Better than Jon Taylor.

The next Corey Clement.

Those hefty tags were attached to Isom Golden through his final seasons as a youth football player and during the early years of his career at Glassboro High School.

He wore them well, too. He played ahead of Taylor, the state record-holder for rushing yards in a season and currently a University of Wisconsin sophomore touted as a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy, in the backfield of the Salem Rams youth organization.

He looked like a young Clement, another former Wisconsin standout who helped spark the Eagles to the Super Bowl victory last season as a rookie running back, during standout freshman and sophomore seasons at Glassboro.

That all changed for Golden on Nov. 12, 2016.

That all crashed down when Glassboro met Gloucester Catholic in a playoff consolation game.

"The game didn't even count," Golden said, shaking his head in dismay.

Trying to make a tackle as a defensive back, Golden suffered an injury so severe that his doctor's initial diagnosis was that more than his football career was over.

His athletic career was over, too.

"He wasn't supposed to be able to play sports again," Glassboro coach Tim Hagerty said.

Glassboro senior Isom Golden was a highly touted player in youth sports and as a freshman and sophomore for the Bulldogs.
Akira Suwa/For the Inquirer
Glassboro senior Isom Golden was a highly touted player in youth sports and as a freshman and sophomore for the Bulldogs.

Today, Golden is preparing for his senior season. He is a running back, a defensive back, a special-teams standout and an adversity-tested leader for a young team with its sights set on pushing the program back to small-school prominence.

Golden also is a portrait in perseverance.

He once was the definition of his last name, a Golden boy who was a dominant force at the youth level and  a freshman and sophomore brimming with promise.

He now wears a brace on his right knee and carries another weight as well: the hard-learned knowledge that things can change in an instant and that the road back to glory is steep, and rocky.

"I learned just how much I love this," Golden said on a sweltering morning during a break in a Glassboro practice. "I need to be out here. I need to play.

"But I also learned how hard I had to work to get back to where I want to be."

When Golden was in sixth grade, he was on a youth football team with Taylor, who set a state record with 2,815 yards as a Salem senior in 2016, and Zaire Jones, another standout running back who was a Salem senior in 2017.

Golden was the best of the bunch, by most observers' reckoning.

"Isom was very talented at the midget [football] level," Salem coach Montrey Wright said. "At one point, Jonathan, Zaire, and Isom played on the same team and Isom stood out at the running back spot on that team."

Golden said Taylor has served as an inspiration.

"It was my first year on 'Unlimited' [weight class] and his second and I started over him," Golden said of Taylor. "We always were cool. We knew J.T. had talent. He was nice. But the way he turned out, nobody expected that.

"That was all from him working. He came out of nowhere. That's what I have to do."

Golden moved to Glassboro before his seventh-grade football season. He soon drew comparisons to Clement, a Glassboro senior in 2012 who still holds South Jersey records for rushing yards in a career (6,245) and game (478).

"I heard that a lot," Golden said. "People told me that all the time."

Golden appeared on his way as a freshman and sophomore. He ran for 482 yards and four touchdowns and also returned three kicks for touchdowns as a freshman. He ran for 10 touchdowns in his first seven games as a sophomore.

"All you kept hearing was, 'Isom ran for 160 yards in this game, Isom ran for 150 yards in this game,' " said Hagerty, a former Glassboro and Rowan quarterback who spent that 2016 season as an assistant coach at Kingsway.

Golden's life changed  on that play against Gloucester Catholic.

"When I looked up, my leg was facing the other way," Golden said. "I was closing my eyes. It was like a dream. I never had an injury. I rolled over and it popped back in, and that's when the pain started."

Golden not only tore the MCL and LCL of his right knee. He also tore his right hamstring.

The physical pain soon gave way to an even deeper ache: The realization that he might never play again.

"The doctor was talking and I was like, 'Can it really be that bad? It can't really be that bad,' " Golden said. "It was shocking. My mom was crying. I played football my whole life, never missed a game. Not one game.

"I was like, 'Football is my life. There's nothing else. There's nothing else for me to do.' "

Golden's road to recovery was difficult. First, he underwent surgery for the torn hamstring because that needed to be healed before he could begin rehabilitating from another operation on his knee.

He missed the 2016-17 basketball season. He missed the 2017 football season. He returned to the basketball court last season, wearing a bulky brace, feeling at times like a stranger to himself.

"It was like it wasn't me out there," Golden said.

Hagerty said Golden showed his determination and commitment to his teammates and to Glassboro through his hard work in the rehabilitation process.

"He never checked out," Hagerty said. "He was at every game last year. He made every practice unless he had rehab. He worked so hard to come back from an injury that at first seemed like it would mean he would never play sports again.

"That speaks volumes about him and how much this means to him."

The 5-foot-10, 208-pound Golden believes he can regain his pre-injury form. He's still working to improve his speed and conditioning.

Because he missed his junior season, Golden likely will attend prep school or junior college. Before the injury, he was projected as an NCAA Division 1 scholarship athlete, perhaps at the FCS level.

"I tell myself I'm not going to feel sorry for myself," Golden said. "Some things I understand. Some things I don't understand.

"But I'm excited to be back out on the field with my guys. I'm excited just to be playing football again."