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It was Nov. 15, 2020, and Carlin Isles was on the phone with his mom, Starlett, and his brother, Chase. While Carlin trained with the U.S. men’s rugby sevens team in San Diego, Chase and Starlett were in Massillon, Ohio, at the family-owned bar, the Sandpit.
“We were just laughing. [Chase] was cracking on me, grilling me,” Carlin recalls. “And he just wanted to come out and see me.” After taking a few more brotherly jabs, Carlin told them both how much he loved them and hung up.
Not long before that phone call, Carlin vowed to himself that he’d reach out to his family more. Having spent the last decade all around the world focused on his athletic career, it became easy for him to get caught up in his own life and lose contact with his family back home. Nearly 31 years old, his new effort played a major role in allowing him to have some peace in his life.
A day after that phone call, 28-year-old Charles (Chase) Isles was shot dead at an apartment complex in Canton, Ohio. His killer has yet to be identified.
On Monday, the player widely known as the fastest man in rugby played at the Olympics, as Team USA went 2–0 in its opening matches. But he will also be in Tokyo as Chase Isles’s brother.
The fastest man in rugby is a title Carlin Isles is proud to hold. When he decided to fully commit to the sport—turning down an opportunity with the Detroit Lions in the process—earning that moniker became his ultimate goal. But being fast wasn’t always about being the best. In fact, Isles’s speed originally developed as a means of survival.
After spending his early childhood sleeping in cars and bouncing around various homeless shelters in Akron, Ohio, Isles and his twin sister, Tambra, were taken away from their biological mother after she was arrested on drug charges. The two were placed in the foster care system.
“Our first foster home, they made me stand there with my hands at my side and [they] hit me in the face with a metal belt, and then made my sister and I fight,” he says. In another foster home, he remembers having to eat dog food. With poor schooling and frequent fighting, Carlin ran away often, trying to escape from the hell he and his sister were forced into.
“It was brutal. I used to cry a lot. I mean, it just was devastating,” Carlin says. “I was like, ‘God, please get me out of here,’ because I knew if I stayed there, life would always be bad.”
The answer to Carlin and Tambra’s prayers came when they were 7 years old, in the form of Starlett and Charles Isles. A young and successful Black couple, Starlett and Charles had two kids of their own, Chase and Janae, and realized they wanted to share the life they had built with kids who hadn’t been given many opportunities to thrive. Plus, Chase and Janae needed some playmates.
It didn’t take long for the twins to realize this was a perfect fit. Carlin could barely read or write at the time, so their schooling became a top priority for Starlett, along with offering them an environment where they could finally just be kids. Carlin and Tambra quickly embraced their newfound stability, including their new siblings.
“Carlin instantly took to Chase in the adoption process,” Starlett says. “Chase was excited to have a big brother; Carlin was excited to have a little brother. It just worked out beautifully.”
The bond with Chase was forged immediately, Carlin remembers. While Carlin tended to be more of an introvert, Chase was the goofball. “As [Chase] got older, he got a lot more funny. Because he used to be, like, a nerd. He's very smart. But he used to watch freakin’ cartoons all the time and never go outside and play,” Carlin says.
Carlin, on the other hand, was significantly more interested in physical activities. Starlett lovingly says Carlin was “rowdy” and a “spunky little thing” when he first joined the family, though Carlin rebuts this. “Oh no, don’t listen to her. She’s always telling stories,” he says with a laugh. “I got in a little trouble here and there, but who doesn’t get in trouble as a kid?”
Regardless of the minutiae, it was clear early on that Carlin had a lot of energy. And living in the greater Canton area, the solution was simple: football.
With a second left on the clock and the game tied, 14–14, Jackson High School coach Phil Mauro resorted to what he so often did when in this scenario: giving Carlin the ball.
The game’s final play started on Jackson’s own 30-yard line, and Carlin was lined up on the right side. After the handoff with his quarterback, Carlin cut across to the left and broke away upfield, shaking off tackles from Lake High School’s defense with ease and sprinting 70 yards to the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. It didn’t take long for his teammates to tackle him in celebration, and even some of the fans wearing Jackson’s purple and gold made their way onto the field.
The Polar Bears went 5–5 that year, Carlin’s junior season. But like much of his high school career—which included playing for Thom McDaniels, father of Patriots O.C. Josh McDaniels, in his senior season—Carlin’s individual highlights seemed to be more memorable than the team’s overall results.
