Parallels to a Trailblazer: Isaiah Nwokobia and the long journey to the No. 23

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SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee stood in front of the team meeting room to make an announcement that everyone was waiting for. Fall camp was winding down. It was time to reveal who the team had voted to wear the No. 23 jersey.

The tradition started in 2009 to honor Jerry LeVias, the first Black football player at SMU in 1966, and has stayed intact through the four head coaches who'd been there since. LeVias's No. 23 is bestowed to the player who most exemplifies the pioneer's leadership and the courage he displayed to overcome the adversity forced on him as the first Black man to earn a football scholarship in the Southwest Conference.  

Isaiah Nwokobia sat in the meeting room, hanging on every word Lashlee said. The redshirt sophomore safety had been told by plenty of coaches he was in the running for the jersey after a tremendous fall camp, but he knew there were several other team leaders it could easily go to. But once Lashlee described the player to build suspense, Nwokobia knew he was talking about him.

Lashlee spoke of a guy who, at one time, was a high-profile recruit with enormous expectations coming out of high school. A man who looked like a future star as a freshman before injuries forced him to redshirt. The player who could've entered his name into the transfer portal after the coaches who recruited him left, and the coaches that replaced them courted transfers to compete for his job. He was a fighter who chose to stay and became the most improved player in fall camp.

Then Nwokobia's picture flashed on the projector, and the safety walked up to his coach to accept the No. 23 jersey in front of his team. 

"You just think about what Jerry LeVias stood for and all that he endured and all the opportunities he had to quit and throw in the towel, but he didn’t," Lashlee told reporters after announcing the decision. "I think there’s a lot of parallels with Isaiah. I think he’s deserving. I think he’s earned it. I think his teammates believe that, too."

Nwokobia sits in the team cafeteria, overlooking Gerald J. Ford Stadium, where he'll run out on Saturdays donning a number representing the man who went through so much turmoil for a player like him to be here now. LeVias lived by himself at SMU because no one would be his roommate. As a freshman in 1966, a teammate had jumped on his back and kneed him until a rib cracked. He sat outside head coach Hayden Fry's office and listened to a booster lay down an ultimatum to cut the Black kid or not receive any more donations. During a 1968 game, a TCU player spit in his face and called him racist names. LeVias ended his career as a three-time All-SWC selection and played six seasons in the NFL before being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003.

Nwokobia knows earning the jersey isn't the final accomplishment. He's undertaken a responsibility to carry himself a certain way. 

"For them to trust me to be able to wear that, it’s just an honor," Nwokobia said. "It’s a true honor.”

And looking at the fight he's displayed, it's well-deserved. Nwokobia burst onto the scene in 2021 as a true freshman, leading SMU in interceptions, before a shoulder injury relegated him to the sidelines for the final three games. Nwokobia returned in 2022 despite a massive roster overhaul once Lashlee took over, and he played in the first four games of the year. But he saw his snap count steadily decrease, and a nagging hamstring injury forced him to redshirt and once more watch the season play out in street clothes.

Nwokobia had entered SMU as the program's sixth-highest-rated recruit in its history. Two years in he'd sustained two major injuries and spent his days rehabbing while the coaches brought in guys like Stanford transfer Jonathan McGill and TCU's Kyron Chambers to play in the secondary. The transfer portal was right there for him, enticing as ever. But Nwokobia didn't want to leave his teammates. He didn't want to quit, turn his back, or run away. Besides, he was used to betting on himself when everyone else assumed he'd fold.

Nwokobia was the quarterback ever since he started playing football at four years old for the St. Phillips Saints. A damn good one, too. But three weeks before his sophomore season at Dallas Skyline, the coaches presented him with a proposition. Nwokobia was talented enough for Varsity ball, but Skyline had an entrenched quarterback in Velton Gardner, now a running back at SMU. Nwokobia wanted to help the team in any way he could, so he switched to safety. He was an athlete, so he could make do, but his technique was raw. It was the first time he didn't dominate on the football field.  

