Isaac Ross pops the DVD into his PlayStation and a high school version of his dad comes to life, scrambling around a football field over 20 years ago.
“From what I heard and what I saw -- I’ve got a little tape at home -- he was pr... he was real good,” Isaac said, grinning.
Yes, Isaac almost said his dad, former Ohio State and Dallas Cowboys defensive back Derek Ross, was “pretty good.”
Derek “Toot” Ross was a lot of things. But when it came to football, “pretty good” isn’t sufficient. At the very least, he was “really good.” Some nights in Rock Hill, or afternoons in Columbus, Ohio, and Dallas, Texas, he was amazing.
Isaac Ross’ dad is one of the top-five players to ever come out of Rock Hill, and Isaac will probably never make that category, at least not in high school. But the senior slot receiver is ready to make more of a name for himself this fall, stepping out of the shadow of South Pointe’s incredibly talented 2017 senior class. As South Pointe begins its historic pursuit of a fifth straight state title Friday against its biggest rival, Northwestern, Isaac isn’t the only Stallion that wants to turn heads.
“We ain’t got the people we had last year,” he said. “We’ve got people coming out of the shadows, like me, Tahleek (Steele), and even Ty Good. We’ve just got to step up and make the plays they made last year.”
The long arms, huge mitts, even the way they walk. There are obvious physical similarities between Isaac and Derek Ross.
Differences, too. Isaac doesn’t have his father’s brute strength. And, as a wide receiver, he doesn’t impact a high school football game as much as Derek could with the ball in his hands every play as Northwestern’s quarterback.
But Isaac, who caught 39 passes last season, will get a chance to return punts this season and should be one of South Pointe’s go-to receivers. The 5-foot-9, 160-pound slot man is dynamic in tight spaces, and he’s got hands of honey that don’t drop passes.
“He’s not a 4.3 (40-yard dash) guy,” said Jay Currence, who played alongside Derek Ross and coaches Isaac at South Pointe. “But he’s football fast.”
The game is in Isaac’s DNA. His mom, Tayari Feemster, said she can trace his love for football back to age 3.
“It’s nothing anybody pushed or influenced on him,” she said. “If he had to take a sock, he was throwing and catching. He slept with his football. It’s just been in him. He loves football.”
Even though Isaac’s high school production has been limited so far, this shouldn’t be his football finale.
Wofford College is interested in him, as is Lafayette College, in Pennsylvania. Isaac has a 3.86 grade point average and his academic strengths should open up more interesting college football possibilities in the coming months. South Pointe coaches are trying to convince bigger schools to give Ross a chance, too.
“Great character kid; he’s gonna be there an hour early, the last kid to leave,” Currence said. “Off the field, absolutely no issues. Never disrespectful and that will take him a long way. He gets his job done, so I see that carrying over after football.”
Currence called Friday’s game against Northwestern the first of many opportunities for Ross and a dozen other South Pointe players to emerge. There will be college coaches in attendance to check out some of the better known prospects and the stands will be crammed.
“He’s one of those guys that, the bigger the stage gets, he gets big with the stage,” Currence said.
Just like dad.
Derek Ross, like other football players from pre-YouTube history, is occasionally overlooked during debates about the greatest players to come from Rock Hill. Little video of Ross’ playing exploits exists online. He’s largely remembered by those who don’t know him for the litany of legal issues that swallowed him during and after his brief NFL career.
But for those who saw Ross play, or played alongside him, he could be the best athlete ever from Football City, USA.
Before Currence spoke to a reporter about any specific plays that Ross made on a football field, he spoke about Toot’s leadership at Northwestern. Currence remembered the famous Ross-to-Shawn Woodard 50-yard touchdown that beat No. 1-ranked Rock Hill High in the dying seconds of the ’97 regular season finale, but less for the mechanics of the play and more for what Ross said before the game-winning drive. After the Bearcats scored with 30 seconds left, Trojan teammates were gloomy. Woodard recalls his mom even headed for the exits.
Ross came to the sideline and yelled at his teammates to get their heads up.
“We’ve still got time!” he said, jolting the team out of its temporary stupor. The next minute or so is Rock Hill high school football history.
