You Either Smoke or You Get Smoked

Hard Times in the Uncanny Valley: Part 3

Kyle Stecker Isom

Let It Fly

This week, former LSU goalie Mo Isom will try to become a kicker for the Tigers football team. But even if she makes the team, her greatest accomplishment may be surviving the past five years.

The kicker stands behind a podium in the Heidelberg Room, on the top floor of the Baton Rouge Hilton, and pauses for a moment while grown men dry their eyes. Mo Isom has just finished telling a story of loss and brokenness and occasional self-loathing, a story that Isom has lived for much of the last 22 years. Across the room there have been gasps and sniffles, but now that the speech has turned from darkness to light, everyone’s eager for an easier subject.

“How far out can you kick?” a man shouts.

Isom lights up: “I can hit it pretty consistently from 51 yards.”

Now there are more gasps, this time followed by shouts of “Woo!” and then applause, and the SEC’s most famous aspiring football player can’t help but grin. “That’s what I’m saying!” Isom responds. “What else do I need to do?”

Isom takes a seat at a table near the front of the room, and a meaty and bespectacled man steps to the podium. “Somebody needs to get on the phone with Coach Miles!” he shouts. “Somebody tell Les that Mo is the man!”

The problem, of course: She’s not.

She got the idea in middle school. It was simple then, not like it is now — with the speaking engagements and TV interviews and fixations on the time she was voted homecoming queen. Back then, as a sixth grader who towered over her peers, she dominated on the soccer field and had become, she admits, “a cocky little kid.” She was just as big as the boys, so why couldn’t she play football?

She imagined herself as a quarterback, or maybe a wide receiver, catching passes with those soft hands she’d developed as a goalkeeper. Her dad had played through eight surgeries as an offensive lineman at Carson-Newman College. Now on Saturday afternoons, she would sit with him in their suburban Atlanta home, soaked in surround sound, watching images beamed in from Tuscaloosa or Athens or Baton Rouge.

She wanted to do what he had done, to be like the people who amazed him each week. “I believe you can do it,” he told her, “but you really could get hurt. You don’t want to be injured for soccer season.” He was right, of course, so she buried the desire right there. But it remained, somewhere so deep she could barely remember, until almost a decade later it came back.

There is a sign on a wall in the LSU football operations building that says, “Through these doors walk the toughest, hardest-working athletes in the SEC.” On one side of the facility, there’s the weight room. On the other, the practice field. Shuffling in between: a slow trickle of Pro Bowlers–to–be.

Isom does not pause or look up as she walks underneath the sign and onto the field. Over the humming lights and the heavy metal bleeding in from the weight room, you can hear the repetitive thump … pop! of senior receiver Russell Shepard catching balls from a passing machine. When Shepard notices Isom, he nods, then returns to work. She drops her bag of footballs, grabs a tee, and surveys the field. For the next hour, it is hers.

It’s the last day of July — one day before the start of fall camp, two days before the Tigers will be ranked preseason no. 1 in the USA Today coaches’ poll. Isom’s name is not on the roster. On August 21 and 22 she’ll get a tryout, but until then, she’ll be here every day, preparing. “As good of an athlete as she is, and as hard as she’s worked,” says recently departed Tigers long snapper Joey Crappell, “she can stack up with the best kickers in the country.” She spent the summer in the weight room and on the practice field, running ladders and doing squats, trying her best to go unnoticed, to blend. That’s not easy when the headlines read “Homecoming Queen Tries Out As Kicker,” not with those photos of her accepting her crown.

Today, she wears a baggy purple-and-gold T-shirt with knee-length Nike leggings, her hair piled atop her head. “This place is like a sanctuary for these guys,” she says. “There’s no way I’m walking in here in short shorts and a sports bra.” When she nestles the ball under the tee, she stands up straight, her back arched and her shoulders wide. You can see why she says, with no reservation, “I’m a big girl.” Right now, she says, she’s a little too big. A summer in the weight room has left her with too much muscle and too little flexibility. For 22 years, she has inhabited this body, and at almost every step of the way, someone has found it to be too something. She’s been called too fat and too skinny, too weak and too strong, too pretty and too ugly, too provocative and too chaste. She says, however, that none of that matters with this team. To them, she insists, it doesn’t even matter that she’s a woman. Just put it through the uprights, and biology will be forgotten.

