The CFL vs. Argos linebacker Brandon Isaac

Argonauts linebacker Brandon Isaac takes part in practice at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ont.,...

Argonauts linebacker Brandon Isaac takes part in practice at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ont., Nov. 14, 2012. (VERONICA HENRI/QMI Agency)

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:55 PM ET

TORONTO - Everywhere, outside of Double Blue Country, Brandon Isaac has become CFL Public Enemy No. 1.

The Argonauts' linebacker has been depicted as a renegade and head-hunter; a defensive warhead who has taken out three quarterbacks, put a devastating hit on the western nominee for offensive player of the year, is an all-star trash talker, and generally has caused havoc from backfields to CFL headquarters.

He has been fined three times, suspended once by the league, and may lead the team in having been given "a good talking-to" by his coaches.

He has seen the video clips, heard himself described by television commentators as vicious, malevolent, unrepentant -- living proof that remnants of the Neanderthal Age still walk the face of the Earth disguised as football players. It is what happens to someone when they treat the legend also known as Buck Pierce like a human pin cushion.

But if Brandon Isaac is the CFL's biggest headache -- and in all honesty the jury still has to be out on that -- he may also be its biggest enigma.

Regarded as an assassin to Darian Durant fans in Saskatchewan, and a cheap-shot artist by devotees of the Jon Cornish fan club, there is another softer, thoughtful, even benevolent aspect, to Isaac.

For one: He hurts.

As much as he has inflicted pain, he also has felt it. It was there growing up on the poor side of a go-nowhere town in South Carolina. It is here now as tries to justify his actions in the face of a storm of accusation and retribution.

He understands he is not without blame in a season that has tilted between a professional high and an emotional quagmire.

"When I hit Cornish, that's what I would call a bad play. That was a dumb play that I just decided to do. The other two I was just trying to play hard. When I hit the quarterbacks upside the head, I wasn't aiming to do that," said Isaac in a long interview this week, after an Argonaut practice leading up to Sunday's East final against Montreal.

He believes to his soul that he is not a bad man, or a dirty player. So, he pleads guilty for the hit on Cornish but innocent on all other charges.

Snubbed in the all-star voting, he believes it is because his reputation has been sullied.

"It really bothers me!" he says, agitation evident in his voice. "Every game I try to make a big play for my team. But when I leave the field I don't feel I get the credit that I rightfully deserve because of the things I've already done, like hitting quarterbacks, that's haunting me."

If there is one thing more important to Isaac than football, it might be his reputation.

He is a small-town boy to whom reputation is everything. To understand Isaac, it is necessary to understand where he has been and why he cannot let anyone stand in his path to respectability, to success, to finally finding a place he can call home.

"Everybody knows everybody," he says of growing up in tiny Blackville, S.C. "I come from a family that really didn't have anything. The opportunities were real slim, but I was able to make the best of them and, hey, I'm here!"

There are people who wish he had never left Blackville, never found the CFL and never donned an Argonauts' jersey.

"I've been painted as this guy who hits quarterbacks upside the head and do a lot of bad things and I think it's the reason I'm not an all-star. I had 43 tackles, four sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and numerous big hits and plays. Tackles for losses.

"I don't think I'm the defensive player of the year. I think it goes to guys like (J.C.) Sherritt or (Adam) Bighill, but I think I should be mentioned in the conversation. If you take them away, who has made more big plays throughout the year? I think I'm right there! There's nobody who has made more big plays."

Against Montreal, it was Isaac who sacked Anthony Calvillo, forcing the Alouettes to try a futile 53-yard field goal with no time on the clock.

It was Isaac who pressured Hamilton's Henry Burris, hurrying him to make a throw that was intercepted by Ahmad Carroll.

Perhaps he has a point. Perhaps it should have been enough, rather than a pariah, to make him an all-star.

Against Edmonton, in the Eastern semifinal, it was again pressure from Isaac that turned Kerry Joseph's shovel pass into an interception by Marcus Ball.

And so he believes he is the victim of character assassination. And he doesn't understand how he has come to deserve all of this.

"I went out and helped us win. Now commentators are saying Brandon Isaac is a dirty player and they're always showing the same plays of me hitting quarterbacks upside the head. Viewers are getting brainwashed. I don't want to be known as THAT guy. I want to be known as a positive guy for this organization and for what I do ... (Instead) I'm getting a bad reputation and that bothers me because that's not who I am."

He does play an aggressive, physical game. He plays on the edge. He admits that. He plays with emotion. And there is little doubt that his infractions cost him votes among members of the media when it came to all-star balloting.

While his behaviour this season hasn't always been justified, perhaps there is some justification in his resentment.

