Student-athletes have their hands full; balancing academics and athletics is a full-time job. For star receiver Isaiah Wooden, the journey to Southern Utah University has been a masterclass of balancing responsibilities, obligations and more.
During the 2022 season, Wooden emerged as SUU’s primary threat on offense, leading the team in both receiving yards and receiving touchdowns while contributing to the team’s rushing attack. But Wooden’s goal is to be a star off the field, as well.
Growing up in California
Wooden grew up in San Diego, California, with his parents, Prescilla and Roland Wooden. His father served in the U.S. Navy at Naval Base San Diego, where Wooden played football for Helix High School.
Since his sophomore year, Wooden played varsity and worked his way to the starting wide receiver position by his senior season. He posted 922 receiving yards and hauled in 14 touchdowns to help his team win the Open Division State Championship.
“Football is a big thing out there. We have so much talent, but it’s not really seen like that because of the bigger cities like Los Angeles,” Wooden explained. “It’s a whole melting pot with athletes, but we are really known for football.”
The next level
Although Wooden had many accolades, he didn’t receive offers from Division I schools after graduating high school. Utah Tech University gave him his first opportunity when it was a Division II college in 2019. After having 288 return yards, 177 receiving yards and four total touchdowns in his first season, he decided to transfer to Kent State University.
“It was a drastic change,” said Wooden. “Coming from a school where you are idolized, you play a lot, people know you, and to just leave and go to another school — obviously, the decision wasn’t easy.”
Jumping from a smaller school like Utah Tech to a Division I school such as Kent State was no easy task. Wooden had few opportunities to play for Kent State during the 2021 season. One standout performance was against Bowling Green State University, where he recorded 83 receiving yards and his first career touchdown as a Division I athlete.
After not seeing much playing time, Wooden entered the transfer portal and had the chance to talk to SUU head coach Delane Fitzgerald. Right away, he knew that SUU was where he wanted to continue his career.
“Playing this game, you only have so long, and what I want to do is go to the next level if the opportunity presents itself,” Wooden stated. “That’s why I got into the portal, hoping to find someone that will cherish what I do and what I could bring to the team. I talked to Coach Fitz, and immediately on the phone, I knew this was the guy — this is where I needed to be.”
Balancing football and academics
Football can be considered a job because of all the team meetings, practices, recovery, preparation and games a player has on their weekly schedule. On top of that, Wooden took 16 credits during football season with plans to graduate in spring 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in communication.
All athletes aspire to make it to the NFL one day, but without a support system, it can be a challenge. Wooden and his teammates hold each other accountable, both academically and athletically.
“I’m trying to get a 4.0, and I am doing pretty good right now,” Wooden said. “We have a whole group together because it’s an 8 a.m. class, and [we] let each other know that we have to go to this class and be the model student-athlete.”
Support that keeps him going
Wooden’s story wouldn’t be the same without his wife, Aunesty. She and Wooden began dating before he transferred to Kent State in 2021, and for nearly three years, she has been his best friend and biggest supporter. Aunesty was there for him throughout the transferring process, and the two got married in March 2022.
It has not been the easiest year for the Thunderbirds on the gridiron; through eight weeks, the team has gone 3-5. Though improved and far from last year’s single-win season, SUU lost by an average of 5.4 points during a five-game losing streak. Hitting a lull in the middle of the season takes its toll on players, physically and mentally. Aunesty helps Wooden stay level-headed through the hard times that student-athletes endure.
“I go home after a game, and I just feel like I am rambling about what happened,” Wooden stated. “But sometimes, I realize that she doesn’t want to hear this, and it helps me get off of football.”
While it may be uncommon for SUU football players to be drafted to the NFL, it’s not entirely unheard of. Since 2016, NFL teams have drafted three football players from SUU’s program, and Wooden plans to be the next.
“There are a lot of people on the team that want to go to the next level,” Wooden said. “It all starts right now with accountability and responsibility. Basically, doing what you have to do without anyone telling you.”
Although Wooden is set to graduate this spring, he has a year left of eligibility. His final year at SUU will be the biggest balancing act he will have to perform. Working on a graduate degree while putting his best efforts on tape for NFL scouts is what Wooden aims to do.
Story by Chevy Blackburn
Photos courtesy of Anden Garfield
This article was originally published in December 2022 edition of the University Journal.