Even in high school, Carlin was a household name in town. But he wasn’t in the game for attention and popularity at school. He cared only about being fast.
Carlin convinced Chase, who was two grades below him, to play football with him. Chase enjoyed playing but wasn’t nearly as obsessed as his brother, who skipped school dances to watch film until 3 a.m. and would wake up early to race the school bus on foot. Instead, Chase realized he could ditch the sport and work out with another achievement in mind.
“[Chase] just worked out for the ladies, instead of being an athlete,” Carlin says while laughing. “He got way bigger than me. And I was like, ‘Dang! I need to step my game up.’ ”
“He was quite the ladies man,” Tambra recalls.
But while Chase was courting potential dates, Carlin continued to train religiously. While Chase and Carlin were both friendly and relatively popular around school, Carlin wasn’t really one to stay over at his friends’ houses or stay out late. He was already focused on becoming a world-class athlete.
All that dedication eventually earned Carlin a scholarship in football and track at Ashland University, about an hour away from home. After college, he had his sights set on the Olympics and decided to move to Austin in 2011 to train as a sprinter. But once he left for Texas, he said he began to feel like the oddball in his family, sometimes going six months without calling home.
“I've always been driven, so driven to make something of myself and it became normal, even though that's not normal,” Carlin says. “But it became my normal because I was just—I'm so used to being alone.”
Carlin qualified for the 2012 Olympic trials and two weeks out, while studying the biomechanics of running online, he came across a video of rugby and was suddenly inspired. What if I became the fastest man in rugby? He emailed Nigel Melville, then CEO of USA Rugby, and received a response the next morning. Knowing that he could still achieve his Olympic dream with the debut of rugby sevens in 2016, he packed up all his stuff and drove to Aspen, Colo., four days later to try it out.
In his first three months of playing the sport, Carlin had signed a contract, become the fastest player in the U.S. and moved to San Diego, home of the U.S. team’s Olympic training facility. His success in rugby gained the attention of NFL scouts, with the Lions offering him a tryout and signing him to the practice squad in December 2013. He was to return to the NFL team the following season.
Back at home, eight miles from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the career choice was obvious to his family. But even after spending much of his childhood dreaming of being in the NFL, Carlin chose rugby.
“We're looking at him like, Rugby? Boy, sit down,” Starlett recalls. She had always wanted to see the Isles name on the back of an NFL jersey, but Carlin assured her she’d see the name on a uniform, just not football. He had his focus on a Team USA one.
The Isles are a funny group. Even though there are “a crap ton of us,” as Carlin puts it, his family is very close and has been his primary source of both support and comic relief. But now living on the other side of the country, wrapped up in his overnight global stardom as a rugby player and achieving his Olympic dream in 2016, his feeling of being isolated from his family persisted.
One day last year, Chase—who had stayed busy himself working at the family business and going on spontaneous adventures with his daughter—asked why it was always him calling Carlin instead of Carlin ever being the one to check in. This made Carlin realize just how detached he had become. From there on out, he made a conscious effort to call home more. He’d talk to his brother weekly, his mom at least every other week, vowing to be more proactive in keeping up with his family.
“It was just the fact that, you know, life is short,” Carlin says. “You never know what could happen and you just want to make sure there's no regrets regardless of any type of situation.”
It was around 8:30 p.m. ET when Starlett, who was at a birthday party, received a call from Carlin. “Go to Chase’s apartment,” he told her. Carlin, who had just finished training back in San Diego, had gotten word from a hometown friend that something had happened to Chase.
Starlett went to Chase’s apartment, but he wasn’t there. Carlin called again with an update: Chase was at a different apartment complex behind a popular billiards bar called Fiddlestix. He had been shot.
When Starlett arrived, police wouldn’t let her or the family near the scene, instead keeping them on a public bus that was holding evacuated residents of the apartment building. A little while later, a police officer finally told her what was going on.
“He flashed Chase’s picture and Chase had a smile on his face. He had a Chase face,” Starlett remembers. “He asked, ‘Is this your son?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘He didn't make it.’ ” She asked what the officer meant, but she knew. It had already hit the local news and Facebook groups: A man had been shot multiple times and died.
When Starlett made it home later that night, she had to wake up Tambra and tell her what happened. “They took Chase,” she told her daughter. “He’s gone.”
“This is really true?” Tambra remembers thinking. Tambra had received a call earlier in the night from her then boyfriend asking if she had heard what happened. Still groggy, she thought everything was fine and went back to sleep.
