In a place he never thought he’d spend more than a minimum amount of time, Isaiah Longino has seen – and grown – so much.
A sixth-year senior defensive lineman, Longino could write a “fairytale” ending to his longer-than-expected Northwestern State football career Saturday when the Demons (4-6, 4-1 Southland Conference) face No. 5/7 UIW (9-1, 4-1) at 1 p.m. in Turpin Stadium.
With a win, Longino and 15 other Demons would cap their Northwestern State careers with at least a share of the program’s first Southland Conference championship since 2004. A Demon win and a Nicholls victory against Southeastern on Thursday night would net the Demons their first FCS Playoff berth since 2004.
“That’s the perfect word for it,” Longino said. “The whole season has felt like a fairytale.”
For most of Longino’s career, the word fairytale would be out of place.
He signed with the Demons as a linebacker out of Humble (Texas) High School. Like many first-time college students, Longino had a plan laid out in his head.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m playing as a true freshman,’” Longino said. “I’m not redshirting. I’m getting these next four years in, getting my degree, and I’m outta here. I’m not trying to stay too long. I’m doing what I need to do and get going.”
With the benefit of time – and the perspective of a career-redefining injury suffered in the 2019 season opener at UT Martin – Longino’s stance on life in Natchitoches and NSU has changed.
“The journey takes you where it takes you,” he said. “I’m honestly grateful for being here for six years.”
Longino is one of three sixth-year seniors on the Demon roster who spent all six seasons in Natchitoches, joining quarterback Kaleb Fletcher and cornerback Trey Williams.
They arrived together – along with current head coach Brad Laird, who returned to his alma mater as the defensive coordinator – ahead of the 2017 season. Since then, they have seen almost everything college athletics has to offer – good and bad.
“You always want to leave something better than when you got there,” Laird said. “That’s what these guys are going to do. It’s a credit to them and what they’ve been able to sustain over the last six years. They’ve overcome some tough situations and tough times.
“The three who have been here six years, adversity has hit them in life and to watch them overcome that and lead this team to what it has don this year is special. It’s a credit to them that they have stayed true to who they are and what they’ve brought to the team.”
While adversity is not always revealed to the public, Longino’s was clearly seen on a kickoff at UT Martin in August 2019 when the then-linebacker tore his ACL.
After an arduous road back through rehabilitation, Longino found himself in an unfamiliar position – defensive lineman.
It was a road that saw Longino add more than 40 pounds to his then-226-pound frame. It turned out to be a fruitful portion of his journey and a place Longino took to quickly.
Thanks to a kinship with then-NSU assistant coach Kevon Beckwith, Longino emerged as a force, collecting 9.5 sacks to place him seventh on NSU’s single-season list. His 18.5 career sacks entering Saturday’s regular-season finale are tied for fourth in school history.
Beckwith will be across the field Saturday, having joined the UIW staff in the spring.
“He’s definitely a huge guy in terms of my development not just on the field but off it as well,” Longino said. “He’s a guy looked at as a mentor, somebody I wanted to become like when I did start coaching. It’s crazy that he’ll be here. It adds that extra layer.
“I based a lot of my offseason on the thought he would be here. Now, I get to ruin his chances of winning something.”
Beckwith was not alone in aiding Longino’s development.
The gregarious lineman also credited former defensive coordinator Mike Lucas and “of course, coach Laird” as influences and factors in his growth on and off the field.
Longino pointed to the many “one-on-one sitdowns” in Laird’s office that had as much to do with life as they did with football.
Self-described as “lazy” early in his career, Longino has become a leader in the Demon locker room.
“They’re going to grow,” Laird said. “They come in as 18-year-olds and will leave as 23-, 24-year-olds. You want to be able to look back and say, ‘I had a small piece of them being able to take something from what they learn here to be successful in life.’ Football can give you all of that. Longino tore his ACL, came back and changed positions and did whatever it took to help this team be the best it could be.”
Longino’s presence was immediately noticeable for the new members of the Demon coaching staff who arrived in the spring.
“You could see the guys following him,” first-year defensive coordinator Weston Glaser said. “He’s a very high-character, vocal kid. He really had the respect of his teammates. That was big for me when evaluating our talent on the roster and who we could rely on.”
Because of his quarterback-hunting prowess, Longino’s name will be part of Northwestern State history for the foreseeable future.
More importantly, Longino already accomplished one of his career goals, earning the Joe Delaney Memorial Leadership Award in 2021 as one of the Demons’ permanent team captains.
With 60 minutes of football remaining in his Turpin Stadium career, though, Longino is eyeing an even more memorable moment Saturday afternoon.
“We win this championship and my legacy will be immortalized,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”