You might hear people in the sports world say a coach is only as good as the players that surround him or her, but for Juneau-Douglas graduate Richard Isett Jr. it’s been the coaches who have played a major role in what he has become today.
Isett Jr., a former Crimson Bears football player, recently ended what he called a “dream season” at Pacific Lutheran University and graduated Magna Cum Laude in early December with a degree in political science.
The accolades don’t stop there, however. The 6-foot-2-inch, 208 pound outside linebacker led the Lutes with 64 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks during a senior season that earned him a spot on the All-Northwest Conference first team and All-West Region third team. His performance on the field was so good he was named as the team’s defensive MVP.
He was even recognized as the conference’s player of the week on both special teams and defense the week of Nov. 16, 2010, a game in which he hit a 31-yard field goal during the fourth quarter that would eventually prove to be the game-winner against Willamette.
“I got to have my dream season. I got to end my career in football knowing I left everything, literally, on the field,” Isett Jr. said. “It feels good to do that because I really have no regrets anymore. I can walk away from it while a lot of people have difficulty walking away. There are things I’ll miss, but it was a blessed season and a blessed experience.”
But it wasn’t without hard work and self-realization that he reached the level at which he played during the 2010 campaign. Along the way Isett Jr. experienced adversity on and off the field, and the support from family and friends and subsequent recovery helped the young athlete become the person he is today, he said.
The difficulty of transitioning from high school to college is difficult in itself, but Isett Jr. was exposed to other factors that made it that much more difficult to be away from his home and the city he loved.
The linebacker from Juneau began his defensive career at PLU as a safety when all he wanted to do was play cornerback, a position with which he was familiar from his days spent at Adair-Kennedy Field.
Isett Jr. said the two years spent playing safety for the Lutes was frustrating. He said he just never became comfortable playing over the top instead of lining up against the wide receivers on the outside.
“Really, I got quite down about it. It was tough to play a position I wasn’t comfortable with, and it was a position I wasn’t successful at, either. It was rough those two years,” he said. “It was never a work ethic thing — I worked really hard — safety just wasn’t a fit for me.”
But just as he was settling in at the position prior to his senior season, the coaches told the team there would be a switch in defensive philosophy. After having to adjust to the safety position during the previous two years, Isett Jr. was told he would become an outside linebacker in the Lutes’ new 3-4 defense.
“That’s not exactly something you want to hear going into your senior year,” he said. “It was a position I really knew nothing about. Especially as a senior, you hope to get a starting job. It just seemed like, for me to switch positions, I was going to lose any chance.
“But I recognized it would be a better position for me.”
So why was it a better position? Isett Jr. said “those boys from Juneau” have a reputation. They like to hit hard.
“I’m a good tackler and I like to hit,” he said. “Those are two attributes that Juneau football does very well and is known for.”
Isett Jr. might not have the size of a prototypical linebacker, but he said he makes up for that with the way he plays the game.
“I get to hit someone, I’m in the box and it’s me versus them. I certainly wasn’t very big — only 208 pounds — but I was strong and I was fast,” he said. “You can either overpower someone, beat them with speed or beat them with deception. And I didn’t overpower many people, but the last two I was pretty good at.”
Being a hard-hitting football player isn’t the only thing Isett Jr. took away from the Juneau-Douglas football program. Throughout his time in the capital city he said he was surrounded by some of the best coaches a player could want.
“I had the blessed opportunity to play under (the late) coach Reilly (Richey) when he was there. His slogan, ‘Respect is earned, not given,’ is something that stuck with me since I left Juneau,” he said. “It’s something that was hung up in my locker this year and it’s something I’d write on my wrist tape before every game, just to remind me.
“I loved Reilly Richey and he was a great man, a great coach.”
He couldn’t stop there, however, while naming those who have made a difference in his life. The support he received, the interest he felt in himself from the coaches is something he’ll always treasure, he said.
