Long road back lifts Longino to leader status

NSU 33 Isaiah Longino UNT 3 DeAndre Torrey

“We’re going to get through this.”

Hearing those six words as he sat on the turf at Hardy Graham Stadium in Martin, Tennessee, helped make sense of what just happened to Isaiah Longino.

Then a junior linebacker covering a punt in Northwestern State’s 2019 season opener at UT Martin, Longino felt a “wobble” in his left knee as he charged down the field, looking to make a tackle.

“I’m running down the field and felt my knee wobble a little bit,” Longino said. “It buckled, and I think, ‘I’ve dislocated it.” Immediately, I just drop, and I’m thinking, ‘OK, this is nothing. I can get up.’ I couldn’t. Miss Ashley (Leggett Pugh), she was the (athletic) trainer at the time. She came out and touched my knee a little bit. She looked me in the eye and said, ‘It’s probably what you think it is. We’re going to get through this.’

“Those words were comforting. They gave me the confidence to say whatever this is, God made it happen, and I’m just going to get through it.”

“It” indeed was a torn anterior cruciate ligament that brought Longino’s junior season to an extremely premature end but set him on a position-changing, eye-opening journey that continues with a homecoming game of sorts Saturday night at Houston Baptist (0-4, 0-1). Longino, who hails from the Houston suburb of Humble, and the Demons (0-4, 0-1) will kick off the Southland Conference matchup at 6 p.m. inside Husky Stadium.

The visit to southwest Houston is NSU’s first since that same 2019 season that saw Longino enter as a 230-pound linebacker. Not long after the Demons resumed fall workouts following the COVID-19-related postponement of the 2020 fall season, Longino was faced with another change – one brought to him by a coach, not by chance.

“I’m coming back, got my knee back to 100 percent,” Longino said. “I’m running and cutting. I’ve gained a little weight. I’m around 250, and I usually play around 230. I thought I’d lose the weight during camp. (Defensive coordinator) Coach (Mike) Lucas comes up to me during a practice in the gym – it was raining that day – and says, ‘Hey, Gino, I might need you to play D-line.’ When he told me that, it was immediately, ‘OK. I got you. Whatever the team needs. If you feel we have depth at linebacker and you need me on the D-line, I’m cool with that.’”

With the position change came the need to put on a few extra pounds. Accustomed to playing at around 230 pounds as a linebacker, Longino now checks in as a 270-pound defensive end who leads Northwestern State in sacks (2.5) and shares the lead in tackles for loss (2.5).

Longino’s early-season success is rooted in having had a six-game spring season to adjust to his new on-field home. In the Demons’ six-game spring slate, Longino recorded 11 tackles, including four for a loss and two sacks.

The road he traveled from missing most of the 2019 season and reinventing himself at a new position impressed both his teammates and the Demon coaching staff.

“He’s one of those guys you just want to sit down and listen to his story,” said fourth-year head coach Brad Laird, who was Northwestern State’s defensive coordinator in Longino’s freshman season of 2017. “When you think times are tough and you’re going through some things, let him go through his process. That’s the thing he’s never wavered from. It hasn’t been easy, but he’s worked his butt off to be in the position he’s in.”

Ahead of the 2021 fall season, Laird and his coaching and support staff drafted captains for their “Champion Team” competition, choosing Longino as one of the 11 team captains. The “Champion Team” captains then drafted teammates onto their roster for the weekly challenge that awards points for positive efforts and declines for negative actions on and off the field.

Through four weeks, Longino’s team has won a pair of challenges, taking on the personality of its captain.

“What propelled me to become a true team leader, a Champion Team leader, was definitely the journey – the experiences I had to deal with,” Longino said. “The times I was in the wrong. The things I had to learn from. The things I messed up. All of them made me a better student and a better athlete. Getting my grades together, being better in the community, I took those things for granted at first. Because of my journey, those things prepared me to become a leader, learning through experience.”

Although Longino considers himself a “natural leader,” changing positions meant not only learning his way around a new spot on the field but also in the hierarchy among the defensive linemen.

Despite being an upperclassman, Longino sublimated his ego and utilized his younger teammates as resources to ease the transition.

“Nate (Nanai) was a huge help, and (JaBralen) Yarber as well,” Longino said. “They basically stripped it down to the basics. They said it in different ways so I could understand. Coach would say something, then Nate would say, ‘Hey, this is what he means.’ Same thing with Yarber. If you think it through like this, it’s easier. Those two have helped my progress and growth in that position.”

The ability to build relationships has been as important to Longino’s growth as a leader as his ability to overcome injury and willingness to change positions.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Laird said. “He went from a linebacker to who tore his ACL and worked to get back to being asked by a coach if you want to change positions and be a defensive lineman. The thing the other guys saw in him is someone who shows up every day to go to work. There are going to be good days and bad days, but Gino shows up and goes to work every day. That’s what has earned him the respect – how he approaches everything daily.

“He’s one of those stories, the why we do what we do – why we coach those young men. It’s to see them develop from when they get here to where they are when they leave.”

Photo Credit: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services

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