She knows the counterarguments. She’ll be a distraction: “I’m more concerned with me being a distraction than the guys are,” she says. She’ll get hurt: “Do I think I can make a tackle? Absolutely. But I won’t be kicking off, so it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll ever actually need to.” She’ll ruin the locker room atmosphere: “The female trainers have their own locker room right next to the players’ locker room — it’s not an issue.” She can’t do what these men do: “I know I can make this team.”

She lines up and kicks from 35 yards. It’s good. She grabs another ball, lines it up, and kicks again.

She was a giant. On the first day of her freshman year at Marietta’s Lassiter High School, that was all that mattered. It was impossible to miss her in the hallways — towering, plodding, thick. No one cared what Isom could do on the soccer field. No one cared that she’d been in TV commercials (including one where she threw a football alongside then-Falcons coach Dan Reeves). She arrived expecting easy popularity and star-athlete status. Instead, she got insults and snickers.

High school’s cruel pecking order gave the “cocky little kid” her first taste of emotional insecurity. The girl who seemed to have control over all things that mattered to her suddenly controlled little — not her advancement as a soccer player (others were older and better); not her relationship with her dad (she had his build and his heart, but also his stubbornness); and definitely not her place in Lassiter’s social hierarchy.

Her body, however, was still under her command. Not her height, of course. She’d already reached six feet; there was no changing that. But her flesh — the material between bone and skin — that she could control. She watched what she ate, careful to keep track of her calories. Her dad grew frustrated because food was his lone vice; they had enjoyed everything else together, but now while he ate, she nibbled. “I never woke up one day and said, ‘I’m going to stop eating,'” she remembers. “It was just this small thing I could dictate, and even more than anything related to my body image, I became obsessed with that aspect of it.”

She started a journal. Whatever she ate, she wrote down. Every physical activity, she charted. She wrote equations: Calories consumed minus calories burned. Each day became a competition, and like in all else, Isom hated to lose. She found satisfaction in gnawing hunger; the more she wilted, the more she felt control.

The hunger got worse. And as she shed muscle and abstained from calories, so did her performance on the field. One day, biology overrode will. She cracked. She ate and ate until, soon enough, she’d eaten everything in sight. Then she sat still — bloated, panic rising, wracked with self-disgust. “You’ll be just as fat as you ever were,” she told herself. With one binge, she was certain she had gained 10 pounds. But the thoughts that made her self-disgust unbearable were less about her body than her will. “You couldn’t do it,” she told herself. “You’re too weak. You thought you could control this, but you can’t.”

There was still one solution. She ran to the bathroom and knelt by the toilet and jammed her fingers down her throat. Her head grew heavy. Tears fell, her makeup ran, and the food came up in spurts. Soon it was just bile, spilling from her lips, dripping as she convulsed. When it was over she sat still, overwhelmed with relief.

It got easier after that. She purged nine or 10 times a day. It became a conditioned response. As soon as she ate, the gag reflex triggered. She’d sit at the dinner table, forcing herself to wait a few minutes before asking to be excused. It was better that way, she thought. Her parents might suspect something if she rushed away mid-meal.

High school continued; her obsession deepened. Whenever she had free time, she worked out, often eight hours a day. She stopped eating, kept purging, expelled only bile. When she felt weak, she took energy pills. She’d never been one to do anything halfway.

Somehow, she kept improving on the soccer field. She dominated at the high school and club levels. She earned invites to the state Olympic development team and scholarship offers from colleges. She kept acting. She modeled. She entered pageants, walking across the stage in evening gowns and swimsuits, a beautiful cadaver on display for all to see. She won. She took pride in her hunger. “I’m hurt; I’m broken; I’m empty,” she says now of that time. “And yet I have everything I always wanted.”

Her body shrank but never shriveled. Although she had lost flesh, her skeleton remained thick. She was an athlete, not a waif. For the first few years, her friends and family remained unconcerned. She smiled often. She was good at keeping secrets. But then she’d get in a car with friends and look down to make sure her stomach wasn’t rolling over her jeans. She’d reach for a light switch and grow repulsed if her arm jiggled. In those moments she’d take comfort in planning her next purge.

Over time, her guard dropped. She could no longer wait before vomiting. She couldn’t explain to the dentist why her teeth had eroded, couldn’t tell him the vomit had stripped away the enamel. Friends asked questions, and she just knew that they knew.

Yet there was never a moment where she told herself, This has to stop. She never believed it could stop. One day in her senior year, she sat in her room and prayed. She’d been raised Methodist, and her faith had always been important, if not all-consuming. God, I can’t do this anymore. By now, she’d accepted a scholarship to play soccer at LSU. She was desperate to leave high school behind and to leave her sickness along with it.

