Isaiah Brandt-Sims sits outside a Starbucks on a blistering day in late July fielding questions about his football career and the answers he gives are, well, a bit dull.
The senior patiently listens — his hands folded and his brow furrowed with deep thought. He scratches his chin for a few seconds while concocting a response and offers up a straightforward and politically correct sound bite that will neither ruffle feathers nor turn heads.
He is attentive and thoughtful for the entirety of the interview, but the big brag never comes — not even a mention of personal goals.
Brandt-Sims, the subject of the article, doesn’t seem all that interested in Brandt-Sims. He might not even read the piece.
“I don’t know,” he says after a string of team-oriented responses. “I just feel like being too outgoing is not a good thing. Some people might be really outgoing and stuff and maybe gloat; I just try and be the opposite of that.”
Meanwhile, as Brandt-Sims declines to reflect on his achievements or go more than a few sentences without switching to team speak, coaches across the Big Nine are preparing for battlewhen they face the Panthers and Brandt-Sims. The reigning league offensive most valuable player won’t talk about his ability at length, but it’s the worst-kept secret in the Columbia Basin and every coach in the league is searching for a way to put the brakes on Brandt-Sims.
“With him, we always talk about just trying to get him bottled up,” Eisenhower coach Dan Eyman said in a phone interview. “Because if you get him moving and running, he’s gone.”
Eyman doesn’t want to focus too much on Brandt-Sims in their Oct. 11 meeting because of the corps of athletes that accompany the senior running back. At the same time, it’s an obvious mistake to ignore him. So what, exactly, is the right answer? Ideally, there has to be some kind of imaginary line defenses’ game plans must toe between stopping Brandt-Sims and keeping the rest of the offense under wraps. Then again, maybe there isn’t.
“It’s tough,” Moses Lake coach Todd Griffith says. “I really try not to just stop one guy, because they have a quarterback, they have a couple other guys that can run, too. … You know Isaiah’s going to get his yards against you, you know he’s going to play well. You just want to limit his big yardage gains.”
Brandt-Sims spent the second half of the season obliterating defenses. With the exception of Eastmont, which had a veteran cast of run stuffers that led the league in team defense and propelled it into the Class 4A playoffs, nobody could catch the future Stanford Cardinal.
Brandt-Sims torched Davis for 289 yards on 16 carries and set a school record for rushing scores in a 53-10 win last October. He plowed through Moses Lake with 259 yards and three scores on 25 carries in a 48-20 victory the next week. The 6-foot, 175-pound back played a critical part in Wenatchee’s five-game win streak to close out the season. By matching jaw-dropping speed with a refined grasp of the game, Brandt-Sims showed how unstoppable he can be.
Efforts to deflect attention are futile. All eyes will be on Brandt-Sims this fall.
Isaiah was so shy growing up he would make his younger brother, Christian, order food from vendors at sporting events. Isaiah would have friends over and Christian did most of the talking. Isaiah was forced to open up some while college coaches from across the country courted the multi-sport star, but even top-tier schools pitching their program didn’t do much to ignite Isaiah’s ego. He doesn’t own a Twitter account and seems most comfortable in the confines of the Brandt household.
Christian, who stands at 6-3 and at 15 is still growing, is the Yin to Isaiah’s Yang.
“Isaiah’s my rock and Christian’s my sunshine,” their mother, Tracy Brandt, explains.
While Christian, a sophomore who hopes to make an impact on the Panthers’ varsity squad this fall, brightens the day, Isaiah’s tranquility is contagious.
Anytime Christian’s nerves flared up in track last spring (Christian competed in high hurdles, while both brothers ran in the state-placing 4x400 relay team and Isaiah is a three-time champion in the 100- and 200-meter dash), he would look to Isaiah for peace of mind. Even after winning his first state track championship as a freshman, Isaiah was calm as a rock. He didn’t parade around the track or get lost in emotion. Other than a wide grin, there were few tells to his recent accomplishment.
“That’s not him,” coach Scott Devereaux says.
Tracy relishes in the disparity between her sons.
Photographs of Isaiah and Christian crowd the walls and table tops in Tracy’s first-floor office in Brandt Law Firm in Wenatchee. Tracy, a Gonzaga law school graduate who practices at the family-owned firm, raised the boys as a single mother.
Dating back to pee-wee football, there’s a timeline that traces the brothers’ athletic careers.
Tracy, a Wenatchee native, beams with optimism about the upcoming season. Her sons will play together again for the first time since pee-wee football, and Isaiah’s the centerpiece on a team that is predicted by many to win the league. She, like many others, has high hopes for the Panthers in 2013.
Isaiah grasps the game on a new level now, which allows him to read defenses, react and take full advantage of his raw speed. That, in turn, has made him more confident going into his final prep season.
Isaiah is like Peter Parker in cleats. He has amazing ability, but with great power comes great responsibility. While Isaiah seems capable of handling the spotlight and expectations, there’s still a lot of pressure to perform.
His lifelong streak as a perfectionist is partly to blame.
