Tears formed in his eyes when UAB defensive tackle Isaiah Forte tugged on his Children’s Harbor jersey this past Saturday at Protective Stadium. He thought, for a moment, about the importance of playing for someone else.
The truth is, though, those tears come often, in the moments before he steps out onto the field for home games. He knows two of his biggest fans – his daughters, 4-year-old Aailiyah and 1-year-old Ry’Leigh – will be in the stands.
“In the Middle Tennessee game, I teared up because I knew that was a big deal,” said Forte, who represented Benjamin Daugherty during the Children’s Harbor Game. “I even tear up with my daughters in the stands. I know who I’m doing this for. I love to see them after a game. They stand by the fence, behind the defensive bench, waving, my girls calling, ‘Dada.’ I just love that. I love the support they bring to me.”
Forte has known for a long time that he wanted to be in this position, starting at defensive line for UAB, with his family in the stands. He said following Monday’s press conference that moments like that were something he envisioned. He was part of Bill Clark’s 2018 commitment class at UAB, alongside current defensive linemate Fish McWilliams, after Forte had an outstanding career at Carver-Montgomery High.
“Fish and I committed here in 2018 when Coach Clark was here,” Forte said. “Fish, (Michael Fairbanks), (Starling Thomas) and I, we were (part of) a big recruiting class. I remember it like it was yesterday. We were on the roof, you could see UAB, all of Birmingham, we were eating big steaks and stuff like that.”
Unfortunately, for Forte, his path to Birmingham took a turn to Boonesville, Mississippi. He began his college career at Northeast Mississippi Community College.
“I’m not going to lie, the first week, it was tough,” Forte recalled. “You go to some school in Mississippi, which is in the middle of nowhere. You’re rooming with somebody you don’t know, you’re in a whole different state. Any chance we got a chance to go home, I always went home to my momma.”
Ultimately, he had a good career in junior college and is thankful for what head coach Greg Davis and his staff did for him. But, Forte said his mind was never far away from UAB, partly because the Blazer coaching staff and his future teammates made sure he knew they wanted him in Birmingham.
“I always say this about UAB – UAB is a family,” Forte said. “Even when I went to JUCO and got big, I got to 340, they still called me all the time. Coach Clark called me, Coach (Kyle) Tatum called me, I still came on (unofficial) visits. Even right after I got there, Coach Tatum was saying, ‘I still want to get you here.’ I knew that they cared about me. I really didn’t want to go anywhere else.
He arrived at UAB in 2020 but had trouble staying on the field because of injuries. He played in one game in 2020 and nine games last season.
Heading into this offseason, Forte knew he needed to stay on the field. He began by getting his body ready for the grind. Forte said he felt fine playing at 315 pounds but knew he would be better if he dropped some weight.
“After we got done doing a workout with Coach Lyle (Henley), I’d go to my apartment complex, they’ve got a little gym, I go in and get another mile in to keep my conditioning up,” Forte said. “I remember seeing the players from last year, how many plays, how many reps they used to get. I knew I had to get ready for it. I started eating right, working harder, just keep my conditioning right. Even after practice, when I’m tired, I do little stuff to keep my body right.”
By the time fall camp began, Forte weighed 285 pounds. As a defensive lineman, he was, however, still carrying around a question mark.
“Throughout fall camp, that was the question. What about your defensive line? What about your defensive line?” said UAB head coach Bryant Vincent. “(I’d say) we’ve got a lot of confidence in these guys, you just haven’t heard a lot about them. I think through five games of the season, their production, their effort, their leadership has been phenomenal. We’ve done a great job of stopping the run throughout five games, we’ve done a great job of really containing the passer and bottling him up.”
Forte said the doubt from outside the program helped with the motivation.
“I was like, why is there a question mark about us?” Forte said. “We hold the standard. When they said that, I told Fish, they just don’t know us. We’re going to amp it up. They’re going to know our name after the first game, second game, after the whole season, they’re going to know our name. That’s what I told him. We still talk about it to this day.”
Through five games, Forte has 11 tackles and a tackle for loss. But the pure numbers don’t explain everything he’s meant to this defense.
“Something I think that has really stood out about Isiah throughout fall camp and the first five games is his leadership,” Vincent said. ‘His leadership has been at a high level. When things are good, they’re good. When things are bad, and we’ve faced adversity this year, the thing that’s really been a strong point is Isiah’s leadership. That, to me, is priceless.”
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