CTE concerns steered UF’s Stokes to basketball

Florida forward Isaiah Stokes (2) during media day for the men’s basketball program at the basketball practice facility on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville Tuesday Oct. 3, 2017. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]


Florida freshman center Isaiah Stokes is happy to be part of the Gator basketball program.

Three years ago, the 6-foot-8, 270-pound Stokes was a 300-pound plus offensive tackle prospect from Memphis with a football scholarship offers from Alabama, Auburn and Tennessee. But Stokes decided to give up football before his junior year of high school to pursue basketball full time. The reason? Concerns about CTE and the long-term health risk of playing football. Stokes referenced former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, who decided to retire early due to concerns about head injuries in the sport.

“What made me switch mostly, just the health part of football, just taking years off your life, just the mental part it could do to you,” Stokes said. “It wasn’t so much the physical and I couldn’t play, because I really loved the game playing, it was really fun. I bought into it. The toll it puts on your body, I just don’t want to be a part of that. It can end your life early. It’s crazy.”

Stokes, the younger brother of former Tennessee and NBA big man Jarnell Stokes, put his full focus into basketball into the fall of 2015 and hasn’t looked back since. An excellent summer with Penny Hardaway’s Memphis-based AAU team in 2016 put Stokes on the radar of Division I basketball teams. He signed with Florida in November of 2016.

But while playing for IMG Academy in Bradenton last January, Stokes suffered a torn ACL when he his knee buckled on a wet spot on the floor. He underwent surgery on Feb. 2 and was just recently cleared to get back in the weight room and return jogging. Stokes could return for the Gators by January, though Florida coach Mike White has raised the possibility of him red-shirting this season.

“I would really like to play this season,” Stokes said. “I’m still not putting it all down but I just, I’m really trying to take every precautionary measure, I really don’t want to re-injure it. I’m just trying to take the safe route because I’m a freshman. I’ve still got time.”

Stokes hasn’t been able to show much because of the injury, but coaches project him as a strong rebounder with excellent hands in the post and surprising shooting range. Stokes was leading IMG Academy in 3-pointers made at the time of his injury.

Stokes said his older brother, who helped lead the Vols to a Sweet 16 in 2014, didn’t play a factor in his recruitment. After playing three seasons in the NBA with the Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets, Jarnell Stokes is currently playing overseas in China.

“Jarnell, he purposely, he didn’t want to be in my recruiting decision at all,” Stokes said. “He didn’t want to influence me one way or another. He wanted me to make my own decisions, make it like a business decision, instead of listening to all the hype.”

Stokes said he often played against his older brother in one-on-one games growing up.

“I definitely got my share of beatings over the years and because of him, that made me a better player,” Stokes said.