"A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us." -- John Steinbeck
In 2009, Isaac Redman's NFL dreams came true after a meteoric rise from seventh-string running back out of a small college in Bowie, Maryland to a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers 53-man roster. Redman never doubted himself, saying after the his first preseason game in August of 2009, "This team prides itself on being able to find those free agents that are capable of playing. Hopefully I can be that next free agent."
He did become that free agent. He played four seasons and then, it seemed, his career ended as suddenly as it began.
What happened to No. 33, Isaac Redman? Before "what happened", life wasn't happening to Redman, he was making it happen.
Even Redman's earliest memories include football. As a toddler, his mom, Leslie Redman, would turn on NFL games. He would remain entranced in front of the screen the same way most kids are mesmerized by Sesame Street. "I was in love with football from the first moment I saw it," he recalled. His mom would ask him, "Are you going to take me to a Super Bowl one day?" Of course he was. There was never a doubt in his mind.
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Redman was five years old when his uncle Todd McNair was drafted in the eighth-round of the 1989 draft. McNair ended up playing six seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, with a brief interruption to play for the Houston Oilers from 1994-1995. The same year McNair was drafted, Redman joined a pee wee team. "I wanted to be like him. That's what I wanted to do," he said.
By high school, it was clear that Redman had prodigious talent as a player at Paulsboro High School, the New Jersey school famous for its wrestling team's 37-year conference unbeaten streak and its football team's state record for consecutive football victories. McNair took Redman under his wing, taking him to Cleveland Browns practices where he was the running backs coach. "I was literally on the field watching the practice," Redman recalled. Memories like that solidified his NFL dreams.
McNair didn't just expose Redman to professional football, he also took his nephew to the University of Pittsburgh for a Nike camp. "I was one of the best kids there. They offered me a full scholarship verbally, but then they saw my grades, and my grades were terrible," he shared.
"My uncle told me, ‘You have to buckle down. If you want to make it where I've made it, your athletic ability can only take you so far.'" Those were tough words to hear, but Redman took the advice to heart. "If someone has been where you want to go, you have no choice but to take heed and listen," he said.
By his senior year, the offers were rolling in. Redman hoped to play for Temple, but he would have had to sit out a year because of his grades. It was actually Mark Harrison, an acquaintance from Paulsboro's arch rival Woodson, who helped secure him a spot at Bowie State University, a small Division II school in Maryland where he could play immediately.
"That rivalry was like the Bloods and Crips," he said of Paulsboro and Woodson. "It was funny how it worked out." Initially, the head coach said they didn't need another running back; the team already had eight. Harrison told the coach he would regret not looking at Redman's tape. The coach took one look and said, "Bring him up here."
A total unknown to his teammates, Redman enjoyed being perceived as a dark horse, a role he would play again when he joined the Steelers organization. "A lot of the guys didn't know who I was or what I was capable of when I got there," he said. "They were only into Maryland sports. I liked it that way. It was cool to be able to surprise the players."
In 2009, Redman moved to California and started working out at USC where McNair was the running back's coach. McNair sent tape of Redman over to the Steelers and the then-offensive coordinator Bruce Arians whom he knew from their time together at the Cleveland Browns.
By the end of the 2009 draft, the Steelers had signed Redman as a free agent. "Everybody cried tears of joy," he said of the moment he got the call. "I called my mom. She was so excited. She said, 'You're going to take me to a Super Bowl.'"
Redman had a superb training camp in 2009 and stunned coaches with his two-touchdown performance in the Steelers preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals. He became so popular with reporters that Mike Tomlin once said, "Sorry to interrupt you, Isaac" when he passed by Redman to give his daily camp briefing.
Though initially on the practice squad, he was signed to active roster in January 2010 and would soon become the Steelers go-to goal-line back. During the 2010 season, he played a pivotal role in the Steelers 13-10 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. Towards the end of the fourth quarter, Troy Polamalu hit Ravens QB Joe Flacco's arm, causing him to lose control of the ball. LaMarr Woodley took advantage of the fumble, running the ball nearly 20 yards to the Baltimore nine-yard-line. The Steelers capitalized on that turnover when Redman caught a pass from Ben Roethlisberger, broke a tackle, and scored the team's lone touchdown with less than three minutes left in the game.
