Running from His Past, Carlin Isles Just Might Change the Sport of Rugby

Matt Crossman@@MattCrossmanSpecial to Bleacher ReportAugust 5, 2016

Photo by Stuart Palley

Heat radiates off the sun-cooked track at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. A coach barks at a woman running hurdles. Pole-vaulters try and try and try again to throw themselves higher and higher and higher, as if no height is high enough.

A mile or so to the east, five, then 10, then 20 parachuters jump from a plane. Their screaming descents halt when thin, but strong, strips of nylon open above them. They float peacefully to the ground.

Carlin Isles arrives carrying a backpack and wearing his rugby kit—earlier on this glorious June day, the U.S. rugby team held its first practice at the training complex in the run-up to Rio de Janeiro for the Summer Olympics.

Isles sets down his backpack and puts on running spikes. In addition to being on the Olympic rugby team, Isles qualified for the Olympic trials in the 100-meter dash. He hoped to become a two-sport Olympian but dropped that plan when the trials conflicted with his rugby practice schedule. As tough of a decision as that was for Isles—he has dreamed of being an Olympic runner for years—it was probably for the best. He didn't have much of a chance to make the team, never mind win a medal.

Isles, though, is the face of a U.S. rugby team helping to usher in the sport's return to the Olympics for the first time since 1924. The U.S. squad is a strong medal contender, in no small part thanks to Isles' speed and elusiveness.

On this day, Isles is shirtless, ripped and tatted up, and his smile overwhelms his face as he talks with a Bleacher Report camera crew preparing a video about his speed. Isles sets his hands on the ground and plants his feet into his blocks. A silver necklace, twinkling in the sunlight, swings below his chin. Isles looks up, listens for the call to go and then explodes out of his stance and sprints 20 yards, straight at, and then around, a cameraman. He coasts to a stop, turns around, walks back and does it again and again.

How many thousands of times has he done this in his life? How many lonely hours has he spent trying to coax precious fractions of seconds out of his legs? He couldn't even begin to count. He sees his speed, in whatever form he might use it—sprinting, rugby, football, whatever—as his only way out of the stormy life he thought his rough childhood forecast for him.

"I kept painting my picture how I wanted to be. I didn't let life paint the picture for me," he says. "Fear really drove me."

A tattoo across his chest says "Focus," and if there's one word that summarizes his athletic approach, that's it. He has known he was fast since he was eight years old and ran by everyone in peewee football, and he has devoted his life to getting faster. Since middle school, he has studied running the way architects study building construction, reading books, practicing endlessly and devoting himself to next-level workouts.

What is he running for? His life, both literally and metaphorically.

In between takes with the video crew, Isles runs in place, jukes out imaginary defenders and sings to himself, all of which is exactly how he has acted since he was a little boy lighting up football scoreboards in Massillon, Ohio.

The workers at the daycare center his mom owns in Massillon still laugh about the time one of them "caught" Isles singing into a mop while he danced atop a table. When he was a freshman at Ashland University, Isles dressed up like a girl for a rookie day song-and-dance skit in front of the football team. The beginning of Carlin's act was so convincing that run-game coordinator Doug Geiser, who recruited Isles, thought it was not Carlin but Carlin's twin sister, Tambra. "I was thinking to myself, what is your sister doing here?" he says.

Only when Carlin started singing did Geiser realize his mistake.

"He's the kind of guy that whenever you're around him, you're laughing," says John Swansiger, one of Isles' childhood friends and high school football teammates. "Not that he's a great joke-teller or anything, but a good time just sort of radiates from him."

Photo by Stuart Palley

That was true, his friends and family say, even in the midst of a difficult childhood. Isles was born in Akron, Ohio. He has only met his birth father once. On the last day he saw his birth mother, he and Tambra were playing outside when police swarmed into the yard. His mother was arrested on drug charges and, Isles says, put in a "paddy wagon."

He and his sister were put in the back of a police car. Before they left, he jumped out of the back of the police car, picked a dandelion off the ground, ran to the paddy wagon and gave it to his mother.

