On opening day of school at Monument’s Grace Best Elementary, teacher Tom Pulford was walking to class when he saw a fourth grader named Isaiah.
“He’s picking up trash in the hallway that wasn’t his trash,” Pulford says. “His first day at a new school, and he was doing the right thing, and nobody had to tell him to do that.”
Isaiah Sanders was late for class that morning, but Pulford made sure to tell Brian Bedsel, the fourth-grade teacher, to not mark him tardy.
“I was thoroughly impressed,” Pulford says, thinking back to the image of the young and diligent trash collector. “It made quite an impression on me.”
In an unlikely twist, Pulford became head football coach at Palmer Ridge High with, yes, Sanders as his starting quarterback. As a senior, Sanders threw for 3,176 yards and 32 touchdowns, earned straight A’s, scored 33 on the ACT and signed to play football at nearby Air Force Academy.
A few miles away from Palmer Ridge, the diligent hometown quarterback is engaged in a spirited struggle with incumbent Arion Worthman to win Air Force’s starting job. Pulford declines to say if he believes Sanders will win the struggle. That, he says, is for Troy Calhoun to decide.
But Pulford will offer an impassioned endorsement for Sanders, just in general.
“Isaiah as a young man, even before you see him throw a football, you know his attention to detail and commitment to excellence is second to none,” Pulford says. “Isaiah throwing the football well is just a by-product of him doing everything well in his life.”
The battle for the starting job is real. Worthman was sensational as a sophomore, leading the Falcons to a six straight wins while averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
But he often struggled as a junior in 2017. Defenses knew his reluctance to pitch the ball and ganged up on him. All of Worthman’s – and the offense’s and the program’s — shortcomings were on display in the Falcons 21-0 Nov. 4 mega-disaster loss to Army.
Three weeks later, in the final game of the season, Sanders replaced the injured Worthman and led Air Force to a dramatic 38-35 win against Utah State Sanders, like Worthman, enjoys calling his own number. He ran 44 times for 196 yards, rallying his Falcons from a 14-0 deficit. It was a siren-like announcement that he’s ready to run the Falcons offense.
Sanders, a quiet type, is not ready to make the announcement official.
“I think that’s for y’all to decide,” he says of the deeper meaning of his Utah State performance. “I did what I could by the grace of God and hopefully the coaches saw that.
“As far as a statement, I definitely have a lot more to prove than what one game shows.”
Worthman is a senior with 16 starts, and Sanders a junior with one start. The favorite at this point is Worthman, and the upbeat news is Calhoun has his probable 2019 starter, and possible star, already on the roster.
The downbeat news is two of the best – and maybe the two best – athletes on the roster play the same position.
Remember this: Calhoun will not allow sentiment to alter his decision. In 2016, Nate Romine claimed the starting job after a long wait. When a big hit shook up Romine against Fresno State, Worthman seized the job. Romine seldom was seen again.
Worthman now plays Romine’s role, the older, experienced quarterback being chased by a hungry, talented challenger. He says he’s comfortable with the battle and quickly mentions he considers Sanders a friend. They attend Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings together. They share football secrets.
“Competition is great,” Worthman says. “I love competition. That’s why you come to a Division I program to play against the best players, to play with them, to play beside them.”
Glad to hear your enthusiasm, Arion.
Because, trust me, you face serious competition.