"That play solidified me as being able to help the team in a big way. Going to work the next day, I felt so good about myself. We were second seed in the playoffs," he remembered. The playoff berth resulted in a Super Bowl appearance, another special memory for Redman. "The Super Bowl was the greatest day for my mom," he shared. "We were getting ready to run out of the tunnel. I was amped up, jumping around, and I hear, ‘Son, son!' Someone saw her wearing my jersey and told her to get down over the tunnel before we came out. I saw her and she started going crazy. It melted my heart. We wound up losing, but just being able to give her that experience. There are no words."
The next two seasons were even more productive for Redman. Then, 2013 happened. "I got hit in training camp," he recalled. Players get hit all of the time. That's part of football. This injury was different, though. "A tingle went down to my toes every time I bent my head down," he shared. "I couldn't run at full speed. I couldn't turn my head without it hurting. I was trying to fight through the pain and injury, but I couldn't perform." He was also scared, a big problem for an NFL player. "There I was, an NFL running back afraid of getting hit," he said.
The Steelers put Redman on the inactive list for two weeks. "I kept complaining about my neck. I told them I needed to see a doctor." One day in October, he checked in at the facility before a CAT scan he was finally able to schedule. Mike Tomlin caught up to him as the star running back was leaving for his appointment. "We're going to release you. I tried fighting for you," Tomlin said. Redman was stunned, even more so when he realized they were releasing him healthy instead of putting him on the injured reserve where he could have continued to receive a paycheck.
Fans were left scratching their heads. What happened? Where did he go? Meanwhile, he continued to suffer from near-continual pain. Finally in August 2014, after an initial appointment in Cleveland and a second opinion in California from the same doctor who diagnosed Peyton Manning's neck injury, Redman was told his career was over. There would be no rehabilitation. No comeback. His injury was too severe. It was all over.
"It was devastating," he said. "I thought maybe it could be fixed and I'd be back out there." He paused, then continued, "It's still hard to tell that story."
Now, Redman is rebuilding his life in his hometown of Paulsboro, NJ. He coaches seventh and eighth grade football and hopes to provide the same mentorship McNair provided him during his formative years. "Someone did it for me," he said. "I feel like it is my obligation to do it for my players."
"I love being able to give the guys the knowledge they need to succeed in life," he shared. "I try to talk to them about discipline, the way to carry themselves. I'm glad to be able to come back and show them the way to make it out. I want to be able to make sure they have the means to do that."
His family, including four-year-old Haiden, is also a source of pride and encouragement. "Haiden loves watching football and playing on the pee wee team," Redman said. "He's getting into it. He wakes me up and says, ‘Dad, can I watch you on YouTube?' I told him he could have any number, and he chose 33."
Despite his love for coaching and support from his family, the transition has been difficult. "That's all I knew since I was a kid," he said. "It is tough knowing that guys are going to training camp and I'm not. It's hard. I did all I could do for the team. Now what?"
Recently, Redman got his answer in the form of a call from Charlie Batch, a former Pittsburgh Steeler who is also Senior Captain of the the Trust, established under the most recent CBA to provide transition assistance to former NFL players.
"Injury derailed (Redman's) career," Batch told me. "You never know when that last play is going to happen. Then the team moves on without you. I was able to tell him my story and connect him with the right people."
Redman was enthusiastic about the conversation, saying, "Charlie Batch is the perfect guy to talk to you and point you in the right direction. He got me hooked up right away. If any other NFL players happen to see this article, look up the Trust."
The right direction for Redman will involve appointments with medical specialists and tuition assistance to finish school. Redman enjoys coaching so much that he is considering applying for a coaching internship through the Trust as well. "It is amazing all the things they can do for you, especially with school and a career after football," he said.
"Once I retired it was like, ‘Wow, now what do I do?' There was no guidance, no help. If it weren't for Charlie, I don't know what I'd be doing." he shared. "I'm ready to start my next journey."
Redman's first journey started when he was a two-year-old boy watching football with his mom and ended suddenly when he sustained a neck while living out his dream in the NFL. His second journey is just beginning.
"I have hope now," he smiled.