Call it tough love. Or just call it a mother's love. Isaiah White can look back and thank his mom for setting the foundation for what transpired Monday night.
White's mom, Christie Rivers, pulled him off the Longwood Junior High School football team in the eighth grade. Citing a lack of focus in the classroom and a much-needed readjustment of goals, Rivers told her son, "School before football."
"I've taught my three children that their athleticism was a gift from God," Rivers said. "It's a gift that can take them places. But without an education, you go nowhere. When he decided he wasn't going to work hard for his grades, I decided he wasn't going to play football in the eighth grade."
Message received. With a laserlike focus, White hit the books, returned to the football program -- and had an outstanding senior season.
The two-way starter rushed for 1,948 yards and 28 touchdowns as Longwood finished the Suffolk Division I regular season with an 8-0 record and earned the top seed in the postseason. For his efforts, White earned the 55th annual Carl A. Hansen Award, presented to Suffolk's top football player, Monday night at the Suffolk County Football Coaches Association banquet at the Hyatt Regency Wind Watch in Hauppauge.
The other finalists were Jasawn Thompson of Deer Park, Matt Selts of Sayville and John Daniggelis of Smithtown East.
"I've seen an amazing transformation in him in my first year with the program," Longwood coach Jeff Cipp said. "He's grown up right before our eyes into an exemplary leader and a focus destined for success. This is a kid who learned how to be a leader in every regard."
White was electric on the field, averaging 12 yards per carry. The 5-10, 205-pound hammer stayed low on tacklers and powered through most initial hits.
"His yards after contact was off the charts," Cipp said. "We ran our offense around him and opponents knew it and couldn't stop him. We only passed 26 times this season."
"The defense had to swarm him because he broke so many tackles," Connetquot coach Mike Hansen said.
White was the leader of the Longwood weight room, setting the tone for younger players to emulate their captain. He was able to bench press 365 pounds, squat 475 and power clean 275. He had the highest vertical jump at the Suffolk football combine.
"He was injured as a junior and wanted to be as strong as possible to avoid injury," Cipp said. "He was the total team player."
White was a highlight machine. He had 11 runs of at least 50 yards, eight for touchdowns, and rushed for more than 200 yards in six games, including 273 on 32 carries in a 14-13 win over second-place Connetquot.
Cipp used White as a hybrid linebacker, at which he was a game-changer. He returned a fumble 55 yards for a score against Floyd and returned an interception 37 yards for a TD against Ward Melville. He had 44 tackles, including 12 for a loss, two fumble recoveries and three interceptions.
"He could play safety in coverage or come up as a d-end and have the size and strength to make any play," Cipp said.
White talked about his last benching, the one imposed by his mom in the eighth grade.
"She knows what's right," he said. "I took it very hard and worked my tail off to play in ninth grade. I love her for everything she's done for me. It wasn't easy for her, either, because she loves watching me play. No one wants to disappoint their mom."
Christie Rivers looks at her son now and gushes.
"It's been humbling," she said. "He doesn't have an ounce of arrogance. He gets it and that can take him really far in life. I've seen him grow and develop into a mature young person that can handle some of life's hardships really well."
She added, "You know his middle name is Mandara, an African word, which means leader."
How very true.