Inside Stories

Inside the Pirates: Isaac Zico

by Ben Gottschalk

Lowell – As the upcoming Arena Football season draws near, the Pirates find themselves in a sea of new faces, welcoming ten new players set to make their debut. Amidst this whirlwind of change, one familiar figure stands as a cornerstone – Isaac Zico.

Gearing up for his third season in the IFL, Zico now emerges as a steadying presence in the locker room, a seasoned veteran amongst a sea of fresh talent. Zico’s wealth of experience becomes a guiding light for the Pirates, and his infectious enthusiasm sets the tone for what promises to be an exhilarating 2024 season.

However, Zico didn’t begin as the seasoned pro that fans and teammates see today. His love of football and dreams of making it to the NFL began with pickup games under the southern sun and have brought him to the pulsating energy of arena football. Those early moments of passion and determination molded him into the veteran he is today. His journey shaped not only his skills but also his resilient spirit that anchors the Pirates amidst these waves of change.

Zico grew up in Villa Rica, Georgia, a suburb about 30 minutes west of Atlanta, where he lived with his mother, two brothers, and three sisters. Zico loved football as a kid and could always be found playing pickup football with his brothers and cousins.

“I would always play pickup football, but we never had an organized program other than school football,” Zico said. “So, I started playing in sixth grade once that was an option for me.”

Upon venturing into middle school football, Zico maintained unwavering consistency, relentlessly pursuing the transformation of his football dreams into reality. Upon entering Alexander High School in Douglasville, GA, the spotlight on his talents took some time to intensify. In his junior season, Zico had 564 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Recognizing the need for attention from college scouts, he strategically took action during the summer between his junior and senior years.

“The summer between my junior and senior years, I went to a camp run by Cam Newton, and I balled out in that,” Zico said. “The college recruiting page, 247 Sports, was there, and after that day, they just handed me three stars and told me that I was a three-star and above athlete. After that, schools started telling me that they were interested, and that’s when I started getting some big-time offers and ended up with about 20 offers.”

After relishing the excitement of being a three-star athlete and finally garnering some attention from colleges, Zico elevated his game even further in his senior year. Demonstrating remarkable progress, he doubled his stats from the previous season, ending the year with 1,000 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns.

While Zico managed to get the college offers he wanted from big-name schools, due to academic constraints, he wasn’t able to attend. “When I decided to take school seriously, it was just too late,” Zico said. “In my junior year, I tried to pick up my grades, and in my senior year, I really excelled at everything so that my GPA would be good enough to go to some of the bigger schools, but at that point, it was just too late.”

As an alternative, Zico enrolled in a junior college named Georgia Military College in Milledgeville, GA. Despite the institution’s name, Zico explicitly expressed his disinterest in pursuing a path in the military. “The army was plan Z for me; if everything else failed, then the army was the answer,” Zico said.

While Zico initially steered away from considering a military career, his enrollment at Georgia Military College unfolded as a unique chapter. Beyond his primary focus on academics and football, the college’s setting introduced him to the intricacies of military life. Regular routines, like morning formations, where cleanliness and discipline were rigorously inspected, became part of Zico’s daily experience.

“Regular juco schools are in the middle of nowhere, and there’s absolutely nothing to do,” Zico said. “I guess that’s where it gets hard in the juco route because it’s a humbling experience. But that’s where it separates from GMC. The juco boys that went to military colleges know how hard it was.”

The juxtaposition of military protocols with the demands of academics and football in this distinctive environment added layers to Zico’s collegiate journey. Despite not aligning with his initial plans, the experience fostered resilience and adaptability, shaping Zico’s character amidst the challenges and responsibilities unique to a military-affiliated institution.

“You mixed all that military aspect in with football and school,” Zico said. “So, you still had 5 am lifts and practices, and you had to attend class. Anybody that can make it through military college can make it through anything in life because it’s a lot harder than regular juco.”

As the demands of Zico’s schedule intensified, he grappled with self-doubt. The relentless rigors of military obligations, academic pursuits, and football responsibilities prompted Zico to question his ability to endure and his conviction in pursuing his football dreams.

“There were a bunch of times when I didn’t think football and juco were for me, but my coach at the time, Coach Coleman, kept me in it,” Zico said. “I didn’t think I would survive there because I wasn’t getting any offers. But Coach Coleman told me that I needed to buy into their program. I bought in and started getting big-time offers after that second year. I put my pride aside and humbled myself, and it led me to the offers I wanted.”

In his second year at Georgia Military College, Zico had 900 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. Following this stellar year, Zico earned the distinguished title of Junior College All-American.  His breakout senior year led Zico to the college offers he desired, which enabled him to play elsewhere and continue his college career. But the route to getting there looked a little bit different back then, as there was no transfer portal.

“It didn’t work like it does now in college football, where guys can openly leave; there was no transfer portal when I was in school,” Zico said. “GMC was a two-year school, so after you’re done there, you can just go somewhere else and play right away if you have offers.”