That's the last time he saw her.

He and Tambra bounced around foster homes after that. He got in fights often. During one of them, when he was about seven years old, he was desperate for his life to change. "I didn't know much about God, but I knew there was one," he says. "I said, 'God, please get me out of here. Please. Please get me and my sister out of here.'"

He met Charles and Starlett Isles, who had two biological children around his age, a day or two later, and soon they adopted Carlin and his sister. "He answered my prayer," Isles says. "I could not believe it."

Starlett, who has since divorced and remarried, says Carlin and Tambra had been neglected—but not abused—in their years in the foster care system and that Carlin's behavior reflected that neglect.

After playing protector for Tambra, he assumed that role for their new brothers and sisters. If another kid snatched a toy from one of his adoptive brothers or sisters, Carlin would not just snatch the toy back; he would, as Starlett put it, "deck" the offending child.

"We had to step in and say, 'You know what, you go be a kid. We're the parents. We're going to make sure it's OK,'" Starlett says. "Once we showed him that over time and time and time, he developed a level of trust with us."

Left to foster care as a child, Carlin Isles became a fierce protector of his sister and, eventually, his adoptive siblings.
Left to foster care as a child, Carlin Isles became a fierce protector of his sister and, eventually, his adoptive siblings.Photo by Stuart Palley

Playing enforcer for his family was easy compared with the challenges he faced at school. He couldn't read and went to class every day terrified that the teacher would call on him and ask him to read out loud."You talk about fear, man. Golly. Horrible," he says. He throws his head back. He smiles and shudders at the same time. "Hor-ri-ble. That fear, man, you can't run from that. That haunted me."

When he was in fifth grade, the teacher spelled out the word r-e-s-p-e-c-t. She sang it like Aretha Franklin. She asked Isles to read it. He couldn't and left the class crying.

He finally learned to read by applying the same techniques he now uses to study runners. He begins with a look at someone's whole technique before breaking it down into pieces—arms, hips, angles, etc. In the same way, he looked at whole words and then broke them into pieces to figure out why they were pronounced the way they were. He caught up to the other kids by the time high school started.

In high school, Isles became a star running back and one of the most popular kids at Massillon's Jackson High School. But he felt like he was weird, as if he were still that outcast kid who couldn't read. He tried to befriend people he thought might be struggling with isolation and loneliness.

"He was friends with everybody," says Jonny Meskeil, Isles' teammate in peewee and high school football and one of his closest and oldest friends. "I'm sure there's hundreds of kids at that school who would love to be interviewed to talk about this kid. I really admired that about him—how nice he was to everybody. He made me be just the same way."

When Isles was a boy, his pastor often asked if anyone had anything to share with the congregation. Most people spoke from their seats or, at most, stood up to talk. Not Isles. He sprinted to the front of the church. He was gregarious and wide open, so every time he ran from his seat, Starlett Isles worried: Oh no. What's going to come out of his mouth now? But he always spoke of his thankfulness to God for how he started life with nothing and now was surrounded by family and friends who loved him.

Isles was just as outspoken at Jackson High, speaking often at pep rallies and other school gatherings, including once during Hoover Week, a spirited week of pep rallies that led into a game with the school's rival, Hoover High. Players stood on a trailer on the football field, with fans in the stands. There was a bonfire and dummies filled with straw on the trailer with them.

Before evading rugby players, Isles impressed his high school teammates by escaping from opponents as a running back.
Before evading rugby players, Isles impressed his high school teammates by escaping from opponents as a running back.JIM WATSON/Getty Images

Isles talked about gratitude. He thanked God for what had happened in his life, how he had overcome a rough childhood. He thanked his line for blocking for him. Jackson was not a good football team, but by the time Isles got done talking, his teammates say, you would've thought the Polar Bears were headed to the Super Bowl.

