Imagine being a quiet sort, so gentle that your nickname is “Big Pooh,” then having a viral video of yourself telling an entire football team what to do.
Imagine being a high school football player with no college offers to speak of, only to find yourself as a key starter on the most talent-laden team in the NCAA four years later.
If you are Isaiah Buggs, you don’t have to imagine.
Buggs has made a long journey from Ruston, Louisiana, his hometown to Tuscaloosa with a stop in Perkinston, Mississippi, for good measure. Earlier this week, he was named the Southeastern Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Week for his play against Texas A&M but that isn’t the end of the journey. Buggs wants another national championship ring like the one he won in 2017 and while he doesn’t talk about the NFL yet, that destination is possible, too.
He’s not just a football machine, either. He is a rapper. A keyboard player. A basketball player. His Twitter account — @bigpooh_91 — is one of the more active among the Alabama players, whether he is chiding Central Florida for its national championship claim or offering words of encouragement to friends and fans.
“A lot of fire,” Alabama tight end Hale Hentges said on Tuesday when asked to describe Buggs. “He’s an energy-starter for us. He obviously played very well Saturday (against Texas A&M) and did a great job. He’s just a big, physical presence. Any time you go against him in practice, you know you have to buckle your chinstrap. He brings a lot of energy, a lot of juice. He’s hard to move off the ball. And he obviously can rap pretty well, as you probably heard in the stadium.”
He was even an eye-catcher in the preseason “Training Days” features that ESPN produced for Alabama. At one point, Alabama coach Nick Saban is shouting instructions and the responses from the Crimson Tide players create a cacophony of noise. That is, until Buggs stands up.
“We’ve got too many (expletive) talking,” Buggs said. “Everybody don’t need to talk. There’s the man (pointing to Saban) that needs to talk. Everybody always wanting to say some (expletive). This (again pointing to Saban) is the only man who needs to talk.”
The result? Dead silence.
Back in Ruston, Buggs grew up shy, clinging to his mother, spending time at church where he learned to play the piano while his mother sang.
“My mother is my inspiration in all ways possible,” he said. “She is the First Lady of my life. Just to see her smile makes me happy. She doesn’t live here but she comes to every game so that’s a blessing.”
She was at every game that he played for Ruston High School, both football and basketball, as well. So even a short recruiting visit was a big decision.
“When you are recruiting for a junior college in Mississippi, you’re only allowed eight out-of-state signees,” said Chad Huff, Buggs’ head coach at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and now the tight ends coach at the University of South Alabama. “You are careful when you recruit out of state. But Coach (Earvon) Moore, our running backs coach, he had some connections in Ruston that said ‘you need to come see this kid.’
“He didn’t have any D-1 offers, although it’s not right to say he didn’t have any D-1 interest. There were schools looking at him. At that time, he was 240 pounds. You could see the potential. You could see that he was explosive, but you had to project. Plus, he had some issues with his core curriculum and that made junior college a good option for him. Coach Moore went over and he called and said ‘you think he’s good at football, you should see him play basketball.’ And he was good, just a great athlete.
“The main thing for me, though, was when we met him. Just a great young man, soft-spoken. His mom is a great lady. We knew as soon as we visited his home that he would be a good fit.
“He had a bit of an adjustment period, like most players who are away from home for the first time. Junior college was a good option for him, a mutually beneficial situation. He was a great player for us, but he was also a leader, the quiet type. Some guys have that personality where they talk all the time but then when the time comes, you don’t listen to them. The other players just say ‘he’s talking all the time anyway.’
“Isaiah was the opposite. He knew the right time. That’s why he has that video that’s everywhere now. He was a locker room lawyer for us. When he spoke, everybody listened. Then he’d go back to his room and play his keyboard or something.
“When it came time for him to be recruited again, he wasn’t 240 anymore. He weighed 290. He’d had two great years. So there were offers. Lots of offers.”
Most people thought those offers would lead Buggs back to Louisiana. LSU, just three hours or so from Ruston, had a new head coach, a former defensive lineman himself, in Ed Orgeron. He was hired, in large part, to keep Louisiana talent from leaving the state.
One recruiting analyst said in November, a month before the junior college signing period, that there was a “zero percent chance” of Buggs choosing Alabama. But a visit from Alabama assistant Karl Dunbar reassured the Buggs family, and his mother said she would support him at any school he chose.
The decision to sign with Alabama was not popular in his home state. Buggs said on Twitter after that signing day, and again in November 2017 as Alabama prepared to play the Tigers, that LSU fans were saying “horrible things” to him. “Traitor” was about the kindest thing he heard. But Alabama’s win, and eventual national championship, tempered the dialogue.
“It’s cool now, I think,” Buggs said. “Fans just get dried up. I understand that.”
In 2018, Buggs’ play has been enough to cause any opposing school some remorse. He was a preseason All-SEC selection. He’s lived up to that through four games. He has 16 tackles and 5.5 sacks, the best figures among the Alabama defensive linemen. Saban, a stern boss, still wants more consistency but Buggs is ready to supply that.
“I’m a quiet guy,” Buggs said. “But when there’s a war on, I’m ready to go.”
Tuscaloosa News sports writer Ben Jones contributed to this story.
Reach Cecil Hurt at 205-722-0225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.