Anybody who witnessed Ross on a football field has at least a few memories that play vividly in front of their eyes.
“Derek was an amazing athlete, man,” said Woodard, an assistant coach at York. “I remember one game he was sick, flu-like symptoms, and it was raining. The ball snapped, it was on the ground. He grabbed it with one hand, looked up and shot straight up the middle of the field for a touchdown. It was like a 60-yard run. He was just that type of player.”
Currence remembered a 70-yard run in a win over Spartanburg. Ross made, like, 13 tacklers miss, including Currence, who was trying to block downfield, but also stay the heck out of the way. Was Currence counting himself in the 13 tacklers total?
“I might have been 14 and 15,” he said, laughing. “After he came to the sideline, he said, ‘Jay, you’ve got to get out the way.’ I said, ‘I don’t know where you’re going!’ And he said, ‘I don’t know where I’m going! Nobody knows where I’m going except these legs.’”
It’s those images of Ross that many people who know him prefer to cherish.
“He had the world at his fingertips,” said Bobby Carroll, who coached Ross at Northwestern. “I don’t know where it went wrong, but he was just an absolutely incredible football player.”
‘Could have been one of the best’
Before Ross left Rock Hill, some early signs of trouble bubbled. He was caught shoplifting the day of the Rock Hill-Northwestern game in 1996. He was cited for driving with a suspended license three times by summer 1998. The third arrest caused him to miss his high school graduation.
Ross blocked three punts as an Ohio State freshman and looked a sure bet to start in the secondary as a sophomore. But he was ruled academically ineligible and missed the whole 1999 season. In 2001, he was pulled over for speeding and given a 30-day jail sentence after giving a state trooper a false name. He was suspended for all of spring practice.
Ross was an easy person to be around. He was well-liked, respected his coaches and was always apologetic after his legal mishaps. Those reasons, and his incredible football abilities, might be why he got fresh chances at almost every level of his football career.
“Bad choices here and there, off the field, made people question his judgment,” said Currence. “And that made people question his character, as well as his judgment.”
Ross’ problems away from football rarely seemed to impact his play. He intercepted seven passes as a college senior and decided to turn pro. He was picked by the team he had loved since childhood, Dallas Cowboys, in the third round of the 2002 NFL Draft.
Ross’ rookie season solidified the belief that he could become an NFL great. He intercepted five passes, tying for the most among rookies, made 54 tackles and started nine games.
But his career began to crumble the following season when disciplinarian Bill Parcells took over as the Cowboys’ coach. Ross was late to team meetings and clashed with Parcells. Dallas cut him in December and he signed with Atlanta. The next season he played nine games with Minnesota, but injuries mounted. Ross was out of pro football by 2005.
“I think maybe he got overwhelmed,” Feemster said. “Coming out of the grasp of his safety net, and then he went to a big college and when he went to the league, it got much bigger. I just think it got overwhelming.”
In 2005, Ross was twice arrested with large amounts of marijuana. He was caught after jumping bail following one of the arrests in Texas. He served several years in prison.
“It was rough for me because I wanted to see him succeed,” said Woodard, echoing the thoughts of many people from Rock Hill. “Even when he was off playing, he always kept in contact with me. It was cool to be able to talk to him every now and then. But it was hurtful that I didn’t see him take the next step in the league. I thought he could have been one of the best defensive backs in the NFL if he would have stayed with the Dallas Cowboys.
“I looked up to him, in a sense.”
‘That’s their dad’
Ross lives in Columbus, Ohio. Isaac said his dad trains athletes. The Herald reached out to Ross through Feemster, but he declined to be interviewed.
That’s hardly surprising. A low percentage of Ross’ interactions with the media in the last 20 years would have been positive. Certainly, some of that negativity was earned by Ross. But, regardless of whether it was or not, the image of Ross as a punk troublemaker was broadcast widely. It was hard for people, whether they knew him or not, to understand why he kept getting in trouble. It’s unclear if he even knows why.
