- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 9, 2006

BLACKSBURG, Va. — When Aaron Rouse makes a promise, believe it.

With his helmet on, the fifth-year senior at Virginia Tech promises to be one of the best strong safeties in the country. Without the helmet, Rouse has promised his coaches he’ll be a positive influence on the Hokies’ talented young defense.

“When the coaches, you know, they want to try to talk to me about leadership and leading a lot of young guys, I tell them that’s nothing for me,” he said. “That’s something comes easy for me; I’ve been doing it all my life. With the family I have, the home, it’s something that came natural.”

Even with his dramatic ability to break up passes and lay out ball carriers, it’s that instinctive leadership that distinguishes him from a league of talented players. The 22-year-old is one of four children Nadine Rouse raised in the projects of Virginia Beach while their father, Tim Newby, wandered into and out of jail on various drug charges and probation violations — even the 1983 fatal shooting of his own brother — before finally earning a 50-year prison sentence for first-degree murder.

“He was never in my life,” Rouse is quick to point out. “I remember a couple of times he’d get out of jail, serving maybe a three-year sentence, and you know, seeing him, waking up that morning, going to school, saying, ‘Dad, I’ll see you later,’ and go home from school and he was gone. And the next thing I heard he got another eight-year sentence, so it was something that … he was always in and out of our life. You know, making promises, coming up short.”

Rouse once jokingly admitted to his high school football coach, Sam Scarborough, that he was the only man who had ever told him he loved him.

Nadine Rouse watched as the disappointments aged and affected her adolescent son.

“His dad did make him the promise,” she said. “‘I’m going to be here and do this for you,’ and in not even a week he’d turn his back on Aaron. Not only Aaron, the rest of them. But I think that really did something to him.”

At least one of the things it did was make Rouse determined to be a man who honored his obligations. So, despite being projected as a third-round pick had he declared for last April’s NFL Draft, Rouse decided he had an obligation to Virginia Tech.

Following an 11-2 season and a Top 10 finish, the Hokies had struggled through a storm of criticism in January. Cornerback Jimmy Williams was ejected from the 2006 Toyota Gator Bowl, in which Virginia Tech earned 17 penalties. And, quarterback Marcus Vick drew even more attention for stomping the leg of Louisville defensive end Elvis Dumervil during the game, then being dismissed from the team for continued legal troubles.

With that negative vibe preceding an influx of young players on the Hokies’ top-rated defense, Rouse decided he couldn’t leave his team.

“He talked to me, he was like, ‘Mom, you know we can use the money,’” Mrs. Rouse said. “He said that he had written to the NFL or whatever and they sent back a paper, he could have gone in the third or fifth round. I said, ‘I don’t know what’s going to come out of the college stuff but please give me that diploma. I can’t miss [something] I never had. I want you to graduate.’ … I’m so glad that he honored that.”

Honoring her wishes meant his mother will spend another year working in hospital housekeeping and living in government housing that rumbles from the low-flying fighter planes overhead. His girlfriend, Jacina Thornton, will spend another year raising their 3-year-old son, Isaiah, with help from her own mother. Ms. Thornton will take time off from her job at Wal-Mart so she can attend games during Rouse’s final season at Virginia Tech,watching the young man with whom she fell in love as a senior in high school fulfill his promise on the field.

“I know he’s going to be a first-round draft pick,” Ms. Thornton said. “But it wasn’t like this when he first started school. He was just Aaron then, just a kid going to college just like everybody else.”

Rouse wasn’t exactly like every other first year student, though.

He was only 18 years old when he became a father. And for a few tough moments, he thought his place might not be in Blacksburg, but back in Virginia Beach with his infant son — whatever it took to be the kind of father he’d wanted and not at all like the kind he’d had.

Coach Scarborough, a 1986 Virginia Tech graduate who walked on to play on the football team, knew his former player well enough to be worried that his sense of responsibility would bring the freshman home before he ever dressed for a college game.

“When I first heard it, me and everybody else, I was like, great, there we go, there’s one that had a chance to get out of here,” Scarborough said. “Boy, was I wrong. I’m ashamed to say that was the way I thought about it, honestly. Aaron has done nothing but prove everybody wrong with that little boy.”

With encouragement from his mother and Ms. Thornton, who was on her way to finishing a two-year degree at Tidewater Community College, Rouse stayed at Tech to get his sociology degree. And while he waited through a redshirt year and two seasons of backing up older players, he knew when he finally got into a game every hit, every big play, meant more for his family than to even his team.

“Isaiah Rouse, you know, that’s my heart. You know? That’s my pride and joy,” he said. “My mom, my family, my brothers and sisters — that’s who I really play for. A lot of people say, you play hard … you run to the ball, what you play with? I always play with, like, a chip on my shoulder, because for a long time it felt like me against the world.”

More soft-spoken and intense, but still the vicious hitter his coaches had seen in high school, Rouse returned to help re-assemble a defense that lost four starters and plenty of credibility. Last year’s leader in interceptions and third on the team in tackles, he earned care of the Hokies’ trademark lunch pail, intended to represent the blue-collar work ethic that defensive coordinator Bud Foster expects out of his squad.

Rouse began to try to represent his team differently during the week, as well. The player who once squabbled with his high school basketball coach over a rule against dreadlocks began attending all press events in a dress shirt and tie, starting with the ACC Football Kickoff in Jacksonville, Fla.

“That was one of the main reasons I decided to come back,” Rouse said. “So many bad things happened. … I felt like Virginia Tech has done a lot for me and I just can’t leave. A lot of young guys here need a leader and not just a guy that’s good on the football field.”

That obligation to being the man who fulfills all the promise he’s shown — with or without a helmet — may be the most powerful part of Rouse.

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