As a son and brother, Penn State’s Adisa Isaac ‘juggled a lot’ — now comes the NFL


STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — When Adisa Isaac was in third grade, he asked a lot of questions, as third graders do.

There was one that needed thoughtful explanation: “Why are my brothers and my sister different?”

His mother, Lisa Wiltshire-Isaac, expected this day would come. Of her four children, Adisa was the only one who spoke. She sat him down.

His oldest brother Kyle Wiltshire, she told him, was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. Being deprived of oxygen during his birth resulted in autism, intellectual delay, developmental disability and cerebral palsy.

Y’ashua Isaac, Adisa’s next brother in line, didn’t hit some of the developmental markers as a toddler. Doctors told Lisa he had an intellectual disability and developmental delay.

There had been a similar story with Adisa’s younger sister, Tadj Isaac, his mother told him. Tadj, too, was diagnosed with intellectual disability and developmental delay.

So it was an understandable question young Adisa asked.

But there is another one, maybe a better one, in the process of being answered this spring as he prepares to be chosen in the early rounds of the NFL Draft.

Why was Adisa Isaac born into this family?

At the age of 3, Adisa could write his name and knew his mother’s phone number. When he was 8, he began learning the rules of the road, how to make the car go left or right, which pedal accelerates and which stops. Lisa was often alone with the children, whose fathers were not involved in their lives. Her mother thought it was a good idea for Adisa to know how to drive, just in case.

The way Lisa saw it, taking care of Kyle, Y’ashua and Tadj was her responsibility, not Adisa’s. But he watched what she did and how she did it. When her burden was too heavy, he helped, making sure his siblings were showering properly or brushing their teeth thoroughly, helping them get dressed, tying shoes, getting meals prepared or cleaning up in the bathroom — whatever was necessary.

When his friends were gaming, Adisa might have been taking his siblings to the park, watching movies with them or helping with their Play-Doh creations. Lisa says she couldn’t imagine what she would have done without him.


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Lisa spent her childhood in Curepe, Trinidad and Tobago, where she never heard about the NFL. She immigrated to New York with her mother and sister when she was 11. Now she’s a special ed teacher working at PS 138 in Brooklyn with students from kindergarten through second grade. She does at home what she does at work.

“I do,” she says with a Trini accent, “what I was put here to do.”

How she manages, especially since Adisa went to Penn State, is a mystery.

“She does a million things in the dark that are kind of unexplainable that just make her who she is,” Adisa says.

“You can be in a full-on conversation with her, and somehow she knows what all three of her (developmentally disabled) children need without even looking,” says Kyle Allen, Adisa’s football coach his first three years at Canarsie High School.

Adisa’s strength, he will tell you, is from her.

For most of his childhood, the family lived in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where trouble could be found at every bus stop or convenience store parking lot. Sometimes, like a pulling guard, it seemed to come from nowhere with fury. But Adisa always managed to get around it.

Allen says he never saw Adisa cut classes, hang with the wrong people or get into fights. Lisa focused on his grades, so schoolwork eventually became a priority alongside family and sports.

When Adisa was a sophomore in high school, he came down with the flu. His mother instructed him to stay in bed and drink fluids, then phoned to see how he was doing only to hear voices in the background.

Lisa: “Where are you?”

Adisa: “In school.”

Lisa: “What are you doing in school?”

Adisa: “We have a basketball game today, and I can’t let my guys down.”

“He just always puts others before himself,” Lisa says.

The first time Adisa stepped on a football field as a high school freshman, he found a place he was meant to be. “I was in love,” he says.

The game loved him back. After initially considering Adisa as a wide receiver, Allen became awed by the way he fired out of his stance, so he made him a pass rusher. Allen also recognized remarkable football character.

“As I started coaching him, I realized he was a little different from the other kids,” Allen says. “His maturity level was different. His focus was different. His coachability was different.”

Adisa was a captain at Canarsie for three seasons and team MVP for two. As a senior, he had 25 sacks and was rated the No. 1 recruit in New York by 247 Sports, ESPN and Rivals.

He chose Penn State over Alabama, Michigan, Miami and other schools because he was impressed with how coaches treated his family. And a school within driving distance was a priority because Kyle feels uncomfortable on airplanes.