Ross rarely comes to Rock Hill and when he does, he’s like that elusive, impossible-to-tackle 1997 version of himself, hard to pin down and often gone by the time old friends and teammates hear he was around. Various theories for why he doesn’t come home much range from possible embarrassment to the lingering negativity associated with his name in Football City, USA, to maybe wanting to keep negative associations away from his kids.
But Ross has a relationship with his children, even if “It’s probably not what we want it to be,” Feemster said. There is one subject that he brings up every phone call or FaceTime session.
“Don’t make the same mistakes he did, be smart,” said Malik, the 15-year-old younger brother of Isaac and 19-year old college student Aderia.
Feemster’s three kids were young when Ross landed in his most serious trouble. She’s never talked negatively about him to them.
“Regardless of how I feel or anyone else feels, that’s their dad,” Feemster said.
Feemster has raised the three children mostly on her own -- though with plenty of help from her parents and Ross’ parents, especially his dad, Houston. It’s rarely been easy, especially when Malik was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the muscle tissue.
After hearing his brother’s diagnosis, Isaac collapsed to his knees. He cried out, “God, not my baby brother!”
Malik, skinny as a rail with wonderfully straight-faced comedic abilities, endured five surgeries and a full year of chemotherapy. Isaac was just a kid. He didn’t think anyone survived cancer, and he was terrified his brother would be next to go. That fear grew as 10-year-old Malik’s hair fell out and he shriveled to 105 pounds.
“I felt like I needed to be more protective of him,” Isaac said. “I didn’t want anything to happen to him. I tried to show him love as much as I could, because I didn’t know how much time he had.”
Isaac was already a serious, determined child but, without his dad around and his brother seriously ill, he began to see himself as the man of the house.
“Just a leader, really,” Malik said. “He’s a role model to me. We talk a lot, all day, every day. About anything, not just football.”
Derek Ross was a leader on the football field. His son felt he had to become a leader for the family.
Making it happen
Feemster is nicknamed “Muffin,” but she’ll turn into a tiger if necessary to protect her children.
She met Derek Ross in 1998 through mutual friends. Feemster wasn’t really into football, but she thought Ross was “sweet, outgoing, nice.”
Over the next few years, Ross and Feemster had three children. The kids took the Ross last name, in part because Feemster and Ross figured they would get married. Life intervened.
Feemster carries herself with an air of acceptance that a surprise -- usually a negative one -- is always just around the corner. Derek Ross was one of them. She couldn’t tackle him either.
“You push people, you talk to them, but that’s all you really can do,” Feemster said. “If they have things going on, they just have things going on. I had the kids so had to keep it moving.”
As Isaac said, “she made it happen.” There were times when Feemster was stretched so thin, she was barely visible.
Isaac said he and Malik each have their own PlayStation 4, each with their own copy of the same games. He was almost incredulous pointing that out, as if to say, “who has that in our situation?”
“I keep mine on the straight and narrow,” Feemster said. “With it being just me most of the time, I want to keep a rein. So much stuff is happening with young people -- shootings, gangs, kids not really going to school -- and I want more and better for mine, regardless of what Derek had going on. That’s what my goal was, to get them in a productive place.”
Feemster’s children have everything they need, and they’ve repaid their mom by avoiding trouble, being respectful and excelling in school. Isaac said Malik thinks he’s the smartest. “I am,” Malik confirmed earlier this week. Straight-faced, of course.
But as bright as Isaac’s future is beyond football, he’s still determined to go as far as he can on the gridiron.
“I watch him go in the yard by himself. He works hard, he works out and he’s saying, ‘Ma, just give me a few more years,’” Feemster said. “It’s just in him. He’s mature beyond his years in that respect.”
Those are the same attributes that made Derek Ross one of the best. Whether he realizes it or not, Ross has influenced his kids with positive and negative examples of how to approach life.
“A lot of people looked at it as Derek failed,” Feemster said. “But people’s careers end differently. Death, retirement ... it could have been worse, could have been better.”
As Derek Ross writes the next part of his life story, away from football and legal trouble, his kids are doing the same.
At some point before Friday’s game, Isaac will pop the DVD into the PlayStation and let his dad inspire him. And then Isaac will tell him all about the Northwestern game, whenever they talk on the phone next.