When he was eight, Isaiah Smalls's mother, Kim, saw a news story about a football player collapsing on the field. Smalls admits that, at that time, he was "shorter, rounder," and a bit of a Butterball.
His friends had already started playing football, and he wanted in. Kim said no, and kept saying no for two more years.
"She didn't want that to happen to me, but as I got older and taller, I started slimming out more," said Smalls, who is now anything but, at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds. "She just didn't want anything to happen to me on the field."
Smalls lives in a three-bedroom apartment with Kim, his 12-year old sister Haylee, and, when he's not out driving trucks, his mother's boyfriend, who's home four days out of the month. When he sat down in California tight ends coach Charlie Ragle's office after the spring game, he didn't know he'd be opening up about his past, about his family or his upbringing, but there he was, telling Ragle about why he played football.
"Once I started having my success in football, it started being an escape," Smalls said. "Right now, it's not the best living conditions at home. I'm my family's way out to a better life. All that is riding on my shoulders, having to help take care of my mom and sister. It's on me. I don't mind the pressure, because this is what I've always wanted to do. It wasn't like she signed me up for it. I knew what I was signing up for, when I first started to play football. I'm taking that role, and being ready to keep playing this game that I love."
Smalls's sister was diagnosed with Type I diabetes three years ago. His mother has had to sacrifice the ability to have a true full-time job in order to keep tabs on her daughter's blood sugar, which can spike to over 500 at times.
"It's been hard on my mom, trying to find a regular, full-time job, when she pretty much has to take care of my sister, and be there for her whenever she needs her," Smalls said. "Her sugar levels are always fluctuating. You can never really control it. She'll be at work, and she'll get a call that [Haylee's] sugar is over 500. If her sugar is over 500 at school, she has to come home."
Kim does volunteer work, and is involved at Smalls's school, Los Angeles (Calif.) Dorsey.
"She's on the school site council, and she's involved at our school, and she's been like that since I've been in elementary school," Smalls said. "She's like a second mom to everybody I hang around with, to people I go to school with."
Money comes in from Kim's boyfriend, and from Kim's in-home service, taking care of the elderly and the infirm. To say that money is tight is an understatement.
Smalls, though, won't have to add college tuition onto that pile of hardship. He's got offers from the Bears, Oregon, Fresno State, Hawaii, Ohio, Purdue, UNLV, Utah State and Florida A&M. No matter what, he'll be the first of his family to attend a four-year university. That, though, is only part of the equation. The three-star tight end paid close attention to the NFL Draft this past weekend, watching dreams come true. A former Cal signee -- Takkarist McKinley -- caught his eye.
"I look at that as a goal," Smalls said. "One of the UCLA defensive linemen, he made a promise to his grandmother that he was going to go D1 and go to the NFL, and for him to fulfill his promise, he showed all of his emotion, and it really meant a lot to him. That's where I'm at. I feel like I can do anything, off the field, academics-wise. I'll be good. But, to really change things, how I really want them to be changed, I have to get to the NFL. I feel like nothing's going to get in my way, to stop me from being where I need to be for my family."
Smalls's college decision, then, is of utmost importance. Part of getting there is success in the classroom, and Smalls has certainly had that, with a 3.5 GPA. When he arrived on Cal's campus just over a week ago, the education struck him first.
"Mostly, when people hear 'Cal,' they think of the academics," Smalls said. "I gathered a lot of information about the academics, about their tutoring and things like that. It's pretty hard to get into Cal, but once you get there, they're doing whatever they can to make sure you stay there, and stay on the right track. Coach GA, Gerald Alexander, he talked about a kid who was 16-years old, in college right now [at Cal], getting ready to graduate. That's pretty big. That just shows how high the level of competition is at that school. To go to a school at that high a level, with the competition, academically, and is starting to get up there with a high level of competition on the field, that's a pretty good thing."
Smalls paid close attention to the action on the field, as well, seeing how the new coaching staff used tight ends, during his all-day visit last Saturday.
"When I see the way they use the tight ends, they use the tight ends in multiple and various ways," he said. "They have the tight end split out wide, had them moved in the slot as the third receiver in the slot, and they also use more of a traditional tight end in the red zone, as well. That shows you have to be versatile to play the tight end position in their offense, and I feel like I'm a tight end that's pretty versatile and can pretty much play anything. I like to see an offense that uses the tight end in many different ways, like that. It looked really good."
Like Smalls, the Bears are heading in the right direction. There was no clarity on who would wind up being the quarterback (at the moment, it appears that Ross Bowers held a slight edge as of the end of spring football, thanks to his explosiveness and downfield accuracy), but the future looked bright, from where Smalls was sitting.
"From the way it looked, I loved the offense," Smalls said. "I loved the way things look. Coach [Beau] Baldwin, the offensive coordinator, looks like he knows exactly what he wants to do with that offense, and the direction that that team looks like it's heading, it looks like it's heading in the right direction. The coaches, I love the coaches. They made me feel good while I was up there. Coach Baldwin, the tight ends coach also, Justin Wilcox the head coach, they just made me feel welcome. It was a good experience up there."
"As of right now, no, there's not any schools that are really sticking out," Smalls said. "I'm not planning on making my decision until around later in the season. As of right now,. I'm more focused on visiting schools, building up relationships with coaches, so when it's time to break down my list, I pretty much know which ones are the best fits for me, as a person, on the field, and also the academics, off the field."
At the end of his trip, he was taken to the top of Memorial Stadium, and saw the sweeping vista, stretching from Sausalito in the north, to the San Mateo Bridge in the south. He'd never been to Berkeley before, and didn't know about the view. He could see the whole world stretched ahead of him, his own Golden Gate.
"All I heard was that it was a beautiful place," Smalls said. "It was my first time actually being up there in the Bay Area, and when I got to the stadium and got to tour the facilities, it was good, but what really caught my attention was when I was at the top of the stadium, looking out to the Bay and seeing the Golden Gate Bridge and pretty much everything. It was really beautiful."
And, he'll be back. On May 21, when Smalls comes up for the Oakland Regional of Nike's The Opening, he'll swing by Berkeley, again.