Tears well up in Charlotte Thomas-Frazier’s eyes when she thinks about the journey her son has made to reach the cusp of enrolling at the University of Wisconsin. Isaiah Mullens is a 6-foot-6 defensive end who weighed in at 292 pounds at his high school last week. He is a big boy whose body made him a perfect fit for the Badgers’ football team.
But that body nearly betrayed him, and Thomas-Frazier can’t help but marvel at the miracle Mullens has become. She recalls that Mullens was born premature at 26 weeks and weighed only 2 pounds. Doctors told Thomas-Frazier that her son might never be able to walk or talk after suffering from a traumatic brain injury during his birth.
The news was bleak. Yet Thomas-Frazier clung to the only pillars that could help her endure — hope and faith.
God has a plan, she told herself. And as the weeks and months pushed on, she saw belief prevail.
Mullens slowly began to heal. He was playing T-ball by kindergarten and football by fourth grade. He lived a full childhood that had once seemed improbable and went on to become a star football player for Harvest Preparatory School in Canal Westchester, Ohio. He earned 14 scholarship offers, signed with Wisconsin in December and will enroll this summer as a member of the 2018 recruiting class.
God has a plan.
“My mother told me stories about what I looked like, what the doctors were saying,” Mullens told Land of 10. “I remember flashbacks when I was a kid of people telling me this stuff. ‘You’re like a miracle.’ I didn’t really understand what they were saying because I was real young.
“But now when I think back to it, they were right. Now I realize what they meant. It was a slim chance I was going to survive. I think back to that time, my mother always telling me, ‘Isaiah, you’re just a miracle. God had a bigger and better plan for you.’ I’ve thought about it all the time. I still do.”
Faith has played an integral role in Mullens’ life. Harvest Prep is a K-12 private Christian school affiliated with the World Harvest Church and run by the church’s founder, Rod Parsley. Harvest Prep features chapel services and a curriculum with an “emphasis on maintaining a Christ-centered atmosphere” through scripture integration and Bible studies, according to the school’s website.
Harvest Prep football coach Milan Smith said the entire K-12 school has an enrollment of 612 students. There are approximately 300 students in the upper-school grades from 7-12. Harvest Prep plays football in Division VII, which is the smallest high school athletics division in Ohio.
As Mullens’ talent grew, some people wondered why he didn’t transfer to a bigger high school that would allow for more exposure. But Mullens didn’t see it that way. Instead, he wanted to trust the path set forward by Smith, who convinced him to play high school football in the first place.
Smith took over as the Harvest Prep football coach when Mullens was set to enter his freshman season. Mullens had decided to quit football and focus on basketball. Smith called a meeting with Mullens and his mother to discuss his future athletic plans.
“After having a conversation with him, I recognized his integrity really quick,” Smith said. “I recognized his character really quick. That didn’t take long. I still didn’t know what his work ethic would be like.
“But I told him if he trusted me and if he worked as hard as I asked him to and he did the things that we asked him to do that in four years from now, he would be writing a ticket to any university that he wanted to.”
Mullens wasn’t sure if he believed Smith, but he was willing to give it a try. What was the harm in working hard and seeing how far football could take him? He saw the fruits of his labor materialize during his sophomore season, when Toledo became the first school to offer him a football scholarship. The moment served as validation.
“I was like, ‘Oh, OK. I’ve got to stick with football,'” Mullens said. “‘I’m getting a full-ride education somewhere. I’m going to work hard, do what I’ve got to do, listen to my coach, listen to the pastor and just get to where I wanted to get.'”
Isaiah Mullens highlights
Mullens earned scholarship offers from five Big Ten schools: Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Rutgers. Louisville and Iowa State offered him a scholarship, as well as several Mid-American Conference schools.
But what separated Wisconsin, according to Smith and Thomas-Frazier, was the integrity of the Badgers’ coaching staff. Smith said the entire staff met Mullens and his traveling party at the car door when they pulled up for his campus visit and were genuine from the start. Smith’s initial reaction? These guys are different.
“We believe in casting our lot in places where hard work wins over talent and where you’re allowed to be who you are and people won’t make fun of it,” Smith said. “You can operate with integrity and character and believe that the person beside you is going to do that.
“Being with the coaches, we knew. And then watching the way they practiced. Not a lot of screaming and yelling and cussing at kids. Just a bunch of coaches making sure the kids worked really hard, and then kids holding each other accountable for their actions.”
Thomas-Frazier said she walked the football field in Camp Randall Stadium with her son and asked if he could envision himself making Madison his home for the next four or five years. He saw so many parallels to the values he held dear at Harvest Prep that the answer was obvious. Thomas-Frazier also said Mullens hit it off with Wisconsin offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and coach Paul Chryst.
“I really didn’t even know he was the head coach when he sat down and talked to me because he was just so down to earth and so personable,” she said. “I met a number of coaches. Him, he was really the most personable person to me. I felt like my son would be OK going there. We’ve really never been away from each other. But I felt like Wisconsin was home for my son.”
Wisconsin is getting an incredibly versatile prospect with surprising athleticism for his size. Smith, who also is the Harvest Prep track and field coach, said Mullens ran the third leg of the high school track team’s 4×400 relay event as a junior, even when he weighed 260 pounds.
On the football field, Mullens was a dominant player. He earned All-Ohio honors as a junior and senior and was recognized as the top defensive lineman in the Mid-State League in his senior season after recording 56 tackles, 7 tackles for loss and 6 pass breakups. This came after a junior season in which half of his 54 tackles — 27 — went for tackles for loss. Mullens finished his high school football career with 199 tackles and 58 tackles for loss. He also caught 42 passes for 19 touchdowns as a tight end.
But equally important to Mullens is what he can achieve off the field. He demonstrated his leadership as a two-year team captain of the football team and was a four-year honor roll student. He wants to be an upstanding Christian man who shows people the importance of his character.
“I’ve realized that this is what God wants me to do, not just to play football but just to impact people’s lives, to be there for them,” Mullens said. “Football is not going to be there forever. It’s way bigger than football. Having faith, believing in God, has been a really big part of my life.”
Mullens’ belief and work ethic has taken him this far. And his story of perseverance will only continue when he arrives at Wisconsin.
“Just to get the grim news that he might not be able to walk, he might not be able to talk and just to see him fast forward to now where he has a full football scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, I couldn’t be more proud,” Thomas-Frazier said. “I’ve always known that he was going to be special. I knew that he was going to be something.”