What I’m Hearing: NFL Insider Jarrett Bell dishes on the top two quarterbacks, where they may land and the one guy that people are calling the next “Megatron.”
INDIANAPOLIS – It’s not quite like breaking the color barrier, but Andy Isabella is a walking distinction that might make some people think twice. The University of Massachusetts receiver, who had 102 receptions for 1,698 yards last season, posted the third-fastest 40-yard dash time at the NFL scouting combine.
Isabella blazed to a 4.31-second mark on Saturday, which matched Ohio State receiver Parris Campbell. On Monday, though, Ole Miss safety Zedrick Woods topped that with a combine-best 4.29 after Auburn defensive back Jamel Dean logged a 4.30.
Isabella isn’t. He won the state championship in the 100-meter dash while competing for Mayfield (Ohio) High in 2015. He knows. He’s white. He can turn heads because he might not fit the prototype – or stereotype — given that sprint titles and combine footraces are often dominated by African-Americans.
I mean, have you ever seen Rich Eisen of the NFL Network, bless him, close the combine with his 40-yard dash for charity schtick? Really slow.
Quick disclosure: While attending predominantly white Grosse Pointe Christian Day School back in the day, I routinely finished last in dash on field day. Yet except for the Holloman twins, who rode in the mini-van with me every day from Detroit, there probably wasn’t a better ice hockey player in the school. But no, even in my “prime,” I would have been hard-pressed to win a footrace against Eisen.
During the combine, which wrapped up Monday, I was curious to get Isabella’s take on his rep as a blazer.
“I watched the Jackie Robinson movie,” he said, seemingly acknowledging a certain social sensitivity. “It doesn’t feel like that, but almost like an outlier.”
Outlier. That’s a good way to put it for Isabella, the 5-9, 188-pound dynamo who was partially trained for the combine by Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss.
You might think it’s a stretch to even venture here in 2019. But when the man in the Oval Office stereotypes migrants seeking asylum as “stone cold criminals” amid immigration rhetoric, Isabella is at least one reminder that the capabilities of individuals can come in all shapes, sizes and colors.
And hey, while the NFL commemorates its 100th season this year, let’s not forget markers such as the color barrier that existed for more than a decade before 1946, the black-balling of Colin Kaepernick, the uneven playing field for many years for coaching opportunities and the racist pattern that once prevented African-Americans from playing quarterback … or middle linebacker.
Yes, the positioning of Kyler Murray and Dwayne Haskins – African-Americans with contrasting styles – as the top two quarterbacks in the upcoming draft, reflects a measure of progress.
What does that have to do with Isabella? It’s the cross-section of sports and society. I’m wondering if Isabella has felt like Jordy Nelson once acknowledged, that people – especially opponents – tended to underestimate his speed because he’s white.
“People probably look at me differently, I think, for sure,” Isabella told USA Today. “But I think I’ve overcome it. It’s how hard you work.”
Then again, production and electronic times are part of the beauty of sports, which in its purest sense can be the great equalizer – provided people (Kaepernick included) get a fair opportunity to compete.
“Once you get going, the guys respect you a little more and they realize what you can do,” Isabella said. “I was the only white person in the receiver room. I just fit in there, earned their respect and stuff.”
Until recently, I had never heard of Isabella until I saw a segment by former Colts star receiver Reggie Wayne on NFL Network. Wayne broke down some film on Isabella, then flat-out predicted he would run the fastest time at the combine. “Someone sent it to me,” Isabella said of the clip. “Lots of pressure.”
So, Wayne has some Nostradamus with his vibe. Isabella nearly proved him so right.
It figured he’d show up, given his track background. The combine’s 40 was undoubtedly Isabella’s biggest sprint since he won the Ohio 100-meter title in 10.51, beating Denzel Ward – the first-round Cleveland Browns cornerback who, ironically, ran the fastest 40 at last year’s combine, a 4.32.
Isabella heard a lot about that high school showdown against Ward as his combine workout loomed. He remembers that in the preliminaries, run on a Wednesday, Ward had a better time while running in a different heat. It was the first time, Isabella said, anyone had posted a better time in a meet in which he’d participated.
“A teacher made a smart(-aleck) comment to me,” he recalled. “I was madder than heck.”
The final, pitting him against Ward and others, went down two days later.
“I didn’t talk to anyone, didn’t sleep,” he remembers. “I didn’t care who lined up on that track, I was winning the race. And it was a great feeling afterward, to know that I accomplished that. That was the fastest I’ve ever run.”
For a while, it seemed that Isabella was destined to pursue a track career. He had just two scholarship offers for football – from Air Force and Lafayette – before landing in Amherst.
“My track coach was, ‘Maybe you should just focus on track,’ “ he said. “But I stuck with football.”
And look at him now. The speed that was boosted on the track will help him quickly get in and out of cuts as a slot receiver in the NFL. And unless he winds up as a Browns teammate, he’ll likely see Ward again somewhere down the road … on a football field rather than a track.
Wherever he lands, he’ll hear the comparisons with Wes Welker. You can believe Moss, who played with Welker with the Patriots, ribbed Isabella about the similarity.
“Probably the second day we were there,” he said of the grueling training sessions with Moss at the Applied Science and Performance Institute (ASPI) in Tampa. “It was, ‘Yeah, I used to work out with Wes. You’re just as small.’ Randy’s like 6-5. So, he’s towering over me.”
But there was no way that Moss called him slow.