HANOVER COUNTY, Va. — While high schools across the country are holding traditional homecoming ceremonies and football games this month, the Atlee High School Raiders are celebrating homecoming in a way the school has never done before.
And for football player Izaiah Patterson, the entire season has been a special kind of unique.
Patterson had bounced around in the foster system for quite a while.
Earlier this year, he was paired with the Riley family in Mechanicsville.
The Rileys felt an immediate connection with the child they felt chosen to shepherd.
"It's in God's hands," Chris Riley said. "God is going to put the kids who He knows can be with us, with us."
"It's a new step that you're taking," Patterson said about joining the Riley family. "Regardless if you feel nervous, you just have to push through. You're not going to get to anything if you just give up at first."
Patterson had played football at the rec league level until he was 12 years old, but he had never set down roots long enough to keep up with it.
That changed when he came to the Rileys.
"[We asked] if we could make it happen, would you want to play high school football? He said it's like a dream," Becki Riley recalled.
Atlee head coach Matt Gray then laid out his expectations from day one.
"You've got an opportunity, but you're going to have to do it our way," Gray told Patterson. "I just need you to listen and do what it is we're asking you to do. His response was, 'Yes, sir.'"
Patterson has played well enough to be named the Raiders starting linebacker. He has also held himself to a new standard, supported fully by his new family at home and on the football field.
"We have seniors that have wrapped their arms around this guy and said be a part of it," Coach Gray said.
"They accepted him as part of the family," Chris Riley added. "They hold him accountable to be in the family standard."
"The players are like brothers to me. They're like family," Patterson said. "They're there when I need them, I can talk to them about things and the coaches are a really good staff. They make me want to do better."
As the Raiders get ready for Homecoming, they are doing something they've never done before.
The players will have their names on the backs of their jerseys for one game only.
Izaiah Patterson had a decision to make and even though his adoption won't be official until later this year, he chose to have the name Riley stitched onto the back of his jersey.
"I chose to put Riley because they're like family," he said. "In the future, that's going to be my name anyway."
The Rileys called Patterson's gesture "the best thing ever."
"That's bigger than wins and losses," Coach Gray said. "That's more about impacting people."
It's a small, but meaningful way for Patterson to express his gratitude and appreciation.
The Rileys said "dire" was not a strong enough word to describe the state of foster care for teens right now, but for one young man in Hanover County, things seem to finally be working out.
"Most of the things that I do now are because I want to improve myself and they make me want to do that," Patterson said.
"I'm getting ready to go to bed, it's almost midnight. My phone buzzes, and it's him and the text message says thanks for giving me an opportunity to do something I love. I appreciate you," Coach Gray said.
If you’d like to learn more about the foster care program, contact your local Department of Social Services office or reach out to Virginia’s Kids Belong here.
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