As she prayed, her mother walked into the room to put away laundry. Isom cried. She cracked; admitted everything. Again: relief.

There is a website called Tiger Droppings, where a few thousand LSU fans gather each day to post emoticons and anonymous opinions. Back in March, a poster started a thread titled, “Mo Isom is a buck-90????” Apparently, TigerTaterTots couldn’t believe Isom weighed 190 pounds.

It took one minute for the first reply: “Don’t care. Would hit it.” Eight posts later, someone rekindled a longstanding message board debate: Who’s hotter? Isom or Erin Andrews? Two pages passed before the first picture of Isom in a bikini, five pages before someone casually suggested date rape. “Mo is a great girl with an amazing life story,” wrote one poster. “She is gorgeous and way too respectable to have people shallowly critique her looks.” Two posts later: “Does anyone know her bra size?”

Reducing athletes to something less than human has been a favored pastime among SEC fans for at least a decade, but it’s safe to assume there are no date-rape jokes about Russell Shepard or Barkevious Mingo. No matter how well she blends, how much she is accepted, how perfectly she navigates the obstacles that arise when a woman enters a man’s game, there will still be someone, somewhere, for whom Isom is nothing more than a thing to be picked apart and appraised — a subject for the enduring online debate, Would you hit it?

One in 100 adolescent girls has an eating disorder. Spend enough time on sites like Tiger Droppings and you’ll start to wonder how it’s not more.

For Isom, life changed once she admitted she had a problem. She met with a nutritionist and found others who shared her compulsions. She stopped the lies and dropped the hostilities toward her father. Occasionally, in the months that followed, she’d relapse. “It was like an old friend who would creep back and say, ‘Don’t you miss me?'” she says. “It was because I still wanted that sense of total control.” In those moments, she prayed. Over time, temptation faded.

Today there is little trace of the compulsive and insecure girl who once lay in her room, adding and subtracting calories and waiting for the right moment to throw up. “I spent too many years hating my own body,” she says. “It makes me nauseous to think about the ways we make girls and women feel about themselves. We all have cellulite; we all break out; we all have stretch marks. We shouldn’t hide that.” She continues: “Maybe someday I’ll want to lose some weight. I don’t know. But I’m an athlete. I’m going to celebrate the fact that I have an athlete’s body.”

As for the message board discussion, its premise is flawed. “Actually,” Isom freely admits, “I weigh closer to 195.”

Isom arrived at LSU in January 2008 — a semester early — and immediately she thrived. She’d promised her mother that she wouldn’t fall back into “those ways,” and she didn’t. Before, her competitiveness had fueled her eating disorder. Now, she channeled her will toward overcoming it. That, of course, and soccer.

She held shutouts in her first two scrimmages, against North Carolina and Duke. She’d committed to LSU because she knew she could start from day one, and she intended to hold her position. Compared to high school, college life was disorienting but ultimately fulfilling. Back home, however, things changed. She got calls from her father 10 times a day. If she didn’t pick up, he’d text: Call when you can. He was sad, she knew, missing his girl. But the word “depression” never entered her mind. Each day she’d call, they’d talk, and he’d beam.

For as long as Isom could remember, her dad had arrived home by 5:30 each afternoon, thrilled to leave his law practice behind and spend time with his family. He’d pick Isom up from school and head to the lake, Jet Skis in tow, or to a Braves game, where they’d sit in Section 123, Row 9, Seats 9 and 10. While driving, he’d unleash a string, she says, “of the lamest, corniest jokes you’ve ever heard.” She tried to hold it in, but she couldn’t help laughing.

In Isom’s family, her mom and her sister were “brains.” She and her dad were “hearts.” They were also giants (He was 6-foot-4, 300 pounds). Together, they worked with Special Olympians, tossed the football in the front yard, and whiled away Saturdays watching SEC football. They butted heads when she hit high school, and things got worse when Isom stopped eating. The more secrets she kept from her father, the less she could bear being around him. By college, however, she says she was back to being “the epitome of a daddy’s girl.” But from a distance she couldn’t see how her absence had worn on him or how other, unspoken weights had left him lethargic and cold.

Spring passed. So did summer. Fall arrived, and with it, Isom’s freshman season. It took only two games before she showed up on ESPN.

Early in the second half of a home game against BYU, a foul was called just outside the goalkeeper’s box. Isom waved off her teammate so she could take the free kick. This was why she’d been recruited, after all. Not just for her defense in goal, but also for her leg.

