Football puts life in perspective for NJ teen

November 26, 2009 2:49:38 PM PST
It's not exactly Yankees vs. Red Sox, but for the players in an annual Thanksgiving Day high school football game in New Jersey, it's an unmatched rivalry. And for one player, the game - his last - is especially meaningful. Because sports has transformed his life, and perhaps even saved it.

It is one of New Jersey's oldest high school rivalries - Eastside vs. Kennedy. It's an inner-city struggle dating back 85 years. But for Isaiah Loper, it means more than just tradition, because football put this senior's life in perspective.

"I guess it gave me inspiration to do the right things, to be successful," he said. "That's all I'm looking for, to be successful."

Isaiah admits he was having emotional problems in his South Jersey hometown of Ocean City. His outbursts lead to counseling at a treatment center in Paterson, and he committed himself to football as a powerful outlet to deal with his personal problems.

"It's very disciplined," he said. "You always have to stay on top of your game. You can't fall back in school, and your grades, you have to stay on top to be on the team."

Loper is a running back and kicker who has gained the respect and admiration of his coaches.

"He's grown up a lot from the first day I met him to now," coach Jermain Johnson said. "And I think that's just helping him in life in general."

The Eastside High School football has had a lackluster season, but developing a young man's character scores higher than winning the game.

"You know guys, this might be your last game forever," Johnson said. "You might go on in college. You might go on further than that. But use this as a stepping stone."

Loper's mother sat in the stands watching her son play on Thanksgiving, proud of his growth and maturity.

"I think that it keeps him out of trouble when it gives him something to do," Arlayne Ramirez said. "It gives him an he doesn't have time to be bored."

Loper is now winding down his high school playing career and is thinking about college. But now, he's focused on enjoying the holiday with his family.