Next Generation: The cross-town journey that changed Isaiah Wilson’s life
BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Isaiah Wilson’s weekdays begin and end in the dark.
He rises before dawn at his home on 99th Street in the Southeast Brooklyn neighborhood of Canarsie (pronounced kuh-NAR-see), then he makes the long commute west to Dyker Heights and Poly Prep Country Day School. The distance between is only about 15 miles, but it might as well be a thousand.
Between the New York City traffic and the dozens of stops that bus No. 931 has to make along the way, the trip usually takes a solid 60 to 75 minutes. Wilson is at school all day, then catches the same yellow school bus for the return trip back home at 6 o’clock each weekday evening. All that sits between him and bed each night is a warm meal, a shower and some homework.
“That’s been his life for four years,” Poly Prep head football coach Kevin Fountaine said.
You’ll have to forgive Wilson if he’s not quaking in his size-18 cleats over the challenges that await him at the University of Georgia and in the SEC. After what he’s been through these last four years, this 17-year-old New Yorker sees this next chapter as the easy part.
“I think college is going to be a breeze, with all the tutors and support and what-not that you have,” Wilson said this past week. “Coming from here I think it’s actually going to be a lot easier for me than a lot of people who are making the transition.”
Considering the expectations that are coming South with Wilson to Georgia, that’s saying something. A consensus 5-star-rated offensive tackle, he is the crown jewel in a recruiting class that commands a top-three national ranking two days before Wednesday’s national signing day. Wilson fielded more than 80 scholarship offers, then chose the Bulldogs last month over Alabama and Michigan.
Wilson assures one and all that his commitment is unwavering. He will sign with UGA amid little pomp and circumstance on Wednesday morning in a brief ceremony. He says his choice of the Bulldogs is rock solid, partly because of the opportunity to play early and partly for the academic opportunities that await him there.
“Georgia fans can relax,” he said. “I’m coming.”
At 6-foot-7, 350 pounds, Wilson is obviously thought to have the size and strength to compete in the SEC. That’s a big deal for Georgia, which is desperately seeking an instant infusion of talent on the offensive line and at the tackle position in particular. But just as important to Wilson and his family is their belief that he’ll be able to compete with the students of UGA. He plans to major in business and marketing and graduate from the Terry College of Business.
Thanks to that killer commute to Poly Prep every day for the last four years, Wilson believes that goal is readily achievable. The hassle and expense has been worth the trouble.
“I know the difference this place has made,” Wilson said as he sat in the coaches’ meeting room on the bottom floor of Poly Prep awaiting his school bus last Thursday afternoon. “It’s definitely made me a better person. I’m not going to sit here and say it’s 100 percent perfect here because it’s not and I’m not either. But there’s definitely people here who made me grow as a man and made me understand hard work and that everything doesn’t warrant a reaction. It’s just made me better as a person.”
A unique life in Brooklyn
Brooklyn is one of the five boroughs of greater New York City, and the most populous one with more than 2.6 million residents. Canarsie sits on the southeastern end of Long Island, just a few blocks away from the docks of Jamaica Bay.
On the daily commute down Kings Highway between Canarsie and Dyker Heights, where Wilson’s prestigious private school resides, are the neighborhoods of Bergen Beach, Flatlands, Flatbush, Midwood and Bensonhurst, among others. The real estate prices increase with each passing block.
It wasn’t that long ago that Wilson would have been districted to attend Canarsie High. But that school was closed in 2011 due to low graduation rates and the daily security and police presence it required. “It was in such disarray that closing it was the only way to fix it,” the New York Times reported. Canarsie’s final class graduated just 40 percent of its seniors.
So had Wilson remained in public school, he likely would have attended East Brooklyn Community High or South Shore Educational Campus instead. But that was never the plan. Fortunately for him, he was identified way back in his Little League days as a potential football prospect and academic high-achiever.
That provided a path to Poly.
“When he was playing Little League, a lot of coaches were coming around and looking at the kids,” said Wilson’s mother, Sharese Wilson. “Two of the coaches were from Poly Prep. One of them was (former running backs coach) Lance Bennett; that was who recruited him to go to Poly. Once he realized Isaiah was a good student – he had always been in the gifted program since he was in elementary school — he thought it’d be a good fit for him.”
But the scholarship offer to Poly was not a golden parachute. Tuition at the prestigious 163-year-old institution ranges between $40,000 and $45,000 annually. Scholarships don’t cover that.
Sharese is a registered nurse by trade but works as an executive for a managed, long-term care program. Merrell, the father, is in construction as an independent contractor. Along with 10-year-old Quentin, they live today as a family of four on 99th Street. But they’re a blended family of eight. Isaiah also has four older brothers who no longer live at home.
“Nobody goes to Poly for free,” explains Fountaine, defensive coordinator when Wilson arrived but now his head coach. “It’s all need-based financially. So Mom pays tuition, but she doesn’t pay the whole bill. A kid like that could be going to local public high school for free, but Mom and Dad sacrifice to pay tuition to be able to get a great education for Isaiah.”
So eating out has been extremely limited in recent years, and vacations have been few and far between, limited mostly to drives to surrounding states. Isaiah has yet to own his own car.
