Associated Press

Senior defensive tackle Issac Gross believes Ole Miss has championship potential

Issac Gross sat alone in the rain and watched.

The Vaught-Hemingway Stadium bleachers were all but empty, because only the most passionate of fans dared to sit through the final minutes of a 52-7 Alabama rout of Ole Miss in October of 2011. The Rebels finished 2-10 that season, including 0-8 in Southeastern Conference games.

But Gross was one of those fans. He was a visitor for the game, a three-star recruit who couldn’t bring himself to leave. Alabama running back Trent Richardson ran all over a helpless Rebel defense, the same Rebel defense Gross, a defensive tackle, long envisioned himself playing for. 

This night, though, he was helpless to stop the train wreck before him. So he sat.

“I’m sitting in the stands like a son of a gun, nobody beside me,” he said. “I’m just sitting there.”

Gross knew three things growing up in Batesville, Miss., some 25 minutes up Highway 6 from Oxford: Ole Miss, football and winning. He comes from a long line of South Panola High School standouts to don the Red and Blue, from Eddie Strong and Toward Sanford, to the Jerry brothers and Jamarca Sanford, among others.

He remembers the days when Ole Miss wasn’t an SEC West contender, when even one — just one — league win was all but impossible to come by. 

“I’m from Batesville, Mississippi,” he said. “I’ve heard Mississippi being low-rated, being at the bottom of the list forever. Being a Mississippi kid, I want our state to have meaning when I tell somebody I’m from here or I went to Ole Miss. I don’t want to walk in a room with Ole Miss or Mississippi on my tag and somebody look at me like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I want that class about Mississippi, too. I want that same respect you give Alabama or Georgia or LSU. I want you to give that to Mississippi, too.

“We’ve always had great players. We’ve always had some of the best players in the country. But the guys just never bought in and just took it until those back-to-back Cotton Bowls. It still burns. It still burns to know this is what they think of us. Now we can finally see the top, and they want us back where we were. That’s the feeling. It ain’t hard to feel that. They see Ole Miss and they go to laughing. They see Ole Miss and just automatically put a ‘W’ on their schedule. Nah, you won’t get that anymore when you see Ole Miss now. You’re going to have to play a full 60 minutes every time you face us. We’re going to be a fast, physical, hard-nosed team. We’re going to give it all we’ve got.”

The Rebels were 10-3 last season and finished with a resounding win over Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl in January. A number of players on the current roster only know Ole Miss as a winner, especially considering the Rebels have improved their win total each season under fifth-year head coach Hugh Freeze.

That’s why Gross is such an important figure for an Ole Miss team with championship aspirations. He lends perspective, an unquestioned leader who’s seen the program at its worst and at its best. 

“(Ole Miss defensive line) Coach (Chris) Kiffin always says I’m a natural born leader. I feel like I go out there and do right in my position, OK? But what about the man beside me? The man in front of me? We’re all brothers; we’re all in it for the same common goal. What a real blessing. What can I do to make you successful today? I go work my craft, and after I work my craft, if I just sit on the sidelines I feel like I’m being selfish. I love the game of football. I love everything about it: the coaching standpoint, the traveling, the offsides, the flags, everything you can name about it. I love it. 

“Just knowing that, in my work, somebody’s looking up to me and listening to what I have to say, I take it upon myself to lead in any way I can. Just like I was telling Greg Little today. I said, ‘Greg Little, man, you’d be a whole lot better if you’d use your feet, if you’d move your feet while you’re blocking.’ And that just comes from going up against guys like Barrett Jones, people like that, and coming back and telling Eli (Johnson), ‘Yo, Eli, this is what you can use.’ Or going up against a Chance Warmack, and telling Rod Taylor, ‘Look, a good guard is going to do this.’ I’ve faced them. I take to the coaching, I take to the IQ of football. And I want a championship, so I try to instill that into my younger players. That’s the goal. And I want to be around guys who love to win and hate to lose. We don’t lose at South Panola. I brought that to college. I don’t want to lose. I want to win. I want to win everything. It brings tears to my eyes to lose. It brings a weak feeling to my stomach; I don’t want that feeling. I’ve just got that character about myself that people look up to. When people look up to me, I feel like I have to encourage them the right way. I was around people who stayed on me tough. I always want to give back. I can grab a young guy and instead of jacking him up, I can grab him by his shoulder, calm him down and tell him, ‘Look, you do this, the play will go better.’ That’s one thing I want to do later in life, too, is I want to be a coach or a motivational speaker. That’s just something in me.”

Gross is readying for his fifth and final season at Ole Miss. The Rebels kicked off fall practices on Sunday in preparation for Florida State in Orlando, Fla., Sept. 5.

There was a time when it seemed doubtful Gross would ever be in this position. He missed all but one game last season due to a neck injury sustained against UT-Martin in the 2015 opener. But while others doubted him and doctors warned of a long road ahead — a road that could very well be without football — Gross worked, refusing to accept the end of his career.

“I never went down that road,” he said. “I’m a strong believer in the man upstairs, and I know everything happens for a reason. When I went down, I felt like God showed me not everything out here is a promise. Sometimes you have to work harder. Things aren’t just going to be given to you. Just be humble and believe in the process, and God’s going to lead you. I took all the right steps. I worked my body back. I never had doubt that, yo, I’m not going to come back. Even when they told me what happened I was like, ‘Look, I’m ready to go now.’ I love this sport. It comes with injuries. I just hope for the best; I stay prayed up about it every night. I don’t think about getting hurt. I don’t think about being hurt. I don’t think about anything negative, all I think about is coming out every day and being the best that I can and making the man beside me the best he can be.”

Gross has always been an overcomer. Such is life for an undersized nose tackle, and Gross has always thrived on being told what he can’t do. While generously listed at 6-foot-1, 263 pounds, Gross is tied for 10th in school history and among the active SEC leaders with 27.5 career tackles for loss.

He believes he’s better than ever.

“I feel great, man,” he said. “It’s just a blessing to be back out here — to get ready to go out and practice, to get taped, knowing I’m working on my craft today, watching film on what I did today. Everything just feels great. I can’t wait until we put the pads on so I can ring my own bell a little bit, just to know how I feel, how my neck is and everything. But overall I feel great. Excited.”

Expectations are high for Ole Miss in 2016. The Rebels are led by quarterback Chad Kelly, a Heisman Trophy hopeful, as well as a stacked wide receivers corps and an enviable defensive line boasting depth and talent. 

In the middle of everything will will be Gross, and that’s exactly where he wants to be. Gone are the days of blowout losses in the rain. If Gross has it his way, Ole Miss is here to stay. He’ll gladly lead the charge.

“We’ve got talent across the board, man,” Gross said. “It’s just getting these guys to believe it and play with that fire. Play with that fire. Play with that pain of whatever’s going on at home or whatever you didn’t do right this week. Put it all on the line Saturday. You can go out there and knock the crap out of whoever you want and you’re not going to get in trouble for it, as long as you don’t make head-to-head contact. Everything goes better when you win. Championship? Do you know what campus will be like if we win a championship? Man, Ole Miss will party all year. We’ll never stop.”

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