This is the year. For Sale Isaia, this is the year he buries the
injuries that have buried him as a young player. This is the year Isaia establishes himself as a presence on the Ravens' offensive line, the year he gets through training camp healthy, has a sparkling preseason, then enjoys his first productive fall as a pro.
Or so he hopes.
Since joining the franchise in Cleveland as a rookie free agent out of UCLA in 1995, Isaia has learned plenty about life in the big leagues. Trouble is, nearly all of his education has been absorbed off the field and in the training room.
He has spent two of his first three seasons on the injured reserve list. He has appeared in only nine games, all as a backup in 1996. He is still overcoming his most recent nightmare, which began torturing him, of all times, on the first day of training camp last July.
That day, Isaia took a bad step while positioning himself to make a block during a special teams drill, then fell to the Western Maryland College field. The surgical scar on his right knee, where he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, symbolizes another lost season.
A year ago, Isaia aimed to compete with Leo Goeas for the starting left guard job. A year later, Goeas is gone, leaving Isaia to go after the job once more, although second-year man Ben Cavil figures to battle him. Others, such as James Atkins, Spencer Folau, Alex Bernstein and Jeff Mitchell, loom as possible candidates for the only unsettled position up front.
This is the year for Isaia, right?
"I've been through three training camps, and I know I can play in the NFL," said Isaia, 25. "It helps that the team signed me for another year [a $395,000 tender]. I feel like I'm the missing link in this offense. But the fact is, this is my fourth season coming up, and I haven't done anything. I've got a lot to prove."
If anything, Isaia, 6 feet 5, 315 pounds, has proven his resilience. Early in his collegiate career, Isaia missed a season after tearing the ACL in his left knee. He then established himself at UCLA as a defensive tackle, before switching to offensive guard as a senior.
After signing with Cleveland, Isaia missed his rookie year with an ankle problem. He followed the team to Baltimore in 1996, staying healthy enough to contribute as a backup guard and special teams player. At one point, with the Ravens' defensive line in shambles due to injuries, Isaia even revisited his old defensive line spot in practice.
It was an uneven year at best, and it gave way to his most recent disaster. Although he remained committed to his rehab program during the season and continued to perform charity work steadily for the Ravens, last year's trip to injured reserve nearly caused Isaia to give up football.
"My mom wanted me to quit, and my fiancee could tell I was coming home with a lot of pent-up anger," Isaia said. "I spent lots of time talking to school kids. They would ask me for my autograph, and I would say, 'Why? I haven't even played.' Friends would call during the year and ask if I was still on the team. I might have quit if I didn't have all of these guys behind me."
The Ravens' linemen are a tightknit group. At their weekly, in-season gatherings at guard Jeff Blackshear's home, where they combine video games with shop talk, they kept up Isaia's spirits.
"I've seen guys in college just fold up after having that kind of injury," said Bernstein, a second- year man. "When Sale went down so early [last year], you know it was going to be a huge blow for him. But he came back hard. There's no doubt in my mind he has the physical tools to be a success in this league. It's just a question of whether he can stay healthy."
Blackshear, who starts at right guard, has admired Isaia's determined attempt to reclaim a place on the line.
"When you look at people in the weight room, you know who's trying to beat the system and who's working to make the team better," Blackshear said. "Sale is working hard for that starting spot. He's not going to give it up."
Offensive line coach Kirk Ferentz has been with Isaia from the beginning. Ferentz has watched him gain discipline by learning to control his weight, while picking up better practice habits. He has watched him grow to enjoy studying game tape, a chore Isaia avoided often as a youngster.
Like many people within the organization, Ferentz is hoping the resolve with which Isaia has faced his setbacks translates into long-awaited production on the field.
"Sale has had his share of adversity. Sometimes, that can lead to really good things. He certainly has an opportunity now," Ferentz said.
"We've seen promise, we've seen potential. You can project and you can hope, but until a player gets out there and performs, he's a wild card. I suspect Sale is going to come back very determined. Obviously, this is a real important year for him.
NOTE: The Ravens' 1998 training camp begins July 21, the day after rookies report to Western Maryland College. Rookies will be joined by veterans for the first, full two-a-day practices July 24.
Pub Date: 5/22/98