How many world class athletes would choose the sport of professional rugby over a chance to snatch passes from Andrew Luck or Matthew Stafford on prime time Monday Night Football?
USA sevens team baller Carlin Isles is such a dude.
In 2013, the 25-year-old former college football player and track star was signed to the Detroit Lions’ practice squad.
“I had tryouts with the Tennessee Titans and the Indianapolis Colts too,” Isles, who picked up rugby in 2012 and has made a name for himself as the “fastest man in rugby” while playing for the “US Eagles," told The Shadow League.
“I ran some drills and caught a few balls. They liked me, but I chose to sign with the Lions. They thought they could utilize my speed and good hands.”
When you see Isles on the pitch, ripping through would-be-tacklers like Marshawn Lynch and sprinting around corners like Barry Sanders back in the 80s, it’s easy to assume that Isles aint’ bluffing when he says he could have made his mark in the NFL, “and it’s something I may revisit when I’ve completed my goals with rugby,” he insists.
However true, by February 2014, Isles had left the Lions and took his 4.22 speed and magnetic, marketable smile with him. He accepted a contract with the Glasgow Warriors -- who play in the Rabo Direct Pro 12 competition with teams from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Italy -- moving from sevens into the 15-a-side version of the sport.
Bros Before Doe
Isles says the cash was sweet during his stint with United Kingdom's Glasgow, but it was short-lived, as he recently re-joined “The Flying Eagles” where he built his reputation playing for the U.S. in the HSBC Sevens World Series. As a star winger Isles’ lightening speed and determination helped him score 27 tries in 14 tournaments.
Even after attaining the instant success Isles enjoyed in transitioning to rugby, most athletes would still pursue the more glamorous sport or the most lucrative franchise. Rugby is not a sport that Americans crowd around the TV to watch or pay exorbitant ticket prices and advertising rights for. Most don’t even know that the US has a rugby squad. With that in mind, players like Isles don’t surface often.
UK Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend, a veteran of over 80 Test matches with Scotland's rugby union team hated losing Isles, who he described as a " major coup for the club and a very exciting prospect.”
"Carlin is an exceptionally gifted athlete, who has picked up the game of rugby in a very short period of time, “ Townsend said. “He has had a huge impact on the sevens circuit over the last couple of years."
Isles’ growing legion of fans also helped persuade his decision to choose world-wide Olympic domination over wealth.
“I went back to sevens “because with 15’s… it’s more technical,” Isles explained. “ I’d be making more money , but sevens rugby is more built for my style of game and I wouldn’t be getting as much playing time with 15’s. I had to make a choice. I could stay playing 15’s and just make my money and not play as much or go back to sevens and fulfill my dream, my goals of making the Olympic team in 2016 and winning a gold medal.”
Isles, a young man who was let down so much as a child, is now driven by a family of supporters that sing his praises and crave his presence. In speaking with Isles it’s clear that they are the wind beneath his wings and have helped him put life into perspective.
“I’m focused on using my gifts and continuing to remain an inspiration to people I meet and the fans on Twitter and social media who support me and my game," he said. "The Olympics also provides me with a bigger platform to continue to inspire other athletes who are contemplating cross over sports...guys who played major college athletics and want to transition into possibly a sport like rugby. They say watching me inspires them.”
Bottom line is, Isles can’t ignore the pleasure, international fame, comradery, fulfillment and second-chance at professional athletics that rugby has provided him. In his focused eyes, the phat checks in Glasgow and the NFL’s billion dollar baby just can’t compete.
Besides, excessive indulgence isn’t his thing, unless you are talking about grinding towards a goal. At this stage in Isles' life, his singular objective is helping Team USA qualify for the Olympics.
It won’t be an easy task. Teams finishing in the top four of the 2014-15 Sevens World Series, which began in Australia on October 12, will secure spots in Rio’s 12-team field in 2016. Team USA has a new coach, the former England sevens chief Mike Friday, and a new-look roster for the Gold Coast, Isles included.
But if past history is any example, a top-four finish seems unlikely. In 15 seasons of global competition, the Eagles’ highest finish has been 10th, in 2001 and 2010. They have reached one tournament final, losing to Samoa in Adelaide in 2010, and last season finished a disappointing 13th overall.
