “That’s what Isaac told me was his smack talk he used when somebody at The Opening asked him to share what smack talk he says on the field.”
And Isaac knows he cusses too much in the culture of a football team’s locker room. But when he prays, he asks for forgiveness about that.
“The one thing I would never do is take the Lord’s name in vain,” he said. “I’ve been raised to respect that and never do that.”
All about family
The Nautas love the state of Georgia and feel it is a beautiful place to live. Lisa likes the friendliness of the South compared to their stoic Michigan roots and doesn’t mind the warm weather either.
“Georgia feels like family and it feels to me like it is very conservative so it feels very familiar,” Lisa Nauta said.
Isaac will likely sign with UGA, Michigan, TCU or Southern Cal. Family ties can be applied to three of those programs. His immediate family lives less than an hour away from UGA in Dacula. His sister is a junior communications major at Kennesaw State.
His parents are from Michigan, and there are plenty of Wolverines in the family back home. His uncle Joel Smegnee — who spent 11-plus years in the NFL — is one of the core mentors of his life. He lives near the TCU campus.
“I feel like I could be at home at TCU and go over to my uncle Joel’s house and put my feet up and kick back and have dinner,” Isaac Nauta said. “I would feel at home at TCU because of my uncle Joel and his family.”
His transfer to IMG Academy can be viewed as a pre-test for his college experience. Isaac was heartbroken this spring when he was separated from his immediate family on Easter, Father’s Day, Mother’s’ Day and his 18th birthday.
Elle has seen a completely different “homesick” and “vulnerable” side of her brother since he’s been away.
Isaac sent a text to his mother that reveals his sensitive side. He said it killed him on his first Mother’s Day away from home. He wrote to her that he will always have her back and that he doesn’t tell her that often enough. He told her to be patient and he would give her every one of her wildest dreams. He even asked her to stay strong.
His motivations in football come down to two things: 1) He loves the competition and physical play and 2) He wants to play pro football in four years so he can build his parents a new dream home. That would remove every financial struggle they still experience.
His roommate Jack Wegher has the distinction of being the only three-year player in IMG Academy football history. He’s seen three waves of elite players arrive on campus.
“Isaac is the most humble kid I’ve ever met at IMG,” Wegher said. “Great guy. Down to earth. You’d never know he was one of the best high school players in the nation.”
The Nautas on UGA
How does his closely-knit family feel about UGA? They are on the record that they do not plan to move regardless of where Isaac goes to school.
“I’ve known about Mark Richt’s reputation and his integrity as a man from what others have told me,” Lisa Nauta said. “But I hadn’t followed the Bulldogs enough to really understand that. I can tell you when Jay and I met Coach Richt that day and (tight ends coach ) coach (John) Lilly we walked away feeling very positive about those two men and how they related to us and what is important to them. We also learned how Coach Richt felt about Isaac and what he saw in his character. As a man, I felt like Coach Richt really got it when it came to my son.”
The Nautas are attracted to Richt’s philosophy about building men but want to see more big victories. They’ve heard the perpetual rumor about Richt being on the hot seat for knocking on the door every season but never breaking it down with major championships.
“It seems like the emphasis is all about building men and not necessarily enough about winning championships,” Jay Nauta said. “And for a kid that really wants to win championships, he really needs to hear a lot more about that, too. Isaac’s perspective to me about Georgia was ‘Dad, I would’ve liked to hear Coach Richt talk more about building men and also winning championships.’ That was the view he shared with me.”
The UGA depth chart stacks up well for him to play right away, but there’s something even more vital to the school’s chances. Isaac is extremely interested in working with new UGA offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and his two tight end scheme.
“To sum it up, that was a game-changer,” Jay Nauta said. “He spent a lot of time with Schotty. Now Isaac is going to take a long look at Georgia to see what Schotty does with his tight ends. Schotty has that NFL experience. .. But then Isaac and (UGA tight end) Jeb Blazevich are probably closer than he is to any other player at Georgia or who is even going to go there. Even Jacob Eason.”
Jay Nauta said Auburn, Oklahoma State and TCU have said they will create positions for his son to earn immediate playing time. But football does not come first in their family.
His parents and his older sister will let it be his choice. They realize he’s known the game like an expert since he was playing video game football on PlayStation at the age of two. They won’t offer their opinions unless they are asked to.
“It doesn’t matter to me if he goes to the community college,” Lisa Nauta said. “I know the calling in his life. I have the prayer journals. I have the prayers prayed. I know how God spoke to me. I have it written down. I know that whatever God’s plan and purpose is for his life he will follow it through. Isaac has already proved that to me several times.”
Would not trade a day
Isaac will also not take away his freshman year of high school. That’s when three people he knew died. It affected him deeply. He was talking to a good friend, Adam Smith, in the hallway about whether or not LeBron James was better than Kobe Bryant.
Smith collapsed later that day while doing preseason conditioning for the basketball team. That was the same year one of his coaches at Buford died. Another friend’s brother also passed away playing basketball. That’s why winning the state championship his freshman year at Buford still ranks as the happiest moment of his life.
That team overcame several trials. He even had his first few breakout games in the playoffs going both ways at defensive end and tight end.
He had perhaps the worst game of his life last Saturday. The 242-pound prospect dropped two passes and the last one would’ve been huge. Those were the first drops he could recall in a game. His hip flexor was bothering him and IMG also lost.
He may or may not have suffered a minor concussion. He still found time to offer up a genuine smile and pose for pictures with a few kids after that game.
“The biggest thing for me with everything that has happened is there is a reason for everything,” Isaac Nauta said. “When things get hard, what makes you as a person is how you respond to them. If you have an outlook that everything happens for a reason, you can endure anything. When things are going really good, it is easy to relax. When things go bad, that’s when you find out who you are and what your family is about. That’s kind of what has made me the player that I am. I know when things get tough, I can endure whatever happens to me on the field.”
Jeff Sentell covers UGA recruiting for AJC.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play Between the Hedges.