She stepped back, struck the ball, and as she watched it, she thought, Whoa. It sailed over the awaiting players and landed just in front of the goalkeeper’s box. The opposing keeper rushed forward, but she misjudged the ball’s trajectory, then leapt as it bounced over her head.

Isom could tell she had scored by the screams. Within moments she was surrounded, everyone jumping and cheering. She danced and hugged her teammates, then looked up into the stands. There was her dad, just below the press box, his ecstatic bass rising above the other voices. They locked eyes. “His teeth were touching his ears,” she says. “Five minutes passed, and he was still screaming.”

LSU won 4-1. Afterward, as Isom’s dad walked onto the field, she jogged toward him. “I have to tell you a secret,” she said, and she wrapped her arms around his neck, let him lift her up so she could whisper it in his ear: “I scored a goal.”

He didn’t respond, couldn’t stop smiling long enough to form words. After letting go, he finally managed to speak — yell, in fact. We gotta get that on SportsCenter! They sent in the tape. The next day, they sat in Isom’s apartment, glued to ESPN. Every hour, they waited for the Top 10 Plays and watched the ball bounce into the net again and again and again.

Winter arrived and Isom went home. On New Year’s Eve they went to see LSU play Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. She barely paid attention as her parents fought; her focus was on the game. Two days later was January 2, 2009, the day her dad didn’t come home.

Early in the day, he called and they talked, just like every day, even when she was in town. She ended the conversation — I love you, Dad. He paused and collected himself before responding: Morlan, I love you so, so much.

That evening, her sister, Sloan, came into Mo’s room: Have you talked to Dad? He was supposed to pick Mom up for lunch today, but he asked me to get her, and we haven’t heard from him since.

Mo shrugged, unworried, but each hour Sloan returned. Together, their concern grew. Mo called — it went straight to voice mail. Thirty minutes later she called again — same result. Night fell. Mo left her room, ran into Sloan in the hallway, and they could see the angst rising in each other’s eyes. They heard a call from below; their mom, Heidi, needed to talk.

Girls, we need to find your father. They stared at her, agreeing. There’s been a lie. Confusion gripped the daughters; their worries crystallized. I’ve been on the phone with the IRS. Your dad hasn’t paid taxes in 14 years.

They went to the bedroom and listened to a voice mail their dad had left earlier that day. He was driving around, he said, just clearing his head. He left a note by the phone: I do love you.

Mo and Sloan lay together on their father’s side of the bed, holding each other, hoping for sleep. “Everything is going to be OK,” Mo told her sister, but even as the words left her mouth she knew they weren’t true. She breathed deep, sucking in air from her dad’s pillow. “I just wanted to smell him,” she remembers. In that spot, they fell asleep.

Mo woke up to screaming.

She was in her bed now, having wandered back upstairs during the night, and it was 5:30 and her mom was yelling and Mo remembered that everything was not OK. She rushed downstairs. Her mom said they had to leave. Mo didn’t understand but she did what she was told. She grabbed coats and shoes. Her mom grabbed files and insurance papers. Her mom shoved a piece of paper into Mo’s stomach: Hold this. They stepped into the winter morning, all piled inside Sloan’s Mustang convertible, and they drove.

The car hit 90 miles per hour, but around Mo, the world slowed down. “Everything,” she says, “was like molasses.” Mo remembered the piece of paper she’d been given. She unfolded it — an e-mail from her dad. She started reading.

“It’s a suicide letter,” her mom said, and in that moment everything froze. “The world,” Mo remembers, “did not seem like a real place.”

They arrived at her father’s office. Cop cars surrounded the building. Heidi had called the suicide hotline. The suicide hotline had called the police. Before, the police couldn’t help — he was just a man who’d been gone a few hours. Now, he was a man who’d left a suicide letter.

Mo’s mother asked her to call her grandparents, but she refused. “I regressed,” she says, “to a childlike state.” They went into the building, and the officers said they were trying to find him. Mo sat at the desk and stared at the computer. She pretended to be useful, but her mind had gone blank. All around her there was noise: papers shuffling, officers talking, phones ringing, and footsteps everywhere. Then, suddenly, there was silence.

Three officers entered the room. Two men, one woman, the woman in the center. Her mom stumbled, moved back. “Get out of this office,” she told them, and Mo wanted to stay in that moment — to keep living in a world where the officers had not said what they were about to say. “Ma’am,” one said, “we’ve found your husband.”

“It was euphoria,” Mo says. “Unbelievable relief.”

