Nov. 1, 1999
by Susan Reid
The return to dominance of the Washington Husky defense rests largely in the hands of a young man who had no idea of its history prior to his junior year in high school.
When Jabari Issa, from Foster City, Calif., was recruited to Washington, he had not heard of the Purple Reign, the well-known nickname for a defense that helped win a national championship in 1991, much less it's history beyond that. Heck, he didn't even pay much attention to college football until he was a junior in high school and the hordes of college coaches came knocking on his door, hawking their programs.
Now, as he enters his final football campaign at Washington, Issa is the quiet leader of the Husky defense that is intent on reviving the sense of awe that accompanied units past. Listed at 6-foot-6 inches tall and weighing 285 pounds, he enters the year with numerous accolades, among them a tab on the Playboy Magazine Preseason All-American Team. Football News listed him on their second team and Athlon Magazine tabbed him third-team on its preseason selections. He is earning national recognition he never expected, much less ever thought about.
Prognosticators point to the defense as Washington's strength this year, and in particular, the front line. Since his arrival in Seattle, first-year coach Rick Neuheisel made two significant changes.The first was a return to the gold helmets of old, those that the '91 team wore and offer vivid recall for fans and players waxing nostalgic for the Purple Reign. The second was the move to a 3-4 defensive alignment, away from the eight-man front of recent years. The changes moves Issa and fellow senior Mac Tuiaea both from tackle to end, where they can create havoc with their quickness and strength.
Issa was thrown into the mix right away, seeing significant playing time in his true freshman season. Expecting to redshirt that year, he was thrown in early, playing in front of 74,000 people at Arizona State. Harking back to the sanctions in the mid 90s, when the depth charts were slim, he was on the field early, whether he wanted to be or not. He stepped out against the Sun Devils in '96 and has never left.
Issa, who has started 19 of the 32 games he has played, still has not used his redshirt year. He started eight games as a sophomore and all 11 games as a junior, recording 41 tackles and 12 tackles for loss, along with a team-high eight sacks. The Huskies were second in the Pac-10 at stopping the rush and first in total sacks. They were second in the nation in sacks with 51. Issa was named to the All-Pac-10 First Team as a defensive tackle and paved the way for his preseason accolades this year.
"It's been everything I expect and really, even more." Issa says of his college career. "Coming in, I didn't expect to play right away in my freshman year. I didn't expect to be where I am right now either, with all these all-American honors. I did not expect any of this." His attitude is a pleasant change from the oft-seen swagger of players who have not stepped on the football field, yet proclaim themselves all-everything before ever playing a down.
A team captain on Neuheisel's inaugral Husky squad, Issa seems to be a man of contradiction. Off the field, he is quiet. So quiet that an interviewer must strain to hear his answers to questions, answers that consist mainly of a 'yes' or a 'no.' This is a man who says that to play in the NFL is a goal, yet quickly points out that it is not a 'lifetime' goal. This is a man who, when he received his scholarship offer to Washington, was more excited about the free education he would be receive than of the chance to play for the Huskies.
He is easy to pick out in the Washington's annual media guide, simply because of the goofy smile he wears in the head shot above his biography. He is even easier to pick out on television, for his play on the field but also from the equally goofy video head shot that was shown to a national television audience during the BYU game. Nevermind that his nickname, also listed in the media guide for all to read, is Disco Bear. He points out that he has always liked Deion Sanders, of the Dallas Cowboys, because he is a flashy guy. But just a quickly, he points out that she is not flashy. He has not created an image for himself, not tried to set himself apart from the others.
Throw in the fact that he spent a weekend this summer hanging out with a group of the country's most talented players, at the Playboy All-America weekend-long party in Arizona. When asked about the weekend, he lists the itinerary of activities rather than rave about the party-like surroundings. Pretty matter of fact.
Yet on the field he is loud and and he gets the job done. As team captain off the field and leader of the defense on the field, he leads by example.
"He is a difference maker at the right time," says Neuheisel. "It was an honor to be elected team captain," Issa adds. "It means a lot that my team would select me to be a team captain and a leader. I was a little surprised. I'm a senior, but I thought maybe they would pick a fifth year senior or someone who is more vocal out on the field. I don't think I'm too vocal off the field. I like to set my examples by what I do on the field."
Issa, who was voted Lineman of theYear by his teammates last season, claims he didn't pay much attention to college football until his last two years of high school, when coaches around the country started taking notice of his skills. He did not know the storied tradition of Washington football, much less about his vaunted defense. Issa was recruited by nearly every Pac-10 school and along with Washington, took visits to Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington State.
"Washington had the most to offer," he recalls. "It was the best all-around program with a good education. I learned pretty quickly that they had a good history of football."
Now Issa would like to make history of his own. The only concession he will make to his own talents, rather than those of the team, is that he would like to see his name in the Husky record books alongside those who built the tradition of Husky football and the defense in particular.
"Being a senior, my last year here, I want to go out with a bang." Issa says. "I just came here to play and help my team win. I want to set a good example for the younger players but it would be nice to leave my mark at Washington. What would be a big bang? Obviously a Rose Bowl victory.I'd like to be in the history books but I just want to make sure I have no regrets."