“They’ve stuck by me through thick and thin — coach Eddie (Brakes), coach (Rich) Sjoroos, coach Jeep Rice, coach Ray Bradley — and they’ve followed and supported me. That means a lot, especially coming from Juneau,” Isett Jr. said. “Having your coaches take an active interest in wanting you to succeed — I graduated in 2004, and it still means a lot. I don’t know how many programs just run kids through and just look to the next kids coming up.
“Our coaches take an interest, they care and they play pretty damn good football, too.”
For Isett Jr., however, football wasn’t the only thing for which he received support from his coaches. The 25-year-old Juneauite actually began his collegiate football career playing for the University of Nevada, Reno, Wolfpack as a walk-on kicker. He wanted more, however.
“I wanted to play at the next level, and UNR was Division I. I was put on the team halfway through the season and I didn’t try out or anything, they just threw me on the team. That was a shock,” he said. “I was only kicking at UNR, and that was tough because I didn’t want to just kick. I was also dealing with culture shock leaving Juneau, my hometown.
“When I went down there I don’t think I was ready.”
With all these contributing factors to consider, Isett Jr. found himself in a time in his life he deemed “the darkest.” He no longer wanted to be where he was.
“I wasn’t happy, and I left the UNR football team after a year and I wanted to transfer someplace else. In the meantime, I rolled my ankle during the spring and got on some pain medication some doctors had prescribed,” he said. “I just abused it and made some mistakes, things I regret immensely. All the adversity I faced, I brought on myself.”
It was in this adverse situation that Isett Jr. realized what kind of people reside in Juneau, and it gave him a new appreciation for those who cared about him. He entered treatment and was able to cleanse himself of the toxic elements in his life.
“The moment of clarity came when I got in trouble and went to treatment to get removed from pain killers. Once you get off those you recognize all the things you were doing that were wrong, and that you’re throwing your life away,” Isett Jr. said. “It doesn’t make it any easier because then you have to recognize how much work it’s going to take to get back. The coaches — coach Eddie (Brakes) in particular — they stood by me.”
And Isett Jr. said he’ll never forget this time in his life, nor will he forget those who helped him though it.
“It still haunts me. I love Juneau and it breaks my heart that I hurt it. A lot of people rallied and supported me when I was down and out,” he said. “If anything, this is a way to show them it was well-deserved and I made something of their support.
“Sometimes in life you’re going to go against problems that are too big to walk around, and you won’t be able to duck them. You have to face them. When that time comes you have to keep your chin up and try to walk through them,” he continued. “It’s not going to be easy because you’ll have to face the music, but you’re going to grow as a person. People make mistakes, but they can change and deserve a second chance.”
Even after Isett Jr. reclaimed his livelihood, the coaches of Juneau never wavered in their support of the young man. It mattered not that Isett Jr. was no longer playing at Juneau-Douglas. His former coaches still showed legitimate concern over their former player’s career at the next level, donating their time and money to the PLU program during Isett Jr.’s time as a Lute.
“That just keeps showing the quality of these coaches. They love the game, but they also love to have an impact on (the players),” he said. “What can I say? We had to fundraise to play football in high school. The community rallied behind us and basically ran a program that has to fly out or fly its opponents in just to play a game.”
As for his college alma mater, Isett Jr. said the athletics department is strong, but support is always needed.
“PLU is a great program, but we don’t have the money that some of these other programs have. Our donors just didn’t kick in, so we needed to raise money,” he said. “It was nice to fall back on coaches who you know will support you. They made donations to the program, and that’s pretty special.
“These guys aren’t making tons of money coaching football — most of them are volunteering — so it was very special.”
Now it’s on to the real world for Isett Jr., and he is currently taking part in a one-month study abroad program in London where he is taking a class entitled England in the second World War.
“It’s kind of the cherry on top of my senior year. I get to travel to England and just get out. I’m excited,” he said. “I hear some weird things about the food and stuff, but I’m excited to find out for myself.
“After that I’ll be back in Seattle to study for the LSAT, and I plan on enrolling in law school.”
And Isett Jr. said he’s found a path he believes he can follow into a professional career.
“Ironically, I was studying criminal justice at UNR. In my experience, I believe in our legal system and I support it,” he said. “It’s something I want to do with my life.”