“No,” the officer continued. “I’m sorry; you misunderstood. We’ve found your husband’s remains.” And now Sloan collapsed and Heidi stumbled and Mo emitted a dull, belching noise she didn’t know her body could produce. “It was like a doctor injected numbing solution,” she says. “It was in my body, and it was slowly expanding, and everything slowly went numb.” She ran to the bathroom. When she vomited this time, there was no need to hide.

The facts came out over the next minutes, hours, and months. Her father left work in the middle of the afternoon on January 2. He went home and wrote the note — I do love you — and set it by the bed. He grabbed his laptop and he grabbed the guns. “Maybe,” Isom says, “he said good-bye to the dogs.”

He drove to Alabama, just like Mo had thought. He stopped in Huntsville and checked into the Hilton Garden Inn. He hung his clothes in the closet. He wrote a letter explaining what he wanted done with his body. His family owned Gober Funeral Chapel in the town of Arab. “When I’m old and dead,” he’d always said, “that’s where I want you take me.” He had planned ahead — dying nearby would save his family the trouble of taking his body across state lines.

He wrote the suicide letter in an e-mail to his wife. In it, he suggested that the life insurance money would help them pay his debt. He clicked send. He called 911, told the operator what he was about to do. Better to have officers on the way. That way, a maid wouldn’t open the door to discover a corpse. He sat on the edge of the bed and he put a gun to his heart. Around 1:30 a.m., he pulled the trigger.

Mo called their friends and family. They came, and everyone cried, but eventually, she says, “you just run out of tears.” She wondered if they wondered why she wasn’t crying. She loved them all, but she wanted them to go away.

Weeks passed, and it was time for school to restart. Isom wanted to stay with her family, but she knew that home meant sadness. Her mom told her to go. “Your dad would want you lacing up your cleats and competing,” she said. “He’d want you to be getting your education.”

So Isom returned to LSU. When the coaches had recruited her, they insisted their program was family. Now they proved it. She started meeting with a grief counselor. Volunteers prepared her meals. Coaches told her she could miss all of spring practice if she wanted. She missed one. The next day she stayed late, running sprints to make up for lost time.

She cycled through the stages of grief. First, she clung to happy memories: the trips to the lake, the Saturdays with football, the moment of elation after her goal. Soon she was consumed by anger toward her father: You coward. You panicked, and you bailed, and you let all of us deal with this trail of rubble you left behind. “It was,” she says now, “a real period of hatred.”

Winter turned to spring, then summer to fall. Her grades remained fine. So did her performance on the field. She got called to training camp with the U-23 national team, where she played alongside Alex Morgan. When the soccer team traveled, they often stayed at Hilton Garden Inns; she felt sick whenever she saw the signs. She drank, went to parties. “I know that’s normal for most college students,” she says, “but I had spent my whole life trying to so hard not to be normal. I wanted to value things that mattered.” Her principles hadn’t changed, just her willingness to adhere to them.

Her grief was physical: Rashes formed. Hair fell out. Skin flaked. One week, she had a cold. The next, strep throat. Then pinkeye. Loud noises sent her into a rage. She wanted nothing but silence. Nothing but hours spent in her room, replaying it all in her mind.

She knew what her father had done. But what Isom wanted to know, what kept her awake and made her stay inside, what became her new obsession, was wondering what he had thought. What he had felt. There were 10 hours, maybe 12, where he was alone. When did the inevitability of death lock into place? Did he know all along? Did he rethink it? Any regrets?

She could see the room and the gun, sense her father’s fear and certainty and despair. She knew, as she’d always known, that as much as she resembled her mom, she was more like her dad. “If he was capable of it,” she thought, “then maybe I’m capable of it too.” She wondered what it felt like, the bullet puncturing flesh. She stopped. “I am not John Isom,” she told herself. “I am not my father.” She slept a lot. That helped.

It was Thanksgiving and I was driving home,” she says. “I remember being at a point of incredible anger.”

Isom is sitting in her Baton Rouge apartment with a painting of Jesus she bought from a man called “the Jesus Painter” hanging on the wall in front of her. A journal and two Bibles lie on the table. To her right, her dogs Jacey and Penny wrestle. She mostly laughs at them, but occasionally she scolds. Right now she’s talking, and in her mind she’s back on the road, headed to Atlanta from Baton Rouge in late 2010. She was driving along I-85 when her life was finally and fully ripped apart.

