Isdaner's hard climb to be a Mountaineer

He wasn't a high priority for W. Virginia, and then there was the family friction ...

Posted: September 18, 2007

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Greg Isdaner walked gingerly up a hill toward the team bus after his football team, the West Virginia Mountaineers, had taken care of Maryland on national television.

Half the crowd in front of West Virginia's bus seemed to be there for him, between friends and family. His 12-year-old brother, Rory, wore Isdaner's slightly soiled jersey from last year's Gator Bowl.

Another brother, Shane, was there with four of his own football teammates. When Mountaineers star tailback Steve Slaton came by, Isdaner's mother corralled him for a group photo.

Isdaner saw that and played the embarrassed son.

"Stevie, just get on the bus," Isdaner called to Slaton.

A 315-pound redshirt sophomore from Gladwyne, Isdaner is an accomplished second-year starter, blocking for Heisman candidates Slaton and Pat White. Last season, the Sporting News named Isdaner a freshman all-American.

But his road to West Virginia had some real twists. Right around the time Isdaner graduated from Episcopal Academy, he moved out of his house because his parents would not sign on to his college choice, declining to put their signatures on the national letter of intent offered by West Virginia. For the summer, he moved into a place owned by Episcopal's former equipment manager.

"It happened more as an emotional occurrence than a plan," said Isdaner's mother, Eileen.

"Things started to get a little heated, more heated than I wished," Isdaner said. "I moved out of the house just to try to cool things down."

When it came to Isdaner, West Virginia's recruiting competition wasn't Penn State or Maryland. The Mountaineers had to beat out Penn and Harvard and Georgetown.

"It wasn't that we didn't want to support him," said Isdaner's father, Bart, who owns and operates a bookkeeping and consulting firm in Radnor. "We wanted him to consider all these academic options. It certainly never hurts to go to Wharton."

Nobody in his family was against big-time football. His mother's uncle, Francis Gaul, played tight end at Notre Dame and caught a big pass in the first game between Notre Dame and Ohio State in 1935.

Isdaner's parents attended Georgetown. In fact, six of his mother's seven brothers and sisters also graduated from Georgetown.

"That changed our lives," said Eileen Isdaner, an accountant. "We sent him to Episcopal because we value education."

Everybody looked for common ground. Isdaner and his father sent tape to more than a dozen colleges that combined big-time football with elite academics. But they never heard back from Notre Dame, Stanford or any of the others, Isdaner said.

The summer before his senior year at Episcopal, Isdaner attended camps run by the football staffs at Boston College, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota and North Carolina.

"I realized I could play at that type of level," he said. "I didn't really know how good a player I was until that point."

Isdaner's father traveled to the camps with him. He saw that a handful of sought-after recruits were the reason the camps existed.

"I don't know what I'm looking at - all I saw was that there wasn't one kid getting through Greg," Bart Isdaner said.

Colleges don't mind taking linemen 50 pounds lighter and waiting a couple of years to get them on the field as they put on weight. But Isdaner already had done that. He was almost 100 pounds lighter when he got to Episcopal, "kind of recruited" to play lacrosse, as his mother put it. By senior year, he didn't have a lacrosse player's body anymore.

"He had a love affair with the weight room," Eileen Isdaner said.

He also put on weight the old-fashioned way. "An eating machine," his father said. At McDonald's, it was "four double cheeseburgers, regularly," brother Shane said. Episcopal's football players would stage their own wing fests at Isdaner's house, except the competition was for second place. One time, Greg ate more than 70 wings.

But he wouldn't eat just junk.

"He would just as quickly eat a bowl of broccoli or brussels sprouts as a bowl of ice cream," his mother said.

Some schools were intrigued enough to ask for tape from Episcopal games, but Isdaner sprained his ankle in the second game, so the tape wasn't very impressive, he said. The one Division I-A school that requested tape and followed up was West Virginia. The Mountaineers invited Isdaner to a game. That weekend, Rick Trickett, West Virginia's former offensive-line coach, stuck his head in Isdaner's chest and asked him: "Are you tough?"

"Yes, sir."

"No, no. Are you tough?" the coach said. "You'll need to be - to survive."

West Virginia linemen generally come from steel and coal towns, not Gladwyne. But the Mountaineers invited Isdaner back for an official visit. That time, Trickett trailed Isdaner around campus, watching his feet the whole time, trying to see if he had the necessary nimbleness. "For two days, I watched him sit, stand - everything but go to the bathroom," Trickett told Isdaner's father.

A scholarship offer was extended, and then things heated up on the home front. As time went on, West Virginia could not keep the offer open indefinitely, but told Isdaner he could "gray-shirt," a variation of a redshirt where he wouldn't be on scholarship until the following January.

"He never broke rank," his father said. "He said, 'I'm going [to West Virginia], period.' "

As it happened, a next-generation Isdaner did end up at Georgetown. Shane is a freshman there, 100 pounds lighter than Greg, but a walk-on football player. Those buddies at the Maryland-West Virginia game were Hoyas teammates.

For Greg Isdaner, the immediate scholarship opportunity at West Virginia reopened because another Mountaineers player had quit just before camp - to pursue a career as a rapper. Isdaner was called on a Thursday and told to report the next day if he wanted the scholarship.

Even for West Virginia, he wasn't a high-priority recruit, but turned out to be an ideal fit. Isdaner already owns or shares several of West Virginia's weightlifting records for offensive linemen. His career goals now include the NFL.

At the Maryland game, his father stood the whole time in the front row. His mother used the word elated when talking about his accomplishments. She never stopped smiling when he showed up after the game.

Eileen Isdaner also said, "Make no mistake. I will always choose education over athletics."

Are you tough? It's an inherited trait, right?

Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or

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