“It’s insignificant when you think of the big picture and how much he gets out of it, but it’s significant for us,” Sharese said of the expense. “But it was a sacrifice we were willing to make. We made some adjustments in the household, did things a little different.”
Wilson also had to pass Poly Prep’s rigorous entrance examination required for admission, which he did without issue.
“I will tell you, all my children have had their little niches they fall into, but Isaiah, it’s always been that,” his mother said. “He was just born with that academic talent. He never really tried hard at it. That is a natural gift and I tell him all the time he needs to be grateful to God for that.”
The daily cross-town grind
Sharese doesn’t want to paint an unrealistic portrait of her son. In many ways, he’s like any other teen-ager growing up anywhere in America. All parents can identify with the daily battle they go through just to get Isaiah out of bed and out the door in the mornings.
Wilson’s bus picks him up two blocks away at 7:03 a.m. For a lot of folks, that would require a 6 a.m. wake-up call, but Wilson pushes that to the absolute brink.
It results in the dreaded “time-check” game mother grudgingly plays with her son every day.
“There’s some anxiety because he wants to get up as late as possible,” Sharese says, sitting at her kitchen table as her son listens in from a sofa nearby. “I’m knocking on his door telling him to get up and he’s like, ‘time check, Mom.’ That’s the routine every morning. ‘Time check!’ I’m like, ‘it’s 6:49, it’s 6:53. Get up!’ That’s the one thing I will not miss when he goes to Georgia.”
Most of the time Wilson makes it. A few times it has resulted in Uber rides or the rare commute in Mom’s car.
The fact is, Wilson won’t turn 18 years old until Feb. 12, and in many ways he’s still a kid at heart. He’s a huge SpongeBob fan, which is apparent both by the SpongeBob backpack he wears to school every day and the homemade art work he and his buddies draw on the whiteboard in the team meeting room.
Wilson’s affinity for SpongeBob is well known. New Yorker Magazine included it as No. 37 in its annual feature, “Reasons to Love New York.”
“Because the No. 2 College-Football Recruit in the Country Is From Canarsie and Wears a SpongeBob Backpack,” it read.
But academics at Poly are no joke. Wilson receives the type of education of which most high school parents can only dream. A liberal arts-based curriculum, the emphasis there is on the word “prep,” as in preparing its students for success in college and the professional world. Students are required to enroll in a minimum of five academic courses every term, both fall and spring, until graduation. Hence, Wilson has his normal full class-load this semester.
In their senior years, Poly Prep students are required to complete a project known as their “senior plan.” Students are paired with faculty advisers to choose a subject matter of interest, then research that topic and give a 20-minute lecture followed by 20 minutes of questions-and-answers from a panel of faculty judges. Only upon completion of this exercise is a student eligible to graduate.
Wilson’s senior plan is on whether collegiate student-athletes should receive compensation.
“Coming from this specific institution, dealing with the people I’ve dealt with, I think college going to be very easy,” said Wilson, who went on a field trip to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday. “Not that I think it’s going to be a cake-walk; college is still college. But my transition is going to be a lot smoother than the average person.”
A different brand of football
While Wilson should be well-prepared for the academic rigor of UGA, the transition to SEC football is less certain. Wilson undoubtedly has the size and strength to compete on that level, but how quick he can hold his own against elite, NFL-bound defenders remains to be seen.
Poly Prep has bounced between competing as an independent and in the Ivy Preparatory League over the years. The Blue Devils generally play about eight games a year and, technically, they don’t compete for championships.
“We play for undefeated seasons,” said Wilson, who never got to log one. “So you can imagine what the first loss does to a team like ours. But that’s what we play for, an undefeated season so your team’s picture can get put on a wall.”
Down a long, narrow hallway in the middle of Poly Prep’s main academic building is what the school calls its “Wall of Champions.” There on one wall hang the photos of every team in every sport that has recorded an undefeated season. Football’s last representation is the team from 2001. There have been a lot of one-loss seasons since.
The Blue Devils were 5-3 this past season, their first under Fountaine as the head coach.
But it’s a tough niche in which Poly Prep football finds itself. Its academic and financial requirements prevent it from operating as a wholesale, scholarship-based program. But the regular presence of high-level elite athletes keep other private from schools from wanting to play the Blue Devils.
Regardless, nobody around here is trying to compare it to Georgia high school football.
“The football here is nothing like you guys have down South,” Fountaine said. “It’s not as good. With us, we kind of fall in a unique category because we’re a prep school and we don’t even have any kind of championship to play for. That’s a little frustrating. But, you know what, it works. Fortunately we’ve got a program where we have a couple kids a year who’ve got the ability to play. It kind of makes it fun to mix them in with the kids who have paid the heavy tuition.”
Because of that unique dynamic, teammate Justin Morgan probably provided Wilson his best on-field competition in practices over the previous three years. Morgan (6-6, 335 pounds) is now a freshman offensive lineman who redshirted this past season at Pitt.
Among Poly’s other notable football alumni are Eric Olsen, who played at guard and center at Notre Dame and for five years in the NFL, and Rich Kotite, who played for the Giants and Steelers and was head coach of the New York Jets. Current New York Knicks and Florida basketball player Joakim Noah also prepped here.