So I remember driving home and literally crying out to God — “You’re full of crap. This is all fake. God, if you’re so real, if you love me, if you love me the way that you say that you love me, then show me. Do something.” Because everyone’s sitting there the whole time telling you, “God’s gonna, he’s gonna act in your life, and move in you, and you’ll feel it and know that he’s real.” And you’re just like, what a load of B.S. I never felt like that. So I said, “If you’re so real, show me in a way that I will know.” And literally, what I started yelling while I was in the car was, “Wreck my life.”

And then the next thing I knew I just lost control of my vehicle. I don’t remember some of the details because I was in a concussed state, but apparently later I told paramedics that I swerved to miss hitting a deer. But sitting here now, I can’t even remember. I can’t say, 100 percent, “This is how I lost control of my car.” A lot of it is a blur.

The next thing I knew I was in the center median. My wheel was just jerking; I couldn’t control it. But I remember snapping out of it and thinking, “Oh my gosh. I have to get back on the road.” It took all of my strength just to turn the wheel, and I’m holding onto it, turning my body with it, so my body is turned to the right pulling as hard as I can, and — I kid you not — I could have reached out and touched my dad. I could smell him. I could see him. He was sitting in the passenger seat — just this vision of him, sitting there with this soft smile on his face. Not like a cheesy grin, but just this soft smile of like, “We’ve got you.”

I was scared for a second. That’s not something you see and you just don’t think it’s a big deal. I was really freaked out. But also, I was overwhelmingly relaxed. You know how they say that when drunk drivers get in accidents, a lot of times they’re fine because their body is just relaxed and goes with the flow? Seeing him, there was just this overwhelming relaxation that came across my body.

I had turned my wheels enough that my car was shooting straight across the highway, and I hit an embankment. My car flipped. It flipped three times. It was like a movie — you see things in flashes. I don’t know if I was closing my eyes and then opening them, or what, but I remember it was like they open — you see grass. And open — then you see sky. Then open — and you see this pole, this sign, that I narrowly missed hitting. And everything is loud and cranking and crashing and ripping and you don’t feel anything in your body, really, because your adrenaline is just like, whoa. And then everything just stopped. And so I don’t know — no one will ever know, I guess — if there was a period of time before I woke up. But the next thing I knew, I woke up, and I was hanging upside down.

I was choking. I was throwing up blood, and it was going into my nose because I was upside down. So it’s 1:30 in the morning, and I am upside down in this ravine, and physically, I’m very broken, and I’m vomiting blood, and for the life of me, I can’t yell. My lungs were damaged. But in that moment, I had never felt more comforted. And I know that doesn’t make any sense to describe. I felt wrapped in the arms of the Holy Spirit. I was so overwhelmed with joy, so at peace. It was like I Mario-jumped over three stages of the grief cycle, and I landed in the final stage, acceptance and hope.

So I’m lying there, and I’m thinking all these deep thoughts of life and God and feeling this unbelievable peace, and then, all of a sudden, I lose consciousness.

She woke. Saw a flashlight. Almost immediately, she passed out again. Then she woke up in the hospital, rolling on a bed through the hall. She remembers hearing voices: What do you mean the car was destroyed? She barely has a scratch. From the outside, it looked like she’d only hurt her face and her jaw. On the inside, it was worse — cracked vertebrae, broken ribs, damaged lungs, damaged liver, brain contusions.

She passed out one more time. The next time she woke she was in a room, and there was a paramedic — “Super hot,” she says — by her side. He grabbed her hand and she looked up, decided her best move was to quote Titanic: “I’ll never let go, Jack,” she said. He dropped her hand: “You’re fine.”

After a night in the hospital, she went home. (“A little prematurely,” she says. When she got to Atlanta, she ended up in the hospital again a day later.) Over Thanksgiving break, they debated whether she should return to school. “Of course, I’m thinking, Yeah! I can do it!” she says. A family friend drove her to Baton Rouge, where in the middle of her first class, she passed out. When she woke up, she vomited on her desk. “Fine,” she says, “maybe it wasn’t a great idea.” She got on a plane and flew home, then withdrew from all of her classes. She spent the next six weeks in bed.

She knew, almost immediately, that she had changed. She replayed the accident in her mind. She believed God had left her there — broken and vulnerable but alive. Her grief subsided. She’d been a Christian since childhood, but now she rededicated herself to her faith. “I didn’t want to be a Christian just culturally, or just in the way that society depicts what a Christian should be,” she says. “I wanted to experience what it was like to be in love with Jesus Christ.” She became comfortable, finally, with the things — the history — she could not control.