When Isaiah was 9 or 10 years old, his favorite drill in practice was a one-on-one Oklahoma-style simulation that pitted a defender against a ball carrier. He would cradle the football in his right (dominant) arm and bowl over defenders. One day, the coach asked him to put the ball in his left hand. Isaiah was so frightened of fumbling, he refused. It was the only time Tracy can remember Isaiah running laps for disciplinary reasons.
“He’s a perfectionist,” Tracy says. “And I think, the negative part of that for him is that everybody always expects him to be perfect. And when you’ve been really, really good, sometimes I think people forget that he’s just a kid. He’s human.”
In a way, football is the last refuge for Isaiah. In track, the three-time defending 100 and 200 champ’s success is straightforward: Outrun the competition. He doesn’t mind the pressure, likes being responsible for his own success and looks forward to running track at Stanford.
Football’s more complex. Isaiah suits up in pads and gets lost in a throng of purple and gold. They win and lose together. No matter the outcome, Isaiah will have a band of brothers to lean on.
“If anything, football’s probably a little bit of a relief because it’s a team sport,” Devereaux says.
The high expectations that have been there for a few seasons in track are spilling over into football, though. People expect big things from the team this season, and especially of Isaiah.
It’s a familiar position. But as his star rises, his anonymity fades.
Tracy brings up a recent MaxPreps profile story on Isaiah. The article paints a broad picture of Isaiah’s athletic career and discusses his brainy side (Isaiah holds a 3.9 grade point average and is taking several advanced placement classes this year). The article discusses how the freakishly fast (he notched a career-best 10.48 100 last spring) sprinter enjoys a healthy level of insulation in Wenatchee. Depending on the arc of his collegiate career, this could be the beginning of the end of that insulation.
Tracy clicks through the photo gallery. A shot of Isaiah dressed in his track uniform appears on screen. His arms are crossed and he bears a serious countenance.
“I hate this,” Tracy says, looking at the photo. “He always tries to act so tough.”
Somewhere in Isaiah’s makeup is an on/off switch that controls his aggression.
When he starts competing, he plays with a quiet, controlled rage, a far cry from the mild-mannered, introverted honor student.
It shows up on the football field, but it was even easier to spot on the basketball court, where hard physical contact is discouraged.
Dillon Sugg, the Wenatchee quarterback and one of Isaiah’s best friends since childhood, took a hard left elbow to the face during a summer basketball game before sophomore year after fouling Isaiah three times in a row. (They were watching television at Isaiah’s house 30 minutes later. “He could punch me in the face and I could just care less,” Sugg says).
“It’s almost an eerie quiet,” Wenatchee offensive coordinator Jeff Christoferson says.
When Christian was in seventh grade, Isaiah got to play up at the varsity level for the first time. The next tier of competition brought out a new level of intensity in Isaiah, then a freshman.
“It’s pretty strange to watch,” Christian says. “But it’s like when he walks on the field, he’s transformed.”
The transformation still takes hold just about any time Isaiah steps on the field, and this year, Wenatchee plans on extracting every drop of Isaiah’s rage to help fuel the team.
Isaiah didn’t take over the Panther backfield until midway through the 2012 season. Before that, he was splitting carries and spending time lining up as a receiver. Isaiah is expected to play a running back/receiver hybrid role at Stanford, but this year, Devereaux wants to maximize his carries.
The Wenatchee coaching staff has been working to teach Isaiah the finer details of the position. For years, Isaiah was so fast and athletic he could turn on the jets and turn football into a track meet. Consequentially, he didn’t get the repetitions he needed to master the position and struggled to pick up the game as a freshman.
“We probably didn’t do a real good job of teaching that year,” Devereaux says, “because he didn’t get the ball nearly enough.”
His practice reps increased sophomore year, but he started as a receiver and caught about 20 passes that season.
Isaiah continued to torch defenses with his speed and his knowledge finally started to catch up with his feet. He learned to read defenders’ tendencies and comprehend zone blocking schemes by season’s end.
“Teams have got to start focusing on him,” Devereaux says.
On an early August evening, Tracy is showing a sort of family trophy room in a small shed behind the Brandt home. Part of Isaiah’s legacy resides here, too.
Tracy first discovered her sons’ athleticism on a wrestling mat. There’s a wall decorated with youth wrestling tournament brackets and several championships from Isaiah and Christian. Isaiah sings the praises of his friend Sugg, who wrestled for a brief time during middle school.
“He lost one match the whole year,” he says.
There is also a large photo of Tracy’s brother, Jim, posing for a picture on a football field. His pool table is the room’s centerpiece. Jim, who died about six years ago, played an active role in the boys’ childhoods.
In some ways, the room is a shrine to the past. The photographs that flank Jim’s are of Isaiah and Christian posing in their pee-wee football uniforms. A black and white photo of the boys’ grandfather in a three-point stance during his playing days sits on the wall too. The days are getting shorter, the summer winding down. In a matter of weeks Isaiah will try to get lost in the throng of purple and gold.
“Did you read that MaxPreps article?” Tracy asks.
“A little bit of it,” Isaiah says.
“See? He doesn’t even read half the things about him,” Tracy says.
“I usually just let you read it and tell me about it,” Isaiah says.