So that offseason, he worked the hardest he ever had up to that point. He lived in the weight room and ran more after the team finished running. That next season, he earned unanimous first-team All-District 8-6A honors at safety. Ahead of his senior season, he committed to SMU.

Nwokobia still trains weekly over the summer at Skyline. His heart is in south Dallas. He grew up off Jim Miller Rd. He fell in love with football at St. Phillips. Dallas Skyline was where he learned the value of hard work as he committed to learning the safety position. He flocked to that football field before a pivotal third year at SMU.

"It reminds me of where I come from," Nwokobia said. "It reminds me how hungry I am and how hungry I was as a kid to get to where I am. I appreciate the game more because I know where I come from and I know how hard it was to get here."

But Nwokobia wasn't the only Skyline Raider working over the summer.

The Skyline defensive backs group, led by senior Jai'Neil Lewis, came to the practice field every Sunday to work on their techniques and coverage skills. Skyline was coming off an 0–10 football season, and these players were determined to right the ship. There, they found Nwokobia, a former standout for their program who chose to work out at Skyline on these days instead of at the SMU facility. Nwokobia let the high schoolers hop in defensive back drills with him, coaching them on their technique and giving them pointers.

“It felt like a documentary when I saw him come up here and help us,” Lewis said.

Lewis describes Nwokobia as a big brother to him. The SMU player provides the Skyline athletes a peek into what it takes to get to the next level. Lewis said often he'd panic during his dropbacks and try to go as fast as possible, sacrificing his form. In those instances, Nwokboia would tell him to stay calm and show how it should be done. Lewis and his friends were trying to overcome the adversity of their winless season, just as Nwokobia attempted to overcome the adversity his injuries had presented him. Despite being in different stages of life, they could relate to each other.

“It was a few times in my career that I felt like that, too," Lewis said. "I talk to him about stuff like that in the summer, how last season made us feel with Skyline. He was like, ‘Keep pushing. The more you work out in the summer, you’ll improve this season.’”

Skyline is currently 0–2 on the season, but they are starkly improved. Nwokobia was on the sidelines for their first game of the season against Lancaster, a regional powerhouse, and he witnessed Lewis intercept a pass in the first half. All that work in the summer had paid off. Skyline narrowly lost 24-22 to Garland Lakeview Centennial in the next game.

Those players saw Nwokobia's relentless work ethic and signature infectious smile. They didn't see those dark days Nwokobia battled through when football was ripped away from him at SMU, and his future with the program was in doubt. He thought about his mother in those dark times and decided to lean on the faith she'd instilled in him.

Linda Leach raised Nwokobia and his siblings to love God, but Nwokobia admits as a young man, he sometimes would question God as he watched his mother leave the house at 5:00 a.m. for her first of two jobs for the day and not get home until late at night. His mom's smile brightened every room she walked in, no matter how tired she was. He wondered how such a good person could have it so hard. 

But faith is belief based on what cannot be seen. It will be tested and grow stronger when it is. Linda raised him to trust Him. His plan. Everything would work out. So when Nwokobia entered that dark stretch in his sophomore year with nowhere else to turn, he refocused on God, put his head down and went to work.

“So I said (to myself), ‘Man, as much as she’s gone through, for her to have this faith, and for her to still put a smile on her face and be there for her family, I can do the same thing if I just trust in God and I follow her example,’ “ Nwokobia said.

Jerry LeVias fought his battles the same way Isaiah Nwokobia fights them now. With trust in God. LeVias's grandmother initially chose the number 23 for him for Psalms 23 in the Bible, the story of David fighting Goliath. She knew her grandson faced a monumental challenge to overcome entrenched racism in the Deep South, but like King David, he was destined for glory. Nwokobia faced a different challenge, but he also found inspiration in that story.

"My entire life, I just felt like I’ve never been the biggest guy on the field or the most sought after," Nwokobia said. "I was one of those guys that had to put in the extra work just to get to where I am. I wasn’t born super big or with great speed, but I know no one is going to outwork me.”

And no one deserves the number 23 more.

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