She prayed constantly and believed that God spoke back. “Not a voice,” she explains. “But you’re in prayer, and you feel stirrings in your heart. And sometimes, you know it’s not you, because it’s something you could never imagine.” She was inspired to answer those stirrings: to start a blog, to share her struggles and her faith.

“There was this renewed zeal and purpose,” she says. “I felt like God was revealing to me that he wanted me — and everyone, really — to live fearlessly and boldly, in faith.” All her life, Isom had made safe choices, trying things when she knew she’d succeed. “It had been difficult for me to make choices that might not turn out how I envisioned,” she says. “That had to change.”

“One day in the shower, I just had this moment of incredible clarity,” she says. If she wanted to “live boldly,” she realized, then perhaps she should play football.

She got out of the shower and called her mom, who told her, “As soon as a 300-pound lineman hits you, you’re going to rethink that decision.” Yet she never questioned her daughter’s resolve, nor did she doubt that it came from God. Isom texted Josh Jasper, the team’s former kicker, and told him. “Can this work?” she asked. “Logistically, is it even possible?” He told her to go for it. She called other friends on the football team. They all said the same thing: “Do it.”

She talked to the strength and conditioning coaches. They were onboard. Then she met with Sam Nader, the assistant athletic director for football operations. “I was shaking,” she says. “I thought I was going to throw up. I prayed, ‘Lord, if this is what you have for me, then allow this to go well. But if I’ve misinterpreted everything, then shut it down. Close this door in my face and let me know it’s not a possibility.'”

She told Nader the idea, and immediately he started talking through logistics. “You can’t play football and soccer at the same time,” he said. “If you want to finish out your soccer career, you’ll have to play football in your fifth year.” He discussed the timing, the process, everything it would entail. Finally, she had to bring it up: “But what about the fact that I’m a woman?” She mentioned Katie Hnida, who had kicked for Colorado and then New Mexico in the early 2000s. In 2004 Hnida alleged that she had been molested and raped by teammates during her time at Colorado, but she never pressed charges. Nader looked back at Isom: “This isn’t Colorado.”

She made friends with the equipment managers and started showing up at the facility, asking for footballs and tees. At first, she kicked a football the same way she kicked a soccer ball — far and hard and low. Her kicks sailed through the uprights, but in live action, she knew, they’d get blocked. One day, long snapper Joey Crappell walked over and told her she needed to skip forward with her plant foot. By doing that, her kicks would rise fast enough to clear the line. “Immediately,” he says, “she got it.”

“That was better,” he told her. “Now keep your chest up.” In soccer, you lower your entire body, directing all energy toward the ball. But to get height on a football, you have to remain upright. “Good,” he said after her second kick. A couple days later he sent a text: “You kicking today?”

They started working together a few times a week. Then she got in the rotations with other kickers. When she was young, her dad would park near the soccer field and watch her practice through the bushes, so she wouldn’t get embarrassed if she saw that he was there. Now, on the football field, she imagined him on the sidelines, mostly keeping quiet but occasionally giving tips. That summer, she went through soccer and football workouts. She’d show up every afternoon at 3 p.m., along with the incoming football freshmen. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, they lifted. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they ran — ladder drills, cone drills, mat drills, sprints. “She never complained,” Crappell says, “You never would have been able to pick her out, except for her long hair.” Whenever someone jumped a line or missed a cone, the coaches would count. Then at the end of the workout, they’d add it all up and enforce penance through up-downs. Isom stuck around for those, pushed through the pain, falling to and rising from the boiling turf. Everyone else had a spot on the roster — they had to be there. Isom was the only one there by choice.

This is why the only criticism that she can’t stand is the most common one: She just wants her 15 minutes of fame. She understands the people who say she’ll be a distraction. Understands the people who say she can’t take football’s physical punishment. But that comment: “That’s the one that really, really gets under my skin. I mean, who would set themselves up to fail — twice — on a national stage just for 15 minutes of fame? Who would kill their body in a weight room for 18 months just so they could fail? Who would put themselves through this emotional rigor, and it’s for 15 minutes of fame?”

In the fall, she focused on soccer, fitting in football workouts when she could. Isom finished her career in goal with school records in wins (43), shutouts (30), saves (235), and goals against average (0.86). Spring football practice arrived, and in March, Isom got a two-day tryout. She struggled. She tried to show off her power, but her technique was sloppy. On one kick, she hit a flat line drive. The next day she did better, but it wasn’t enough. Coach Miles called her into his office and told her how much he admired her effort, but he couldn’t offer her a spot on the team. She understood, she said, but before she left his office she let him know: “I guess this means I’ll see you at fall tryouts.”

