He never got over being the last kid picked in little league. If you want to attribute Isaiah Pead's success on something, that'll do.
Who's Isaiah Pead?
The best college running back you've never heard of dropped 169 yards on Oklahoma three weeks ago, on 21 carries. That's eight yards a carry, or almost six yards a carry better than what the Sooners' DeMarco Murray managed in the same game. Oklahoma beat Cincinnati that night, but only 31-29. And Pead fairly routed Murray.
"DeMarco Murray,'' Pead says. "Great running back, well known, soon to be in the NFL. And me. Maybe not a lot of people ever heard of me.''
Murray carried 28 times that night, for 67 yards, I remind Pead. "And you put up 160 on Oklahoma.''
"One-sixty-nine,'' says Pead.
"He has to be better just to get noticed,'' says Pead's mother, Leshawna.
There's a lesson here, somewhere. Something about persistence and humility. Something rare in the entitled air of the big time. Something enduring, far beyond Saturday afternoon. Leshawna Pead persisted, even after she lost her job and her home and had to move back in with her parents for a time in 2007, a single mom with Isaiah and his little sister in tow.
She passed the gift of striving to her son. Great athletes aren't universally familiar with the word no. Isaiah Pead and no have been on a first-name basis for a very long time. "If you think you're the best, you have lost'' is Leshawna's view. "Nobody's giving you anything. You are never too big to do the little things. Remember that.''
Isaiah was 7 when he decided he wanted to play football. Leshawna was a single parent who didn't know the first thing about football for a 7-year-old. She spent a few late-summer Saturdays scouting the public parks of Columbus, Ohio, until she spotted little kids in shoulder pads.
Isaiah spent seven years playing little league football. According to his mother, for the first two or three years, "he didn't play much, or even practice. Coaches played favorites. Isaiah would come home frustrated.'' Leshawna told him to volunteer to play every position. "Whenever they call for someone, go out there.''
Several seasons, Pead won the Coaches Award, an honor bestowed for trying hard, but never the MVP.
He attended Eastmoor Academy in Columbus, alma mater of Buckeyes legend Archie Griffin. He broke all of Griffin's rushing records there. He was the Division III Ohio player of the year. He loved Ohio State. His entire extended family loved Ohio State. Living in Columbus, that's what you do.
Pead wanted to be a Buckeye. The Buckeyes sniffed. They didn't offer Pead a full ride. Come if you want, son, they told him. If you don't, we'll find somebody else.
A kid could get a complex.
"His dream was to play for Ohio State,'' says Leshawna. "I told him, 'If you want to go there, make it known.' He said, 'Mom, I'm not going to beg.'''
"I took it personally. I'm in their backyard, and I got looked over,'' Pead recalls. "But I didn't want to hope and wish. I wanted to compete.''
Pead ended up at Cincinnati, playing for Brian Kelly, whose version of the spread offense didn't allow for Pead to be the focal point of the offense. The Bearcats threw the ball. Even last year, as Pead ran for more than 800 yards while averaging 6.7 yards and scoring nine touchdowns; his role was hazy.
Against West Virginia, Pead ran 18 times for 175 yards. In UC's next game, against Illinois, Pead carried four times, for minus-5 yards. Pead explains the difference by saying he had a tight hamstring and didn't practice well. Regardless, Kelly had a bomb in the backfield he rarely launched.
It's different now. New coach Butch Jones is more willing to let his running back control the game. Pead followed the 169-yard effort with 197 against Miami (Ohio), on just 10 first-half carries. The RedHawks aren't exactly the '85 Bears. But 195, in two quarters?
"Electric,'' is Pead's description. He might be a striver. He doesn't lack for confidence. "Kind of breath-holding.''
He likes watching himself run. Film sessions are better than going to a Schwarzenegger festival. "I'll watch myself and say, 'That's a good cut' or 'How did I do that?''' says Pead. He ripped off a long run against the Sooners after seemingly being tackled close to the line of scrimmage, only to pop up and sprint for a 35-yard gain. It was a move his teammates decided was reminiscent of former Oklahoma star Adrian Peterson. "I was A.P. for a couple days after that,'' Pead says.
Pead isn't especially big (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) or blindingly fast even though he was a state high school champion in the 400 meters. He is strong with great balance and is quick to the hole. "He's learning to be patient, and that's helped him this year,'' Jones says. "Before, he just got the ball and took off for the edge. He usually gets more (yards) than what the run is blocked for.''
Pead still stumbles, occasionally. He's a deep sleeper, to the extent that his alarm clock doesn't always do its job. "When he sleeps, it's a dead sleep,'' Leshawna says. In previous years, he had been known to be late for meetings. That was before Leshawna ordered her son to what she called a "come-to-Jesus'' sit-down earlier this year. The refrain was familiar.
"Right now, you're still nothing,'' she told Isaiah. "Everybody controls you. You've been fighting since you were in little league, to get noticed. Do what you have to do. Kiss butt, bring coffee, whatever. Remember you're never too big. You're still that running back nobody talks about.''
The conversation is getting louder, though. Loud enough to keep Isaiah Pead awake.