Grace Academy's Aaron Tisdale could be putting on football pads for the last time today. He's a senior on a 2-7 team heading into the final week of the regular season with no hope of advancing to the TSSAA Class 1A state playoffs.
It may be a rough time when the final horn sounds at tonight's home game against District 5-A rival Silverdale Baptist (8-1). But it can't possibly be rougher than some of the times he's already experienced growing up.
Tisdale said he was 4 when his mother left home. He said his father has battled alcohol and drug problems.
At 11 years old, Tisdale and two older siblings came to the Tennessee Baptist Children's Home. Except for a six-to-eight month stint he spent living with other family members, he was there at the home until about a year and a half ago, when he moved in with program director Lynn Jordan, a single mother of two grown children.
"I wanted him to have, if there's such a thing, as close to a normal life as possible," Jordan said. "He has made great strides in the last year. When you're at the Children's Home, there's not a lot of decisions you make on your own. It's tough.
"Just like with my kids, you hope and pray they make the right decisions. I've seen him mature in a lot of ways, but he's still a kid."
The football field is Tisdale's sanctuary. The game is his stress-reliever. He began playing when he was 5, and although he confessed to being "a hitting dummy" for the bigger kids back then, he's stayed with it.
"I just love the contact," Tisdale said.
As one of the Golden Eagles' linebackers, he makes opposing ball carriers the hitting dummies these days.
"He loves sticking people," Grace coach Bob Ateca said. "You're going to know he was there when you get hit by him. He goes a hundred miles an hour every day in practice, and he plays just like he practices. He brings energy. He always gets everybody else fired up. It doesn't matter what the situation is. He's going to do his job and he expects everybody else to do theirs."
What Tisdale has done, despite missing the opening game against Notre Dame, is rush for a team-leading 768 yards in addition to being among the Chattanooga area's tackles leaders with 95.
"I hope there's some way he can play at the next level," Jordan said. "He actually has had some offers from some Christian colleges, but they're private and it's way expensive. Division III doesn't offer scholarships for athletics. He's extremely invested. He works hard to be good on the football field."
Tisdale has enjoyed time working with the youth football players at Grace, a K-12 school.
"Young kids are the future of the program," he said. "You've always got to pass down knowledge to help them blossom. I've thought about working in athletic medicine, but maybe I could see being a coach someday. I think it would be a neat experience."
Tisdale probably will need to find some way to stay close to the game, although he may never find a true substitute for suiting up on Friday nights.
"Some tears might be shed," Tisdale said of tonight's game. "I'm not even going to lie. I'm going to miss the camaraderie. We went from the beginning of the year being a team to now being a brotherhood. It's going to be hard to say goodbye."
Jordan said Tisdale reminds her it won't be long before she's an empty-nester again and he'll be making his own way. But job-seeking, taking care of himself and not using his upbringing as an excuse is what he knows best.
"He's going to be a success in life," Ateca said. "He works hard and will do the necessary things to be successful. Those kinds of kids, you love to coach them."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.