He looked up, perplexed. She continued: “If it’s OK with you and the staff, I’d like to give it another try in the fall.” Miles suggested that she might not want to do that, that it might not be worth another four months of work for another outside shot at making the team.

“I’ll see you in the fall,” she said.

“Well OK,” Miles responded. “I guess I’ll see you then.”

It’s fall.

Well, on this afternoon at the facility, it’s technically still summer, but when sophomore tight end Nic Jacobs walks in the building, he knows his vacation is over. Camp starts tomorrow. There will be running and hitting and occasional vomit, and with that, the national title chase will begin.

He is truck-shouldered and dreadlocked, cargo shorts hanging just below his knees. A former high school kicker himself, he watches Isom go through her routine. “At first I was confused,” he says. “I was like, for real, ‘What is she doing? Why is she here? Why would a girl want to play football?'” Over time, that changed. He’d show up at the facility and she’d be on the field or in the weight room, practicing for a team she wasn’t even on.

She lines up from 35 and hits four in a row. He keeps talking. “She’s a better athlete than some of the guys on the team,” he says. “You mean other kickers?” I ask. He shakes his head: “No. I’m talking about position players. Maybe she can’t lift as much as they lift, or whatever, but overall, as an athlete, she’s just better. You see her in a drill, and she’s going harder than some of the guys.”

Jacobs says most of the players are “neutral” about Isom. If she’s good enough to make it, she should make it. If she’s not, she should get cut. “A few guys have a problem with it,” he says. “They just say, ‘She can’t compete. She can’t do what we do. It’s an insult for her to try.’ I’m like, ‘It’s an insult? She’s a kicker.’ Now, if she was in here trying to play linebacker or running back, and she had never played football, then yeah, that’s an insult. This is LSU. But she’s been kicking a ball her whole life.”

Isom knows some guys may talk behind her back, but only once, in all of her 18 months around the team, has anyone said something to her face. She caught up to someone in ladder drills. He stopped, and in no uncertain terms, he suggested that she get off the field. “Immediately,” she says, “the other guys defended me. It was my instinct to let him know I wouldn’t be spoken to like that, but at the same time I didn’t need to. I had earned the right to be there, and everyone else had my back.”

She moves back to the 40. Her first kick misses. The next three sail through. I ask Jacobs if she’s good enough to make the team. “Yeah,” he says. “I think so.”

Isom will step on the field this Tuesday and Wednesday, and she’ll prepare to take her last shot. It’s a long one. The incumbent placekicker, Drew Alleman, is a senior coming off an All-SEC year. No one’s beating him out. Then there are three others (including punters), and soon two more recruited walk-ons, each likely to redshirt, will join the team. Giving Isom a spot would mean carrying seven kickers, something the Tigers rarely do.

When she imagines what might happen, she only lets her mind wander so far. She can see herself in the office, her smile forming as the coaches say she’s on the team. Beyond that? She can’t picture it. When she says, “If I can walk into Death Valley on a Saturday night,” she just grins and trails off.

And the alternative? “If they say they just don’t have the roster spots, or if they do and they say I’m just not good enough, then I can be OK with that,” she says, “because — and I have to remind myself of this sometimes — I want what’s best for the LSU Tigers.” She continues: “I want to earn it. I don’t want it given to me. If I don’t earn it, then I’ll cry for a while, and I’ll be fine. I’ll move on with my life.”

She’ll step to the 20- or 30-yard line or wherever they put her, and she’ll stare at empty field before her, measuring the distance ahead. Other kickers at the tryout will likely be less rigid in their routines, but for Isom, each step will be precise. Control, more than anything, has been her lifelong addiction. During her struggle with bulimia, she scrubbed her bathroom after every purge. When she committed to LSU, she did it because she knew she’d be an unchallenged starter. And although she lost herself in dark thoughts after her father’s suicide, she smiled to control perceptions. But she says something changed on that night almost two years ago as her car rolled across I-85. It was in that moment when she controlled nothing, when death seemed imminent, that she felt most at peace.

So when she lines up to kick, she’ll indulge herself, however briefly, by controlling every movement in her routine. She’ll take a step back, and then she’ll pause. Another step back; another pause. She’ll step twice diagonally, backward and to the left. Then a final pause.

She’ll bound forward, keeping her chest up, then plant her foot in the preordained spot, and as she kicks, she’ll skip through. Once her foot strikes the ball, however, she will let go. She’ll just stand and watch it fly.

Filed Under: LSU, Teams

Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn