Centerville defensive lineman Isaac Samuel, center, has become a key player for the Wildcats this season while living with his family in a homeless family shelter. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

From the moment he first entered Centreville’s hallways as a 6-foot-3, 300-pound freshman, Isaac Samuel heard the same question just about every day.

Hey big man, when are you going to come out and play football?

The notion soon began to make sense for Samuel. He had never played a down of competitive football and was a bit “pudgy” by his standards, but he saw it as a means to do something no one in his family had ever done — graduate from college.

But the soft-spoken teenager couldn’t bring himself to tell his mother he wanted to play. A game didn’t seem so important when he surveyed his family’s residence in a Fairfax motel with no means of transportation, his father’s incarceration and an older brother and sister with legal troubles.

It wasn’t until two years later, after Samuel had bounced between three apartments and motels, that he saw football as a chance for stability.

Senior lineman Isaac Samuel, second from right, jokes with teammates during a recent practice. Samuel did not begin playing football until his junior year, but has emerged as a key player on the Wildcats’ unbeaten team. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Samuel, now a senior, lives in a homeless family shelter with his mother and the youngest of his six siblings, and the reality of his life outside of football has yet to mirror his growth on the gridiron from a raw junior to a second-team all-Concorde District defensive lineman.

But when Samuel takes the field Saturday for No. 2 Centreville as it hosts No. 6 Westfield in the Virginia 6A North region final, he’ll do so with the same relentless spirit that has brought hope to his family in its darkest times.

“Football really helped turn my life around,” Samuel said. “Life happens. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it.

“I saw how negative things almost messed me up, and I realized I need to be a role model for my younger brothers and help out my mom in any way I can. And football has helped me do that.”

Finding the right path

The Katherine K. Hanley Family Shelter , which opened in 2007, is tucked just behind an affluent neighborhood of large single-family homes. The facility is constructed like an upscale, two-story apartment building with a cafeteria, computer room and common area for its 20-plus families. Samuel, his mother and youngest brother live in a dorm-sized bedroom with three beds (two are bunks) and share a bathroom with five other families.

Samuel’s other younger brother visits on weekends from the juvenile detention center he attends; his older sister and three older brothers reside in Fairfax County. His father, who Samuel said writes him letters, remains in jail.

“Seeing my mom deal with all of this has been tough,” Samuel said. “But everyone at the center knows us and is nice, and that helps.”

“Football really helped turn my life around,” Isaac Samuel says. “Life happens. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it.” (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

When he moved with his family from Beirut to the United States at the age of 5, the plan did not involve a shelter or for Samuel, the fourth youngest of six, to be the man of the house. As refugees from Sudan escaping the chaos there and in Beirut, Samuel’s parents secured visas for their family. After six months in government-provided housing in Alexandria, the Samuels settled in Centreville.

As Samuel’s parents worked to establish steady careers, his siblings began getting into trouble. His older sister was arrested following several fights, while his older brother went in and out of jail. The mounting legal fees took their toll on the Samuels, who struggled to keep up with their rent and soon were forced out of their apartment.

Samuel said his father developed an angry streak and the household experienced episodes of domestic violence. When Samuel’s father went into custody, his mother was left to carry the financial load — Alice is a manager at a BJ’s Wholesale Club — and the Samuels moved to Falls Church before mounting bills forced them to the shelter.

“Around middle school, I started noticing how bad things were, and I couldn’t believe it,” Samuel said. “I didn’t want to go home, so I started staying away and getting into trouble.”

Samuel would regularly skip class, party often and neglect his schoolwork during his first two years at Centreville. Several classmates and Coach Chris Haddock continued prodding him about playing football, but with his family lacking the means to maintain a football schedule’s demands, Samuel declined.

What Samuel didn’t know was that his mother noticed how often football would pepper their conversations. Even though she knew little about the sport, Alice silently vowed to make a way for her son to pursue his interest.

“He would have started football earlier, but with the obstacles and instability, he couldn’t get to where he wanted, and I held myself responsible for that,” Alice said. “When I realized football is what he really likes, I said this is what we’ve got to do and I’ll support you even though we have difficulties.”

With his mother’s support and an extra two inches in height, Samuel went out for the football team as a junior — and nearly quit after a week. Far from in shape and still learning the game, Samuel struggled on the defensive line even though he was the team’s biggest player.

“At first, I thought, you know, [two-a-days are] a tough thing on a lot of people, and I told him later that I thought he was going to give up,” Haddock said. “But I was really impressed how he stuck with it, especially having never played football before. . . . Now he’s not just out there to hang out; he wants to be a football player and win a ring.”

‘A big part of our team’

Samuel has shed 20 pounds in the past year to earn the nickname “Big Slim,” improved his technique and served as a stalwart for a defense that has registered four shutouts this year.

“I’m really proud of him because he’s overcome a lot,” said Centreville senior offensive lineman Brandon King, who often gives Samuel rides to and from school and practice. “He’s a big part of our team and really helps us out with his energy and competitive spirit.”

Other coaches took notice of Samuel’s rise and voted him as a second-team defensive lineman in the tough Concorde District, which has produced a state finalist or champion in 10 of the past 13 seasons.

“When I found out I was second team all-district, I was happy and proud because I felt like I earned it with all of the hard work I put in,” Samuel said. “It wasn’t easy.”

The difficulties at home have continued. Following a surgical operation this past summer, Alice was unable to continue working.

As Alice recovers, the Samuels hope to move into their own residence in the coming months. Isaac soon will take the SAT in hopes of landing a spot at a college as either a football player or get himself on a track to pursue auto mechanics.

“This struggle, it’s like never ending, but I hope one day after all of this he can come back from school and eat a nice meal and sleep in his own bed,” Alice said. “I really hope he can get what he wants.”