It’s easy to get caught up in the wins and losses of pro sports. But when real loss hit striker Promise Isaac, it knocked him sideways into a deep, dark hole. The game-day jitters – those glories and defeats out on the pitch – didn’t seem to matter any more for a player once considered among the best of his generation back home in Nigeria.
“When my mom, she passed away, I didn’t play the game for close to two years,” said Isaac, now 31 and reviving his career with first-year USL Championship club Austin Bold. “My dad died when I was just a little kid and I only had my mom when I was growing up. I loved her so much. She’s the one looking out for you your whole life and then one day she’s gone. Just like that.”
It was Isaac’s mother who had him enrolled, on scholarship, at the Grays International School in his home province of Kaduna. She supported his soccer and insisted he work hard at his studies. He was barely 16 when he was spotted flying up the left wing on the school’s team and suddenly it was like he was strapped to a rocket ship. He was rushed into Nigeria’s U-17 national team. Weeks later, he won an African Nations Youth Cup. Later that same summer of 2003, he was in Finland at the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
All at Once
“It all happened so fast. Too fast maybe,” Isaac told ussoccer.com. When 2005 rolled around, he was in the Netherlands with that same group of Nigerian players, including eventual Marseilles star Taye Taiwo and Jon-Obi Mikel, playing under coach and Nigeria legend Samson Siasia in a U-20 World Cup Final. Three years after that, Isaac was named captain of Siasia’s Nigerian U-23 team, winning silver at the Beijing Olympics.
Isaac could well have been a U-20 World Champion in 2005 and an Olympic gold medal in 2008 if not for the interference of one man whose name you might know. “Lionel Messi!” Isaac shouts the name of the Argentine who scored two goals to beat Nigeria in the U-20 Final and orchestrated the 1-0 result in the Beijing Bird’s Nest National Stadium three years later. “He wouldn’t leave us alone back then!”You won’t find many players in the USL Championship who’ve played against perhaps the greatest player in the history of the game. But far from holding a grudge for turning gold to silver on him twice, Isaac has fond memories of that man Messi. “You knew the second you saw him touch the ball in 2005, before he was anybody to anyone, that he was going to be something special,” Isaac remembered from his home in Texas’ capital, where he’s breathing new life into his career with Austin Bold in the league and also in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. “I knew he’d be the best player in the world because of what he could do with the ball, but what struck me was how humble he was – he was the friendliest guy when we were in the Olympic Village together. He was everybody’s friend – always had time for the other athletes – and that really impressed me.”
Everything changed for Isaac in the space of five short years. By the time of the Olympic Final he had already moved to Ankara, Turkey and top club Gençlerbirliği. He had the world at his feet. The plan was: Turkey first, then the flashier leagues of Europe. Three senior appearances for Nigeria’s Super Eagles followed, and Issac was well on his way to becoming a big name in the game.
“Everything was happening all at once,” said Isaac. He described club presidents who held him hostage in teams where he was no longer happy. He tells of shifty agents who bounced him from one club to another, uprooting his whole life for an extra zero or two. He was so young when he was offered his first contract, his mother had to fly from Kaduna to Turkey to sign it for him. “I was bouncing around. I started to feel lost.”
The Long Fall
Isaac played for seven different Turkish clubs in eleven seasons. He scored 79 goals in 355 matches. But those are just numbers. They tell only a fraction of a story. By the time he arrived to play in Saudi Arabia, he was jaded. He was unmoored. He was 27 and the shine was off the game. When news came of his mother’s death, it almost broke him.
He played just four times for Al Ahli, scoring one goal. “Her death hit me so hard it took a toll on me personally and on the field,” recalled Isaac, who returned to Turkey without a contract. “I didn’t play the game I loved, that was my profession, for two years and eventually I began to think: what am I doing? This isn’t going to bring her back. I can’t keep doing this.”
One of the first calls he made was long-distance – about 10,000 miles worth – to Atlanta, Georgia. Siasia, the father figure and youth coach who oversaw Isaac’s rise from schoolboy to Olympic captain, lives there. “We love each other,” Isaac sparked up, recounting how he came a long way to a new country. “We’re friends, but it’s more like family. He took me and my wife in and we settled here in the U.S.”
Eventually the time came for Isaac to lace his boots back up. “I wanted to revive my career, but a lot coaches were surprised to hear from me,” he said. “They thought I retired from the game and I had to tell them, ‘no I’m still around!’ I want to play. I can still play!”
He played in 2018 with Georgia Revolution of the amateur National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) in McDonough, Georgia. “It was better than just sitting around,” he said, knowing it wasn’t exactly an Olympic Final. “I needed to get myself back on a field.”
It was no surprise that Isaac was head and shoulders above the rest at amateur level – even with two years out. He scored seven goals in 13 matches. But he wanted more. He was hungry again “I wanted to make some money,” he said chuckling, noting a new craving for the highs and lows of the pro game. “I had that feeling again. I was ready to play.”
Bold Second ChanceWhen Austin Bold came knocking, Isaac was himself again. A first-year team, starting life in 2019, the club needed players and they were skewing toward foreign talent anyway. The Bold’s roster has 12 different nationalities represented – from Jamaica to Saudi Arabia. “Promise is very explosive with the ball near the box, but also likes to hold the ball and play a possession game,” Bold coach Marcella Serrano said, knowing the quality of a player who fell, virtually, right into his lap. “He has international and national team experience and brings real quality.”
What Isaac found in Texas felt like home. It felt a little like the old days for the wide man. “From the second I walked in the locker-room, I felt a good feeling,” said the player who has one goal in eleven league outings for the side so far. “The friendships were strong and the people really welcomed you in. We’re all fighting for each other and it feels right.”
Now in his 30s, Isaac is back on track. He’s making up for lost time. Playing in old baseball stadiums is something new to get used to. It’s his first taste of the Open Cup, too, where Austin Bold take on reigning champs Houston Dynamo of MLS in the Fourth Round on June 11. “I love this kind of thing,” he said, talking about the blood and thunder of Cup play. “Like this, you have no pressure. There’s that energy in a Cup, where you can take on a top team and beat them. You feel like you have nothing to lose.”
For a man who’s lost plenty, Promise Isaac takes nothing for granted. The wins and losses aren’t everything and he’s a happy man to be making a living doing what he loves. “This is what I love doing,” he said, his voice low and somber near the end. “I lost it for a while but I’m so happy to be back playing – even when I’m struggling, trying to find my way again, it still feels good! I just think to myself how grateful for it I am.”