Meanwhile, Wilson actually is not the first Poly player Georgia will have signed. Faton Bauta also played ball for the Blue Devils.
That’s one that still sticks in the craw of Fountaine. He wanted Bauta to continue to play fullback and linebacker for Poly Prep. But Bauta’s family, which included five older brothers who came through the school and played athletics, insisted on their son playing quarterback. After alternating with another player at the position for a year at Poly, they moved Bauta to West Palm Beach where he became the full-time quarterback at Dwyer and signed with the Bulldogs.
He started one game in four years at Georgia, then transferred to Colorado State, where he also failed to win the job.
“To this day, I think the kid would be in the NFL if he would’ve played linebacker,” Fountaine says with a sigh.
But Fountaine has no doubts about Wilson’s abilities at the next level.
“The thing about him is he’s very, very smart,” Fountaine said. “He loves offensive line play, he loves going to the board and he picks it right up. As far as intelligence goes, he’ll go there this summer and really have the opportunity to play as a true freshman because he’ll be able to pick it up. He’s not going to have missed assignments and things like that. He’ll pick up the mental part of the game quickly where it might take another freshman longer. Physically, I’m not worried about that.”
A national recruit
Despite being in the relatively obscure bubble of New York City football, it was not hard for Wilson to gain notice. He began attracting recruiting interest as a rising sophomore after just one season at Poly Prep. That tends to happen when one is already 6-5 and eclipsing the 300-pound mark.
Wilson arrived at Poly as a ninth grader at about 6-4 and 275 or so pounds. But he lacked toughness, according to Fountaine, because he’d always been so much bigger than everybody else he faced.
The coaching staff decided that Wilson should go out for the wrestling team, and that proved a smashing success. Wilson lost only three matches the entire season, his first one, “because I didn’t know what I was doing,” and two to a senior and eventual state champion, that last loss coming in the finals of the state tournament.
“That was it though,” Fountaine said with a laugh. “He could not wrestle after that because he got so big. The heaviest you could be in our league was 275 pounds, and after his freshman year he couldn’t come close to making the weight. The wrestlers nicknamed him ‘Tiny.’ That was his short-lived wrestling career, but it worked.”
There was also some hopes of making a basketball player out of Wilson, but he wasn’t down with that.
“It’s always been football for me,” he said of his personal preference. “I can’t hit people in basketball. That’s the reason why.”
Already over 300 pounds as a rising sophomre, Wilson began making the recruiting camp circuit. His size was elite but he also brought a competitive mentality to match. Wilson’s star continually rose in the recruiting ranks. He added a fifth star before his senior season, causing teachers and classmates alike to refer to him as “Five Star.”
Likewise, the scholarship offers and camp invitations came pouring in. One of them was from Georgia. It was on that trip to attend the Bulldogs’ offensive line camp last summer that Wilson’s destiny was cast.
That’s where Wilson bonded with Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman.
“They instantly hit it off,” Fountaine said. “Coach Pittman got an opportunity to coach him in the camp, then he had him back to his office afterwards and we liked the way he showed him film he had on him from high school and footage he had from one of these other camps things he’d been at. He coached him hard in a loving way, and I think they instantly kind of meshed. Isaiah likes that. It wasn’t like Coach Pittman was just blowing smoke at him because he was an impressive recruit.”
Jim Harbaugh made a hard run at Wilson, too, and impressed both the prospect and all his schoolmates as well. Harbaugh spent four hours at the school, shooting hoops in the gym and working Wilson hard.
Oddly enough, Nick Saban never made it up to Brooklyn to visit Wilson in person. That’s a factoid that apparently doesn’t sit well with young tackle.
“No comment,” Wilson says when asked about it. “I don’t want to talk about that man or his establishment.”
In the end, it was basically moot. Wilson had his mind mostly made up after that summer camp at UGA. He knew he liked the opportunities it had in football. He just had to make sure the school could offer him the future he was envisioning.
“It was his decision to go where he wanted to be. We just had to make it all fit into what he wanted to do with life,” his father Merrell said. “So Georgia being his pick, me and my wife made sure that it had everything he wanted to do. With that being said, we just let him make his decision and we sat back and watched.”
Dad vows to travel to every game, home and away, while Mom will be at all the home games and select ones on the road. She’s particularly excited about Notre Dame in Week 2 in South Bend, Ind.
Meanwhile, the Wilsons have several family members who live in Alpharetta, Marietta, Douglasville and Dacula. So Isaiah will have folks to check up on him regularly in Athens.
As for Isaiah Wilson himself, living away from home is the least of his concerns. He has spent the majority of the last four years out of the house anyway.
“I don’t have any super-strong thoughts,” he said of moving down South. “I know college is going to be a ton of fun. There’s going to be a ton of people on campus, 36,000 or so. That might as well be a small little bustling city in itself. I don’t think it’s going to be a crazy transition like Tuscaloosa, where if football isn’t happening there’s just nothing to do. I’m from the city. … I’m used to having access to things. In Athens you have access to everything.”
A five-star education, foremost among those.
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