How much does Isiah Ocasio love football?
It’s hard to quantify. But we’ll try.
He has given up two paydays, both over $10,000, to play football. For free. In fact, technically speaking, he pays to play, like the rest of his semi-pro teammates for the Haverhill Hitmen.
And well, money is great, but the first payday he skipped, a boxing match, was for the New England AA championship.
The second payday was slated for this weekend, the same weekend the Hitmen faceoff against the Wayne County (Mich.) Badgers in Orlando, Fla., at noon on Sunday, in the AA national title.
“I had basically retired from fighting, MMA and kick boxing,” said Ocasio, whose family has been in the martial arts business in this area for three-plus decades.
“Yes, it would’ve paid great,” he noted. “But I can always fight again. These opportunities in football might never come again. This is why you compete. To play for everything. To compete against the best. I’m all-in.”
He’s also, arguably, the best football player in New England semi-pro football, coming off an MVP regular season in which he was among the best passing quarterbacks and best running quarterbacks around.
“We’ve had a lot of great things happen to our team this year,” said Hitmen head coach Emilio Colon. “We wouldn’t be where we are today, 11-1, playing for a national title, wihtout Isiah. No way.
“He’s special. A great athlete. A great leader. He’s in lab right now figuring out to get ball to the key guys on our offense,” said Coach Colon, of his 31-year-old star. “He gets better every year. He knows the game. He knows what defenses are trying to do him. Like I said, he’s special.”
About four years ago, football wasn’t on Ocasio’s radar. At least not until a few of his former Haverhill High football teammates, asked Ocasio to watch them play for the new Haverhill Hitmen semi-pro football team.
Ocasio surmises now that it was sort of a ploy, to get him back on the gridiron after a decade away.
“I showed up at halftime and watched the guys playing,” recalled Ocasio in 2018. “I was hooked. I knew I had to play. After the game, I went on the field, chatting with the guys and they wanted me to go to practice that week. and I did.”
On Sunday, Jan. 15, 2022, Ocasio leads the Hitmen to the USFA Double-A National Championship in Orlando, Fla.
“I realized it back then, that I loved football more than any other sport,” said Ocasio, who with his fiancee Alana Miller, owns the Haverhill franchise of his family’s “Ocasio True Martial Arts.”
“I only started as a quarterback my senior year, and we hardly ever threw the ball,” recalled Ocasio. “I always wanted to be a real quarterback, passing the ball. This was my opportunity.”
Ocasio broke his leg later in that senior year, thus killing a potential college career for the talented athlete.
“You could see from the beginning how good of an athlete he was,” said Coach Colon, a former star quarterback at Lawrence High and UMaine. “But not only that, he was smart. He had a great sense of the game. You would never have known he hadn’t played since high school.”
His first three years were good. He was the team MVP. The Hitmen were basically 5-5 every year.
But then 2022 happened.
One beloved player, Jeffrey Gilprin, suffered a heart attack on the field and later died.
“It gave our season a real purpose,” said Ocasio.
After a Portland, Me., team went belly-up, a dozen players joined the Hitmen.
“They drove down to every practice on Wednesdays and every game on Saturdays,” said, Coach Colon. “They not only made us better, in terms of size, talent and toughness, but their commitment rubbed off on everybody.”
A few other pieces were added, including a few key assistant coaches, and a dream season occurred.
“It was our fifth game, playing the Hartford Rebels. We were 4-0,” recalled Coach Colon. “It was in the fourth quarter and we were trailing 22-19; had the ball first and goal on their two-yard line. We couldn’t get it in. They stopped us cold. We lost our cool. They ended up going 99 yards the other way and winning 30-19.
“It was the best thing that happened to us,” said Coach Colon. “The guys decided that was it. We wouldn’t do that again … and here we are.”
And, of course, another MVP performance this season by Ocasio, leading all New England semi-pro quarterbacks in passing and rushing.
In fact, there was a game, two games after the lone loss, that Ocasio performed his magic, after the Southington Valley Vipers scored the go-ahead touchdown with just over a minute left.
“Isiah got us into a few positive plays, then, right near the end, he bolted for 60 yards for the touchdown to win the game (25-24) in the final seconds,” recalled Coach Colon. “We went crazy. It’s stuff like that. Our season just continued to take off.”
Ocasio’s numbers were astounding for the entire year, passing for 1,199 yards and 12 touchdowns, while rushing for 263 yards yards and six touchdowns.
“This is so much fun for me,” said Ocasio. “Semi-pro is about guys loving the game. It’s always interesting. Some games there are not enough guys; some games too many guys. I always feel like we don’t practice enough, but the fun, especially the games, is unlike anything I’ve experienced in sports.”
Ocasio has been given “offensive coordinator” duties in 2022, taking over the play-calling, which has made week days a lot of fun figuring out plays and schemes.
The fact that he has Coach Colon, a quarterback, to constantly bounce “stuff” off him, makes every game a new experience.
“We have a great relationship, especially the fact that he thinks like a quarterback,” said Ocasio. “It’s pretty awesome that he trusts me to call the plays. We talk a lot about things he sees. I love his temperament. He’s always under control. He’s made me a better quarterback.”
Coach Colon says the pleasure is all his.
“The kid is a student of game,” said Coach Colon. “He gets better every game he plays. He’s very meticulous with the football. He doesn’t do anything stupid. He not only has the physical tools, to throw on point and take off and run when there’s room, but he is smart. He knows what he’s doing. It’s fun to watch.”
Coach Colon said this team they are playing, Wayne County, is a national powerhouse, usually in the discussion when come national championship time.
“I’ve seen their film. They’re quarterback can run the ball, sort of a Lamar Jackson-type,” he said. “They have a big offensive line, really big. and a lot of speed at the skill positions. This is going to a tough game.”
But he recalled a comment from his quarterback recently, at practice, talking about the difficult task at hand.
“Isiah said, ‘We’re going to go down there to win a championship,’” said Coach Colon. “Honestly, I believe him.”
How much does Isiah Ocasio love football?