On March 21, Chapman wide receiver Jacob Isabel caught seven passes from Sam Darnold, one of the top quarterback prospects in the NFL draft, at the University of Southern California’s pro day. Rain poured down as live video was streamed around the nation to show off Darnold’s golden arm. While Isabel and Darnold were on the same field connecting on pass plays, they were never in the same league.
Darnold was drafted third overall by the New York Jets in this year’s NFL draft April 26. He received a call from the Jets’ head coach Todd Bowles, exchanging small talk as he smiled wide with the knowledge that he’d soon be a 20-year-old millionaire.
He snapped on a never-worn Jets hat and sported a new navy suit, strutting to the draft stage while in front of a crowd of thousands at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Texas. Darnold gave NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a hug, and flaunted a Jet-green jersey bearing his name at the live cameras.
At that moment, Isabel, a 5-foot-8-inch Chapman wide receiver, was one of millions of people watching the first round of the draft live at home. Unlike Darnold, Isabel, 24, never got a call from the Jets. Instead, he got an email from their director of college scouting Matt Bazirgan, who told Isabel that he wasn’t good enough for the NFL and that he should focus his attention on a career in the Canadian Football League (CFL), Isabel said.
“They were harsh,” Isabel said. “It pissed me off for a second and then it just fueled me a couple hours later. That’s just how this business is going to be. Someone’s not going to like you and they’re not going to go with you, so you have to get that out of your head.”
Isabel said he was happy to watch Darnold get drafted. But part of Isabel’s strategy was to target teams that were interested in Darnold, who he had been working out with for the past two and a half months. So when Darnold was drafted by the NFL team that explicitly said it was not interested in Isabel, he was disappointed.
In the later rounds of the draft, when Division II and III players came off the board, Isabel said he was frustrated because he felt he had more talent than some players who were drafted.
“I knew my name wasn’t going to get called on draft day,” Isabel said. “I would watch it for a little bit and I would watch some of the highlights of the guys who were getting picked and guys were trash compared to me. That’s how I felt. It was kind of discouraging watching the draft because guys were getting picked up with less of a skill set than I have.”
The week following the draft went as poorly as it could have for Isabel. After an April 8 CFL tryout for the British Columbia Lions, Isabel said he was offered a contract with the team and planned to move to British Columbia in late May to compete with 74 other players for 46 roster spots.
He worked out with three NFL teams – the Jets, Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos – and said he received a call from Broncos offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave April 29, who told Isabel the team might be interested in bringing him to training camp. He told Isabel to keep his phone on.
Two and a half hours later, Isabel said he received an email from the British Columbia Lions. He had been cut, and instead, the team planned to sign a 6-foot plus wide receiver. Isabel said the email told him he had the talent to play for the team, but that he didn’t fit the team’s offensive scheme.
The next day, Isabel followed up with Musgrave to see if the Broncos were still interested in bringing him to training camp. Musgrave said the team was using its last available roster spot on an offensive lineman. As Isabel put it, he was “back to square one.”
To add insult to injury, the Los Angeles Rams, the last NFL team Isabel was in contact with, signed Aaron Lacombe, a 6-foot-3-inch wide receiver from California Lutheran University, another team in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
In the conference, Isabel finished with 826 receiving yards and nine receiving touchdowns, compared to Lacombe’s 721 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns. Isabel said the Rams signed the second-best wide receiver in the conference, something that only added to his frustration.
“Not only could I play the same position that he did, but I could move around the field and be a viable option at other positions other than receiver,” Isabel said. “I like (Lacombe). I’m friends with him, but he’s a receiver on the outside only. He doesn’t run to too many other spots on the field.”
Isabel has two more CFL tryouts scheduled next week: in Los Angeles May 12 with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and in Las Vegas May 13 with the Ottawa Redblacks. Despite the constant setbacks, his optimism persists – he said he thinks he has a 75 percent chance of making a CFL roster.
“I have full confidence in myself that one day, I’m going to land a roster spot,” Isabel said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be next year, or in the next two weeks. Even though teams aren’t calling me right now, I still feel it in my heart that it’s going to work out one day, because I’ve put so much time and effort into this.”
Chapman head coach Bob Owens said that Isabel is a versatile player who can run, block and catch the ball with professional ability. But even if Isabel’s professional football dreams don’t materialize, Owens said he stressed to Isabel that the most important thing is to complete his psychology degree.
“Be sure that no matter what, you graduate from college,” Owens said he told Isabel. “That’s going to be your ultimate career.”
Isabel said he expects to finish his degree by next year. Should his career as a professional football player not pan out, he intends to become a special needs teacher and high school football coach.
“Say I don’t get picked up by any team, something is going to fall into place where it’s going to help me out in the long run,” Isabel said. “I’m not saying I’m not going to make it into the league, but other stuff can happen if I don’t make it.”