Football is back at Texas Wesleyan University
He has no memory of his father and went so far as to block him on Facebook, his mother sits in a jail cell, and he vows never to see his foster family again.
By the time he graduated from Kaufman High School last year, Izaiha Starling had attended three high schools, three middle schools and “four or five” elementary schools.
If Texas Wesleyan is his only college, that’s fine with him.
In September, he will join the first team at Texas Wesleyan to play a football game in 75 years. The Rams’ spring scrimmage is at 3 p.m. Saturday at Farrington Field.
It is merely a coincidence that Farrington served as the football home to Masonic Home, the high school team comprised of orphans in the 1930s and ’40s that won state titles. The Mighty Mites, chronicled by Jim Dent in the book “12 Mighty Orphans,” were winning when TWU dropped football in 1941.
As part of the program’s rebirth, Texas Wesleyan is taking in its own version of what coach Joe Prud’homme lovingly calls “orphans” — kids who come from difficult backgrounds in need of a genuine support system.
Starling isn’t a Mighty Orphan, and TWU isn’t “Last Chance U,” but the Rams are a genuine opportunity to become his First Family. That’s what programs like this are to so many — an opportunity to keep playing, and to build something better than where he came from. What Starling came from says he should not have made it this far.
“I love football to death,” he said. “It’s therapeutic and it makes me feel better about everything. I get to work out my anger when I play.”
Texas Wesleyan will hold its Blue and Gold spring scrimmage at 3 p.m. Saturday at Farrington Field. Admission is free.
When he was a kid, both he and his older brother, Jordan Fowler, didn’t know any better, so they weren’t angry. Their dad was not around and their mom struggled.
“It was chaotic and there was never a normal day,” he said. “When I started to make friends and going to their houses I thought, ‘This is easy.’ I knew there was a reason.”
In February 2011, Starling’s mother, Thelisa Tibbs, was arrested in Dallas County on a charge of driving while intoxicated with a child under 15 as a passenger and possession of a controlled substance. Then in July 2012, she was arrested on a charge of aggravated robbery of a disabled person. She is serving a 12-year sentence at the Hobby Correctional Facility in Marlin.
By the time Tibbs was sent to jail, Starling and his older brother had been taken in by a foster family. But he quickly learned what too many foster kids do — that the parents were doing this for the government check that comes with taking care of such children.
“It was basically just me and my brother,” he said.
Texas Wesleyan’s first football game in 76 years will be on Sept. 2 in McPherson, Kan., against McPherson College.
He visited his mother in prison last year, around Christmas. His mother, who had the two boys when she was a teenager, apologized for her behavior. He told her no apology was necessary. They write each other letters now.
And during his senior year in high school he thought he might start a relationship with his dad when he found him on Facebook. His father told him he was going to make it to one of his football games. After a few of those games, Starling waited. And he waited. And he waited. He waited in hopes to see the dad he had never met. No matter how long the son waited, the father never appeared.
Starling blocked his father on Facebook and told himself: “I am 18 and you will not stand me up again.”
When Starling graduated from high school he figured his athletic career, which included soccer, basketball, track and football, was over. He made a point to never talk to his foster parents again.
He took a job making $11 an hour in construction, and discovered that he didn’t want to “wake up at 5 a.m. doing that” for the rest of his life. He wanted to go to school and play football. He had no idea how to make it work.
It was around that time a friend told him about Texas Wesleyan and its start-up football team.
My secondary coach is Quincy Butler, who played at TCU. We watched film on Starling and he said, ‘Coach, there are guys on the west side (meaning TCU) who wished they could do that.’
Texas Wesleyan football coach Joe Prud’homme on freshman free safety Izaiha Starling
Assistant coach Calvin Powell knew Starling after watching him play at Kaufman. Starling sent some highlights to Powell, and the necessary academic paperwork to prove he could play and that he had the grades.
Starling arrived on campus in east Fort Worth to begin his college career this spring. He is enrolled in 13 credit hours and plans to remain in school through the summer with the intention of playing in the fall on a team that is loaded with true freshmen.
Programs like TWU, and a load of other NAIA programs, are common for second-chance athletes, former military, and players looking for one more game. Prud’homme figures he has about eight guys like Starling. Players who need a home.
“He’s talented and he’s got incredible hips,” Prud’homme said. “He’s just so raw but he’s got a shot to be our starting free safety. He’s just so appreciative of what he has here.”
Prud’homme has only 16 scholarships to offer, so it’s not as if Starling, or any player, is on a full ride. He’s making this work through Pell Grants, financial aid, some scholarship assistance and loans.
The better he is, the more athletic scholarship money he receives. That’s how these things work.
Starling was good at other sports, but his passion is football.
TWU is his chance to pursue that passion. To play football. To hit. To work it out.