Zico received an offer from Western Kentucky; Jeff Brown, the head coach at the time, said he and his coaching staff were moving on to a bigger school and that once they made the move, they still wanted Zico to play for them. “He ended up going to Purdue, and the offer still stood; he wanted me to play for him,” Zico said. “Coach Brown came to a small town called Milledgeville four times to come to see my parents, which showed me just how committed he was to having me as a player, so I was committed to playing for him.”

However, Zico’s first season at Purdue didn’t exactly go according to plan. While he appeared in 11 games, he caught just six passes for 34 yards and one touchdown. But it wasn’t a lack of skill that was holding Zico back; rather, it was the overwhelming presence of the crowd that posed an unexpected challenge.

“I was too stuck in the limelight,” Zico said. “I say that because in juco nobody went to those games. My parents came to almost every game my sophomore year in juco, but other than that, it was maybe a janitor cleaning in the stands from an activity they had a week ago, their team, and then our team. So, I basically went from having an empty stadium at GMC to playing in front of 40,000 to 60,000 people at Purdue; it just blew my mind, and I wasn’t ready for it. Because of that, I didn’t really do that well.”

After spending his junior year getting acclimated to the crowds at Purdue, Zico emerged more determined than ever, fueled by a desire to demonstrate his true capabilities on the field.

“After my first year at Purdue, I was thinking about transferring because I only had one year left of eligibility, so it was my last shot,” Zico said. “But Coach JaMarcus Shepard told me that if I bought in, I’d go to the NFL. That’s all I needed to hear, and from that point on, I was a whole new guy. I bought into the program; I started lifting weights and taking class seriously. Everything just changed for me, and the season that I had my senior year was the outcome of that.”

He ended his senior year at Purdue with an impressive 743 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Zico’s performance became his ticket to professional football. All of Zico’s hard work culminated in his signing by the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent.

“It was very short-lived with the Titans,” Zico said. “I was there for rookie minicamp, and then after that, they cut me; they already had like 17 receivers, so they didn’t really need to bring in anybody else.”

Zico went back home for a few months before receiving a call from the Arizona Cardinals. “I went there for training camp and played in four preseason games for the Cardinals,” Zico said. “I was there up until week one against the Lions in 2019, but I got released three days before the game.”

Although Zico’s stint in the NFL didn’t go exactly as he envisioned, he is still thankful for the opportunity. “It held a lot of weight and was super beneficial for me,” Zico said. “I’m proud that I have that accolade. Obviously, I wish I could have been around for longer, but it helped me a lot; it got me to the point I’m at now. Back then, I was just so excited to see what it was like in the NFL, but now I’m more understanding of everything, and I’m a better player because of it.”

Following his time in the NFL, Zico transitioned to the Canadian Football League to further his professional football career. However, that opportunity died before it began.

“I signed with the CFL, and I was about to go over there in December of 2019, but then COVID struck,” Zico said. “COVID killed everything, and eventually, it got to the point where we needed to sign opt-out agreements because they canceled the season and shut down the borders. So, I never even got a chance to play there.”

Following a brief hiatus, Zico rekindled his football pursuits, this time joining the Spring League—a developmental league that served as a stepping stone for aspiring NFL players in the prelude to the existence of the USFL and XFL. Embracing this opportunity, Zico immersed himself in the competitive atmosphere of the Spring League, where the focus wasn’t solely on monetary gains but rather on exposure and refining skills.

Securing victory in the Mega Bowl during his time in the Spring League, Zico transitioned to Arena football, signing with the Louisville Xtreme. However, a turn of events occurred as the Louisville Xtreme faced dispersion, prompting their head coach, Mark Stoute, to make his way to the Pirates. In the subsequent dispersal draft, the Pirates selected Zico as a valuable addition to their roster.

“Once I got here, there were only three games left in the regular season,” Zico said. “But my mom ended up getting sick with COVID, and I had previously lost my sister that year, so I couldn’t risk the chance of something happening to my mom, and I had to go back home. I told Jawad that I wanted to come back to the Pirates and that I wanted to win on a fresh start at the beginning of the year. They were still interested in me, and I came back in 2022 and, since then, have been balling out in arena football.”

Zico had the third-most receiving yards in the IFL last season with 945 yards and the fifth-most touchdowns in the IFL last season with 21. But this year looks a little different for the Pirates as they have so many new faces and will be playing in a new place, too.

“For the last two years, it’s been me and Thomas Owens in the wide receiver room,” Zico said. “We set the standard of how we are going to play on the field and get better in the weight room. The numbers we were putting up were setting the standard, so I will continue to be one of those guys who set the standard out of the gate. It’s my job to get the new guys ready and help them wherever possible.”

In addition, Zico eagerly anticipates the transition from Worcester to Lowell, embracing the prospect of a new arena, a burgeoning fanbase, and an entirely different city atmosphere. Excitement brims as Zico envisions the potential for packed stadiums, vibrant crowds, and the prospect of creating memorable moments in the upcoming 2024 season.

“I’m looking forward to playing in the new arena, seeing the new fanbase, and the new city as well,” Zico said. “If we can get people to buy tickets, have seats filled, and buy into this team early, then we can get the stadium rocking and put on for them. The new arena looks insanely nice, so I can’t wait to see it packed with fans.”

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