When she finally processed it with her mom, the two fell to the ground, hugging each other and crying. “It was a long night that night,” Tambra says.
Who exactly killed Chase has not yet been figured out. Jackson Township police chief Mark Brink confirmed to Sports Illustrated that around 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 16, police received a call that a man had been shot. When police arrived they saw that the man, who was later identified as Chase Isles, had been shot multiple times and lay dead in a hallway just inside the apartment building. A few days following the shooting, the police announced a reward of an undisclosed amount for information leading to an arrest.
“We ask the public if they know anything, the smallest detail certainly could help us. But we do continue to follow the leads that we have,” Brink says. (If you have any information about the shooting of Chase Isles, you can contact the Jackson Township detective bureau at 330-830-6264 or leave an anonymous tip at 330-834-3967.)
No suspects have been named in this case, and Brink would not comment on what police believe to be the circumstances around the shooting, including why Chase was there and whether he knew the shooter. But some in the family think he might have been set up. Being the likeable guy that he was, Chase had a lot of friends, some of whom Carlin says were questionable.
“I just hope that [the killer] realized what they did—and I mean they took a father, a brother, a son,” Starlett says. “I'm wondering, how can they walk to earth and live like that? How can you do that?”
What is known is that Starlett, Tambra, Carlin and the rest of the Isles family no longer have Chase, someone who enjoyed traveling the world with his young daughter and always had a smile on his face. Family gatherings and holidays are what’s most difficult for Starlett, when the absence of her son, whom she regarded as her best friend, is most noticeable.
And while Starlett and the family are reminded daily of what happened, there is still a piece of Chase they can turn to: his 9-year-old daughter, Kiyah. She’s always looked a lot like her dad, but it’s her outgoing personality that they say is the strongest resemblance. The added attention Kiyah receives since her father’s death is hard for her, but she focuses on the happier times.
“She's like, ‘Everywhere I go people are bringing it up and they feel sorry for me; that bothers me,’ ” Starlett says of her granddaughter. “She hasn’t forgotten about him, but she likes to be reminded that he was happy. He was not sad.”
Like Kiyah, Carlin has chosen to cope positively. Focusing on that conversation from the night before the shooting, Carlin was able to process the incident pretty immediately. He didn’t take their relationship for granted, just like he promised he wouldn’t. But there are times when he still wants to pick up the phone looking for a laugh.
“For me, I always felt alone anyway. So to have him, somebody that I always talked to for a minute or two, just to put a smile on your face—I don’t have that no more.”
Last year, Starlett came home to a familiar scene: Carlin and Chase wrestling in the basement. “You guys are wrestling in my house like you did as kids? If you guys break something, you're paying for it,” she remembers telling them.
Though Carlin—who is 5' 8" and 170 pounds—was one of the fittest athletes around, Chase had bulked up. “I used to let him know that even though you’re bigger than me now, I'm still the man,” Carlin says while laughing. “I'm still the big guns. Well, you gotta let ’em know.”
A video of the wrestling match was passed around friends and family again this spring, a recent memory to enjoy but one that evoked feelings of what the family is all about. Starlett always encouraged her kids to do more than what others expect them to do, which instilled a competitive nature in them. And in the backyard while teaching his son football plays with milk crates, Charles told Carlin that he should always be the fastest, to never let anyone beat him.
For a long time, that mentality was enough of a driving force for Carlin to succeed. His ability to focus on what’s in front of him and achieve the goals he set, even if that required making adjustments—or learning an entirely new sport—along the way.
Looking at things through a positive lens in life has been essential to Carlin avoiding any sort of plateau. And now, after losing his best friend, he has an extra driving force.
“I know how much [Chase] cared for me. He’d never want me to give up,” Carlin says.
On days when Carlin feels uninspired or has to dig deep to find motivation, he says he puts Chase’s name on what he’s doing as a reminder of why he’s still fighting to be the best. A ninth-place finish in the Rio Games already left a sour taste in the mouths of the U.S. men’s rugby players. But the fastest man in the game has a new source of fuel for Tokyo, something that could power him to the podium more than his speed alone could.
“I’m gonna carry him by just going HAM, making a big impact, showing another level, you know what I mean? Doing everything I possibly can for us to do well, for me to do well, regardless of the outcome. But when you watch it and you see it you’ll be like, Dawg, you on a different level.”
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