"In all honesty, I should be an all-star. I got all-star numbers. You put mine beside everyone's in this league and I should be an all-star because they're as good or better.

"I just want the respect I deserve. I've made some big plays that really mattered and I don't just want to be looked at as a guy who hits quarterbacks upside the head. It's not something I tried to do, but unfortunately, it happened."

The words tumble, like leaves whipped by an autumn dust devil. Then softly. "A couple of times," he adds, reluctantly.

Trouble. Ah, yes.

It has been Isaac's uneasy companion much of his 27 years. On what should have been the happiest of days when he was traded to Toronto in May to be reunited with defensive coordinator Chris Jones, an admirer of his tenacious style, he lost the Rock of Gibralter in his life.

"My mother was everything," said Isaac. Sandra Isaac was just 43 when she died of cancer.

Isaac recalls that day with mixed emotions, his eyes flicking left, right, then peering up into the lights at Rogers Centre.

"We didn't have a lot and we never really had a home for long, always moving, but she gave me a roof and clothes on my back and she allowed me to dream and to go after my dream. She was a part of my everyday life. Where I'm from, a lot of kids don't get a chance to chase their dreams because they're just trying to survive."

If anything, Isaac has been a survivor. If anything, Isaac has been a defensive terror, in the best and worst possible ways.

EXHIBIT A

Aug. 18

Toronto at Calgary

The Toronto defence limits Cornish to just 43 yards rushing on 12 carries and one catch. But two Argonauts, Isaac and Ball, are fined for what the league describes as "dangerous and unnecessary illegal hits away from the play" on Cornish.

Isaac agrees his play was out of line, brought on by a lot of trash-talking and incidental shoves and pushing throughout the game between himself and his former teammate in Calgary.

"It was a heat of the moment thing. If you watch Cornish, he gives a lot after plays. He's a lot like I am. He's an emotional guy. I played with him; had conversations with him in the hot tub. He was one of my boys when I was there. He was doing his thing ... but I felt bad afterward because I shouldn't have done that. It was a knucklehead play where I accept my punishment.

"I'm not just a guy who goes out and does dumb stuff without admitting I was wrong ... but the other two times I was doing the right thing for my team: Playing football the way it was supposed to be played."

Postscript: Argos win 22-14. "I made some good plays ... nobody remembers that part," said Isaac.

EXHIBIT B

Sept. 29

Toronto at Winnipeg

Pierce takes a hit on the chin from Isaac, who is penalized on the play, and later fined by the CFL. Offensive linemen Steve Morley and Justin Sorensen are fined for separate retaliatory hits on Isaac.

Isaac insists nothing sinister was ever contemplated, a stance the Bombers clearly did not endorse.

"By no means did I try to deliberately hurt him or anything like that. I was taught to tackle with my face mask. I put my face mask through his chest and my helmet slid and it hit him in the chin."

It is impossible to know what is in a player's head. Only he knows whether there was any malice or intent to injure on a specific play.

Isaac insists, "It was a clean play. He saw me coming. He was in the pocket. He could have tried to elude me. He could have tried to throw the ball away and it would have been over. But I was thinking he was going to get the ball off so I hit him ... he took a tough lick to the chin and was knocked out of the game.

"But at the same time I thought it was a big play for my team. I thought it was the turning point of the game even though it was viewed as a dirty play."

Incidents that saw the Steelers' James Harrison suspended for his quarterback hits and the Saints' Bountygate episodes have made football officials more sensitive to hits to the head.

Fair enough, said Isaac.

But as a defensive player, he insisted, it isn't his responsibility to protect quarterbacks.

"I understand them being sensitive because the dropoff between a star and backup quarterback is tremendous. So you want to protect your star quarterback and I understand that. But you've got to put the onus on the people in front of them. They have to do a better job of protecting them. If they let people in full speed without blocking them then there's going to be a hard collision. I can't tell myself it's my job not to hit a guy hard. It's my job to pressure the quarterback."

Pierce was sidelined for almost a month.

Postscript: Argos win 29-10. "To this day I don't think it was a dirty play," Isaac said, "but it has put me in a bad situation."

EXHIBIT C

Oct. 27

Toronto at Saskatchewan

In the fourth quarter, a blitzing Isaac runs in untouched toward Durant, who is facing the opposite direction and looking downfield to pass. As he proceeds to hit Durant, Isaac's helmet makes contact with the Rider quarterback's helmet, forcing Durant to fumble. No penalty is called.

Two days later, the CFL slaps Isaac with a one-game suspension and another fine.

"I thought it was a good tackle. I turned my head to the side and tried to come in with my shoulder. I didn't hit him with my head. I dragged him to the ground. I made a play. But the previous incident with Pierce makes it look worse than it really was. If someone else makes that tackle it wouldn't have been nothing," said Isaac.