“That’s a really big deal to me,” said Isles. “To be a part of the inaugural sevens rugby team that has a chance to go to the Olympics… I’ve been putting all of my energies into accomplishing that.”
For those countries finishing outside the top four – likely anyone other than New Zealand, South Africa, Fiji and England/Great Britain – a series of regional tournaments will decide Olympic places.
Beating Canada will be an important part of Team USA’s journey. Beating the odds is something Isles has done all of his life.
Unwanted Yet Undeterred
As a foster child who lost his mom to the penitentiary and his pops to abandonment at a very young age, Isles appreciates life’s imperfections and challenges. Being a catalyst to rugby’s growing U.S. popularity instead of just another football player appealed to his underdog senses.
Isles explains: “I had a rough childhood. My sister and I bounced around from foster place to foster place. I would get into a lot of fights with kids and run away. I moved around so much that I never even really learned how to read until late in junior high school. I used to cry and get frustrated, but I kept at it. Eventually I went to better, more (culturally and racially diverse) schools and improved through working hard and never giving up on myself.”
After some chaotic early years, Carlin was adopted by Starlett and Charles Isles at the age of 8. They provided the safe structure he lacked and Carlin’s talents soon blossomed. He was able to pursue life’s offerings with much-needed parental support and love.
“They sheltered me from certain things and helped protect my goals and my gifts,” Isles told TSL. “Kept me focused on what was important, but at the same time I always had that drive and desire to be somebody in me already. They made it possible for me to go do it.”
“But I’ve always done for myself. There were times when I even had problems with my (adopted family)… and sometimes I would feel so alone, but those feelings helped me be responsible for myself and attack things in life, because I knew there was nobody to do it for me. I stayed strong and focused on becoming somebody. I’m such a driven person. I refuse to be outworked.”
The Come Up
That stability, drive and desire served Isles well as he grew into manhood. The 5-8, 175-pounder was a gifted two-sport athlete while attending Jackson High School (Massillon, Ohio). Isles holds school records in the long jump, 100 meter, 200 meter, and 400 meter events, and he was also a part of the record-holding 4x200m relay team at Jackson.
His 10.58 time in the 100m in 2007 is a school record and former county record. Carlin was a two-time, back-to-back OATCCC Indoor State Champion in the 60m dash running 6.83 seconds, which was a Division I meet record up until March 2012. When he wasn’t dusting cats on the track, Carlin was making waves as an all-conference, all-county football player .
Isles continued running track and playing football in college at Ashland University, where he was an All-American in the 60m dash and ran a personal best of 6.68 seconds which is a school record. He holds various indoor and outdoor records.
On the football field, Carlin was an All-GLIAC selection and holds school records for most kickoff return yardage in a game (174 yards) and longest kickoff return for TD, taking a 100-yarder to the crib.
Before taking up rugby in 2012, Isles ranked as the 36th fastest sprinter in the country. Miles Craigwell, another crossover athlete from football who ended up playing rugby for the United States national team was one of Carlin’s early rugby influences. When Isles sent out feelers to Nigel Melville (CEO and president of rugby operations for USA Rugby) and Melville reached out with a phone call, it solidified Isles' decision to flip the athletic script and travel all over the world as a rugby player.
Once Isles was committed to the idea, his only mission was to be one of the world’s best. It took a leap of faith, but then again Isles has been walking by faith for most of his life.
“I packed my stuff. Headed to Aspen Colorado and I didn’t look back... I put all of my dreams and energies and optimism into rugby.”
Isles began playing club rugby with the Gentlemen of Aspen RFC, based in Colorado. The rest is history. The sport of rugby has never seen an athlete with such speed. World Class sprinters usually pursue other sports. Rugby’s rough-n-tough, sometimes plodding pace and lack of “big play” excitement doesn’t seem to fit the athletic profile of a burner like Carlin.
"I found the speed of the game a little frustrating at first, “ he admitted to TSL. “There are a lot of things that you have to remember to do. It's the little things and if you don’t do them right, you will have a problem.”
As he masters those nuances, the Ohio kid has been dope enough to stir up interest and gain fans wherever he plays. And not because he’s one of two African-American players on a team existing within a traditionally European-dominated sport.
“On this team it’s just me and Perry Baker, but there are a number of black players on the Kenyan team and South African team," says Isles. "Baker is my closest friend and we have a lot in common. We hang out all of the time, we like the same things…yeah.. even the same type of women (lol)”
The two rugby renegades also share some major Jet packs, past careers as American football players and the ability to master rugby and ascend to the highest level of the sport in a short period of time.
After two years with the Arena Football League's Pittsburgh Power, Baker picked up rugby in Daytona Beach before training at Tiger Academy. He was invited to the Residency Program at the Olympic Training Center in 2014.
Isles first caught the attention of the rugby media in the summer of 2012 when Rugby Mag dubbed him " The Fastest Man in American Rugby." The 25-year-old’s career skyrocketed when he played for the US national developmental team Atlantis in July 2012 at the Victoria 7s tournament.
The star winger continued his scoring dominance during the 2012–13 IRB Sevens World Series. Rugby heads began to recognize Isles’ incomparable speed on that stage. He was the Rickey Henderson of rugby. Overall, Isles has a prestigious arsenal of skills that also make him the Bionic Man of sorts on rugby’s elite planet. Team USA is still trying to figure out the best ways to utilize him.
-- Over 20 metres, Isles is 0.22 seconds faster than decorated Olympic Champion sprinter Usain Bolt.
-- Isles’ 4.22 40-yard dash time, recorded by the Lions in 2013, is faster than any player electronically recorded in the history of the NFL Combine. ( Jets running back Chris Johnson made it to 4.24sec.)
-- Isles’ one-leg vertical jump, of 42 iches, puts him eighth in the top-10 NBA players of all time. To put this in perspective, Michael Jordan is first, with a 48-inch leap and Kobe Bryant’s is a mere 38-inches.
A YouTube video posted on December 9, 2012 titled " Carlin Isles: Olympic Dream" further hyped Isles profile and captivated even casual rugby fans, as the video went viral and has over 5 million views.
A Proactive Soul
Isles was a self-taught athlete in a lot of ways. Isles tells TSL that he used to “throw balls in front of myself and chase them down as a kid to build up my speed. I used to do it for fun, but it was challenging. It helped me begin realizing my gifts.”
Isles stepped on a football field for the first time as a fourth-grader and as he puts it, “just started outrunning everybody on the field.”
Even as a top-flight H.S. runner, Isles says nobody really helped him realize his potential as a sprinter. “Anything that I didn’t understand about running, I researched and scoured the Internet to gain information, improve my running style and gather more information on how to be faster and more technically sound,” Isles clarified. “I’m basically a self-taught person in everything that I do. I don’t leave the job to anyone else.”
Isles is also fearless and understands that plans are made to change and as a person you have to adjust to the circumstances and persevere. Isles applied that same diligence, thirst for knowledge and humility to learning rugby. He was initially preparing for the Olympic Trials as a sprinter in 2012, but somehow rugby rose to the top of his food chain.
“I love contact,” Isles gushed. “ I’m good at tackling. Rugby fits me perfectly, because I love tackling, I love running fast, I love running past people and I love being the fastest."
He must, because despite the late start, Isles is as much of a force as stars who have been playing rugby for years.
“Rugby is a more grueling sport than football,” Isles explained. “It’s brutal. In football you have breaks, but in rugby its continuous and you have to operate on both sides of the ball. You have to be able to move and be elusive and also tackle big guys. There’s no equipment so you get a lot of nicks and bruises… but you have to work through it.”
“The weather is a big factor. It took me some time to adjust to it. One week we have to play in the cold conditions in New Zealand and the next week you might be playing in the heat in South Africa. Rugby is also more technical than football. There’s much less individual freedom.”
It’s the perfect sport for Isles, who has learned to be a chameleon of sorts in this world. He describes himself as the “type of person who never gives up, never uses anything as an excuse.”
And regardless of where his rugby journey takes him, he can rest confidently in the fact that he, “won’t be out-worked.”