By Lee Williams
Photos courtesy of Chris Shabay
He arrived from Liberia when he was 2, welcomed by the Shabay family as one of their own. Following in the footsteps of his dad, uncle and grandfather, Isaac has embraced football. But to everyone who knows him, it’s more than just his athletic ability that makes him special.
On his first morning in the United States, 2-year-old Isaac Shabay was dressed in Michael Jordan sweats and a jersey, with a red Nike headband crowning his smiling face.
Standing in a Chicago hotel hallway, his sisters, Cassidy, 9, and Chandler, 8, handed their new little brother a football, which he promptly dropped and kicked. Then came breakfast and the joy of bacon, his second meaningful introduction of the day.
“He laughed and screamed and ate so much it almost made him sick,” says his father, Chris Shabay, a professional portrait photographer.
Three days earlier, Isaac had been in Monrovia, Liberia, 5,800 miles away and oblivious to the turn his life was about to take.
The Shabays had been trying to adopt Isaac for months, a disheartening process, with more downs than ups.
The month before the adoption was approved, Chris had been told that Isaac was no longer available, a toddler tied up in red tape. A surprise call from the adoption agency he’d been working with came on Jan. 24, 2006.
“They said this was the only chance we were going to have and that Isaac would be on a plane to Chicago,” Chris says.
The boy was accompanied by a man Chris knew only as “Pastor Joe.” His whirlwind arrival in the U.S. — a 22-plus-hour journey to London, then Chicago, where Chris, his wife and daughters picked him up, then another flight to DFW — answered months of prayers by family and friends.
“I know I’m not just some normal kid,” says Isaac, now 16. “It’s a fun miracle I get to be a part of.”
Now a sophomore at Colleyville Heritage High School, Isaac’s a playmaker and also a natural leader.
Heritage coach Joe Willis raves about him — as an athlete and person.
“He’s selfless and humble. And he’s using sports as an avenue to affect people around him. He’s destined to do something special,” Willis says, making it clear that he’s not just talking about football.
That’s not to say Isaac isn’t gifted at his favorite sport.
He played on Heritage’s varsity as a freshman and started 10 games at cornerback, his first against Class 6A powerhouse Southlake Carroll.
“It was crazier than I could ever imagine,” Willis says.
Solidly built at 5 feet 9 inches and 177 pounds, Isaac is fast, quick and strong and has great instincts. He knows one speed when working out and is laser focused. He’ll start at running back this year, but get plenty of reps at corner.
“He’s a physically talented athlete, and his hard work and versatility are what define him,” Willis says.
That Chris gave a football to young Isaac upon his arrival in the U.S. is not surprising; he comes from a family with a rich football legacy. Chris’ father, P.D. Shabay, was a three-sport star at Graham High School before taking the reins as TCU’s starting quarterback in the mid-1960s. Chris’ brother, Paul Shabay, was an all-state linebacker at L.D. Bell High School who played at TCU for one year before injury ended his career. He’s now a teacher and strength coach at Keller High School. Chris’ football life also was cut short, by a neck injury his freshman year of high school, but he excelled at basketball and baseball.
Isaac is fascinated with his family’s history and listens attentively as his grandfather tells stories of his high school and college days. But he is more influenced by his family’s love and unwavering faith than their feats on the field.
“The Shabay name means something,” Isaac says. “I’ve learned that.”
Isaac is a Christian and proudly professes his faith, often choosing action over words. He’s not shy about leading his friends in prayer, or asking someone to church. A “people pleaser,” Chris says, Isaac is kind, confident and courteous. He’s big on hugs and firm handshakes, while always flashing a smile. During a 90-minute interview for this story, Isaac never broke eye contact, and his cellphone was nowhere in sight.
“It’s interesting that people are always telling me how blessed Isaac is to be in our family,” P.D. says. “But really, it’s completely opposite of that. We are blessed to have Isaac in our family.”
Chris became interested in adopting a son when he was in his 30s, something of an early midlife crisis. His life wasn’t empty, but he says it didn’t feel full.
He had visited Africa on a mission trip and was interested in adopting. His heart was set on a little boy named Samuel from Sierra Leone, but he couldn’t make it happen, and frustration set in.
“I had two girls and wanted a little boy, but when that fell through, it got to the point that I didn’t care if it was a boy or a girl. It got to the point that it wasn’t for me,” he says.
That’s when the agency told him about Isaac, the youngest of five children in Liberia.
“They said it would be difficult,” says Chris, who never met Isaac or even saw a photo of the boy. The adoption process started in November 2004 and was approved in January 2006. Then came the child’s arrival in Chicago.
“When I saw him walk off the plane it was better than anything I had ever hoped for,” Chris says.
The Shabays had been told that Isaac would have issues, that he wouldn’t want to hug anyone and that he’d wet the bed. None of that happened. “He wanted to keep his arms around my neck all the time,” Chris says.
Isaac’s earliest memory is of playing with “little red cars with my sisters.”
His first sport was soccer, but not for long.
“We’re not a soccer family,” his grandfather proclaims. Then came baseball and football, and Isaac excelled at both. A switch-hitting center fielder, he played for a select baseball team out of Dallas, but after he finished his eighth-grade year at Heritage Middle School, he told his dad he was going all-in on football.
“I’ve always wanted to play football at the highest level and thought I could play on the varsity as a freshman,” Isaac says. Aside from serving as Heritage’s varsity ball boy in the seventh and eighth grades, he was always at the practice field, working out and hanging out, sticking his head in huddles when he could, listening when he should.
“I was a field rat,” he says.
When he made varsity his freshman year, the learning curve was more of a sharp turn, one he maneuvered with the help of his teammates, especially the seniors. This season, Isaac’s goals include being more of a vocal leader while respecting long-established boundaries.
“It’s important for me to play for the seniors,” Isaac says.
Such comments don’t come as a surprise. “He’s an unbelievable young man, and he really understands his place,” says his uncle Paul.
His Twitter profile lines up his priorities, in order: God, family and playing ball. He’s a member of Compass Christian Church in Colleyville, where he publicly shares his story of faith. In his own words, he says he wants to make the world a better place.
Isaac went through a rough patch in 2015, when his mother, Wendy Shabay, and father divorced, but he says the adversity strengthened his faith. He’s still close to his mother, and her love and admiration for Isaac are clear on her Twitter feed: “He’s not only the best son, he’s one of the best human beings I’ve ever known. Happy 16th @IsaacShabay.”
Isaac doesn’t like to talk about his time in Africa. He confronted this uncomfortable truth last year when writing an essay for an awards banquet. “It’s the first time I thought about how my life could have been different,” he says.
Once a year, around Isaac’s birthday, Chris will ask his son if he wants to know more about his life in Liberia, and the answer is always “No.”
Isaac’s living in the moment, though he acknowledges that he’ll probably visit Liberia when he gets older.
“I know the past has had a huge impact on my life, but it’s not my anchor.”