Isles' friends love to talk about his athletic feats back in those high school days—the kind of things that have made him an internet sensation in the last few years. "We had three-foot boxes that we did box jumps with," says Adam Young-Murphy, who was co-captain of the Polar Bears with Isles when they were seniors. "We had to stack two up for him to have even a challenge. We'd stack these two up against the wall, and he'd jump right on top of them. Once we saw him do that, being kids, we said, If he can do that, he can jump over me."

And soon Isles did just that. Says the 5'10" Young-Murphy: "He would take two steps and jump right over me, standing up."

But one teammate was not enough. In the parking lot behind the locker room, Isles often had three of them line up, got a running start and jumped over them.

On the football field, he was even more ridiculous. Often, he would pull something out of seemingly nothing. When trapped behind his offensive line, Isles would stop, change direction, run a wide curl, juke this way and that…and be gone.

In his junior year, against Lake High School, another league rival, Isles was at his most dazzling. With the score tied at 14 and 1.1 seconds left, Isles started off right…nothing…he cut sideways across the field…he turned upfield…he ran right by half the defense, broke tackles from the other half and sprinted away from trouble and into the end zone.

His Polar Bears teammates dogpiled on him before they all ran over to the victory bell. Almost immediately, the crowd spilled onto the field, and a celebration filled the brisk, fall night.

As dominant as he was in football, Isles was just as good at track, setting school records in the long jump and 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes. But success in sports was a means, not an end.

He cut out and tacked to his wall newspaper stories about athletes who got in trouble. Those sad stories of wasted talent stoked in Isles a fear of failure that still chases and motivates him. He found wisdom in those clippings, and those stories told him what mistakes to avoid. He says he didn't drink or smoke or even go to his prom. He regularly stayed up until the wee hours watching running videos and then got up early and raced the bus uphill on the way to school.

Isles took his athletic gifts seriously, noting to himself how many top athletes before him had lost their careers over avoidable mistakes.
Isles took his athletic gifts seriously, noting to himself how many top athletes before him had lost their careers over avoidable mistakes.Photo by Stuart Palley

One day at football practice before the start of Isles' freshman year at Ashland University, players ran the 40-yard dash. Freshmen didn't usually do that, but Isles' reputation as a burner preceded him, so the coaches asked him to run. Geiser timed him on one side, and the strength coach timed him on the other. As Isles approached, Geiser noticed something strange: silence. "I couldn't hear his feet touch the ground," he says. "It was like he was running on air."

As Isles zoomed by, Geiser looked down at his stopwatch and didn't believe what he saw. "I must've stopped it too early," he told the strength coach. "I got 4.21." The strength coach said, "I got 4.18."

"We looked at each other like, naaah," Geiser says. He told Isles to run it again. When Isles matched his first time, Geiser says he and the strength coach split the difference and called it 4.19. That same year, running back Chris Johnson ran the fastest 40 ever recorded at the NFL combine: 4.24.

At Ashland, Isles was too small (he's listed at 5'8", 165 pounds now) to play running back full-time. But coaches tried everything to get him on the field. He spent time at bronco back (a hybrid position melding running back and slot receiver) and returned kicks. Isles likes to hit, so he also played on the kick and punt coverage teams and at cornerback.

Late in a game against Findlay in his freshman season, Isles returned a kick 85 yards for a touchdown to push Ashland to its first-ever home playoff game. Photos of his sprint down the sideline, as head coach Lee Owens leaped behind him, were used in school promotional materials for years afterward.

Isles maintained his dominance at track, too, becoming an All-American in the 60-meter dash. Geiser says Isles was so committed to perfecting his running form that he was "almost like a scientist in the laboratory. He knew that stuff like he was an expert, a Ph.D."

But after two years at Ashland, Isles was unhappy. He saw college as a prefabricated mold that he didn't fit or want to fit.

Isles left Ashland and moved to Texas to pursue becoming a professional runner. He ran a fast enough time to qualify for the 2012 Olympic trials. But that wasn't enough. He knew he likely wouldn't finish among the top three, which is what he had to do to make the team.