Instead, he believes, he was incriminated by previous incidents, and with the crowd screaming and "with TSN showing clips ... that B.I. is a vicious, malicious guy ... people feel they need to take action."

Isaac, whether you buy his argument or not, is genuinely confused about what he should -- and shouldn't -- do and who he should do it to and when to do it.

"You look at every one of those plays where I hit the quarterback I wasn't touched. I was coming in free. The majority of time when guys hit quarterbacks they're coming off a block and don't get the full head of steam that I got. I'm running full out, standing tall and I'm 6-foot-3, and Durant and Pierce are shorter. When I hit (Winnipeg backup quarterback) Alex Brink here at home (earlier in the season), I was applauded for the hit ... because he was nobody. He wasn't a star in this league. But when I hit the star quarterbacks, there's problems. I don't know how to balance that."

Postscript: Argos win 31-26. Anybody see a trend here?

EXHIBIT D

Oct. 20

Montreal at Saskatchewan

Between plays, Montreal linebacker Shea Emry whacks Brendon LaBatte in the baby-makers. Emry, who also has a reputation for being a Rasputin, is fined. He is not suspended. He is voted to the all-star team.

"He was allowed to punch someone in the nuts, get fined, and then it went away like nothing happened and he's an all-star," said Isaac. "Now, he's a tremendous player, but I feel what he did was more extreme than what I did because I was making a football play. What he did was after the whistle.

"He punched someone ... and it disappears, but what I did gets broadcast on TSN over and over and over. They come interview me. They show all the same hits over and over and talk about me being a bad guy and getting fined.

"I don't know what type of person Shea is. But as a football player I've never done that kind of thing."

Isaac doesn't believe he is the focus of game officials. He says he gets along well with them on the field and understands they have a difficult job. But ...

"I ain't going to necessarily say I'm being targeted. But I'm being closely watched. Everybody has a job to do, I understand that. I'm being examined more carefully. Let's just say that if I'm hitting the quarterback that's going to be examined harder than someone else hits the quarterback because of what's happened before. I don't get the benefit of the doubt that somebody else might get ... right away people think I'm being dirty. Because it's me they don't think it's an accident."

This year, the only other player suspended by the league is Lions' defensive lineman Khalif Mitchell, who tried to turn an Edmonton offensive lineman's arm into the shape of a ballpark pretzel.

Hold on, to me as we go

As we roll down this unfamiliar road

And although this wave is stringing us along

Just know you're not alone

'Cause I'm going to make this place your home

- Lyrics Phillip Phillips, Home

In Blackville, Isaac is the biggest thing since Troy Brown was ripping defences on behalf of the New England Patriots.

"I'm the next guy in line playing ball that everybody looks up to. It's a small place so I guess I'm a bit of a local hero," said Isaac, grinning. "So I help out at the schoolhouse with field day and the like. Talk to the kids about doing the right thing."

That's the thing about Isaac. He honestly appears to want to do the "right thing." On the field. Off it. It just hasn't always worked out that way. Not even from the start in Blackville. Because while it is his hometown, rarely did he ever have a real home there.

"I come from a single-parent family. Mom didn't always have a job and we were always moving house to house. I always told myself I wanted more stability when I grew up and I didn't want to live the way my mom had to live."

She worked the fields. His two sisters and a brother are factory workers.

Meantime, he learned to play hard and fast. "As a kid, my grandma had 10 kids, seven boys and three girls and I played with my younger uncles and they were real rough. I had to survive. I had to learn to fight. Had to channel my energies somewhere and I became pretty good at football by being physical and aggressive. They showed me no mercy," he said, chuckling at the memory.

"I had my head cut. I had teeth kicked out. I've been through it all. When I get out on the field it's my opportunity to take it out against anyone who lines up against me."

In his senior year at Blackville High he had 87 tackles, rushed for more than 1,000 yards and threw for more than 500 yards. From there it was off to South Carolina, where he tore his labrum. Three times.

"It dogged my college career. But I always believed I should be a star. When I was down and out, and nobody believed in Brandon, my mom believed in me. I wanted to get her out of her situation and get her a house and a car. I busted my tail to provide that, but then cancer took her life."

He blinks back at the Rogers Centre lights. It is long after practice. The field is barren now. There is only silence and a young man with his thoughts and dreams.

"That's why I want to clean up my image because I think I'm a good person and bring a lot to this team and organization. My mom? She knows I'm loud, aggressive. But I'm also loving and caring. I love the game, my family. I bought her a trailer. I'm making a bit of money now. Three bedrooms. She would be proud. I'm sure she's looking down with a big smile."

In the end, for Isaac, perhaps that's all that matters really.


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