Frustrated that he likely wouldn't reach the Olympics in track, Isles came upon some rugby highlights on YouTube that convinced him to blend his track and football skills into trying to become a rugby player.
Frustrated that he likely wouldn't reach the Olympics in track, Isles came upon some rugby highlights on YouTube that convinced him to blend his track and football skills into trying to become a rugby player.KAZUHIRO NOGI/Getty Images

What then?

One night, as he mulled what he felt was certain disappointment, he surfed videos of runners on YouTube. He noticed a clip on the right-hand side of the screen, a collection of rugby highlights. Curious, he clicked and watched. Then he watched some more. Running with the ball in rugby looked a lot like running with the ball in football.

A plan took shape in his head. Maybe, he thought, if I can't sprint on the track in the Olympics, I could sprint on the rugby pitch.

He emailed officials at Team USA. They set him up with a club team in Aspen, Colorado. He packed everything he owned into his car and drove across the country, crying much of the way as he came to terms with what he felt was his last chance to make something of his athletic career.

"I knew that if this didn't work out I was screwed. I put all my eggs in one basket," he says. "I didn't know if I was making the right decision. God was telling me the whole way, 'Trust me, trust me, trust me.' I didn't know how it was going to happen, or how it was going to work out. I was just trusting the unseen."

That unseen became seen, and quickly. He played in Aspen for two U.S. team officials—Andy Katoa and Paul Goulding. He impressed them enough that he debuted with the U.S. team the next year and became a rugby phenomenon—at least as much of a phenomenon as a rugby player can be in the United States.

At first, he simply outran people. But defenses learned to stop him, and he has had to adjust to that. His evolution in the game has been like a pitcher who at first throws 98 mph fastballs by hitters and eventually learns to control the game by painting corners and changing speeds.

Led by Isles' speed, the U.S. rugby team is considered a favorite to win a medal at the Olympics in Rio.
Led by Isles' speed, the U.S. rugby team is considered a favorite to win a medal at the Olympics in Rio.David Becker/Getty Images

"The fastest man in rugby," as Isles is often called, has been the most visible member the U.S. team has ever had. In addition to the Aspen and U.S. teams, he has played in San Francisco and Glasgow. He left rugby briefly in December 2013 to sign with the Detroit Lions practice squad. But the Lions never saw him as anything more than a long-term project, and in less than two months, Isles returned to rugby. Since then, Isles has been giving himself completely to the sport.

After the video shoot, Isles slides into a booth at Buffalo Wild Wings. With the cameras off, he is just as charming as when they are on. Despite his athletic successes, the millions of views his athletic exploits have received on YouTube and the healthy bank account he has compiled thanks to his stipend as a member of the rugby team and corporate endorsements, he doesn't feel his tribulations are over. The way he sees it, there's always something to overcome. Maybe that's why he keeps a poster at home upon which he writes quotes from people who have doubted him.

He sounds as if his success has brought him little more than fleeting joy, if that. His life story, as he sees it, is about struggling, nonstop, against one obstacle after another.

He carries those memories like he carried the backpack to the video shoot. When he sets them down, it's only momentarily. "There is no way I should be where I am. There is no way in heck," he says. "It was like there was nothing. There was no chance. There was no light. But God made the impossible possible. If you believe that, anything can happen."

Almost wistfully, he says: "I miss the struggle."

He stops himself when he starts to think things like that. "Whatever I'm trying to catch or whatever I'm trying to feel, I don't think I'll ever be satisfied," he says. "I'll still keep trying to prove something, fight for something."

If he lets himself believe he has made it, if he stops working as hard as he ever has, he fears that will be the first step in a downward spiral that will put him in a sad newspaper clipping that some young boy will tack to his wall. Would he still be Carlin Isles if he isn't desperately struggling against some obstacle, real or imagined?

He doesn't know, and he doesn't want to find out. So he keeps running.


Matt Crossman is the author of more than 40 cover stories in national magazines. He has written for Sporting News, SI.com, CBSSports.com and many others.

slash iconYour sports. Delivered.

Enjoy our content? Join our newsletter to get the latest in sports news delivered straight to your inbox!