Adisa Isaac (right) with brothers Kyle (top) and Y’ashua (left) and sister Tadj (bottom). (Courtesy of Lisa Wiltshire-Isaac)

Kyle, 33, is often cautious, serious, and to himself. Adisa quells his anxiety. Kyle sulks. Adisa makes a funny face. Kyle cracks up, transformed with a halogen smile. And then he wants his brother’s attention.

Tadj, 19, wants his affection. She’s possessive of Adisa. If somebody she doesn’t know shakes his hand, she might grab Adisa and try to pull him away. After one game last season, he was signing autographs in a group of people when a highly excited Tadj seemingly came out of nowhere, charged him and nearly tackled him with a hug — and then, a wet kiss on the cheek.

“She is just a really loving girl,” he says.

With Y’ashua, Adisa is more likely to be in pursuit. Y’ashua has a mind of his own and likes to stretch his boundaries, especially if he sees an opportunity to flirt. “He’s the cool guy,” says Adisa, who, at 22, is one year younger than his younger brother, with whom he shared a bedroom growing up.

At each of Adisa’s games, his siblings wore jerseys, T-shirts or sweaters with his name and his No. 20 on the back. And of the hundred-and-something-thousand fans around them in Beaver Stadium, none were more exuberant and joyous than the three sitting in the front row behind the Nittany Lions’ bench.

Adisa found them in pregame warmups. Often, when he came to the sideline after a defensive series, he let them know he saw them. They pointed. He did a little dance. They went wild.

“They scream, make noises and gestures,” he says. “It makes me feel good to acknowledge them and then go play my heart out.”

They had little to be excited about in 2021, however. That summer, Adisa was doing lateral drills when his ankle gave out. Adisa required surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon and missed the season. It was a challenging time in his life, but few could tell.

“He was just like, ‘Well, it happened for a reason and I’m going to get over it,’” Penn State defensive line coach Deion Barnes said. “Things really don’t faze him that much. I don’t think I have ever seen him down.”

It took time for Adisa to come back completely, but by the 2023 season, he was ready to elevate to a new level. He led the Nittany Lions with 7 1/2 sacks and 16 tackles for a loss. He was voted first-team All-Big Ten. Sports Information Solutions named him first-team All-American.

Teammates voted him a captain last season. He acted as a go-between when coaches and players weren’t connecting. To one teammate, Adisa stressed the importance of staying with proper technique even though that player was having success doing things his own way. When another player was frustrated by a slump, Adisa spoke with him every day to try to keep him engaged and optimistic.

He also spent about 20 hours a week interning at State High School, earning $10 an hour working with kids with disabilities.

Adisa often worked one-on-one with students. One boy, Sahd, struggled with anxiety. Adisa, with the voice of an overnight jazz deejay, taught him how to walk in the hallway with his head up, how to be assertive about what he wanted and how to interpret what was happening around him.

“He ended up growing and learning and having a more joyous personality that he didn’t show to begin with,” Adisa says.

Adisa sometimes worked a sleep shift, staying the night to teach students how to be self-sufficient and prepare for independence.

Barnes says Adisa still put in extra football training while working for the high school. “It was like the internship didn’t even exist in my eyes,” Barnes says.

“I got a little tired at times, but being able to help them grow was big for me,” Adisa says. “I feel like I’ve juggled a lot, much more than that. So it came easy to me.”

At 6-foot-4, Adisa stands more than a head taller than his siblings. His mom can’t explain his height. Or his heart.

“Sometimes he wonders why I’m staring at him because he has me in such awe,” Lisa says. “He’s such a beautiful person.”

Adisa has learned the value of selflessness and how a positive attitude can impact those around him. He figured out why accountability matters and developed patience. All of this is reflected in the football player he has become. He is like no other prospect.

“You would want a thousand Adisas,” Barnes says.

His most outstanding trait may be his ability to bend. A protractor would say he sometimes rushes the passer at a 160-degree angle. Barnes says he turns the corner with the flexibility of Chandler Jones, who had 112 career sacks for the Patriots, Cardinals and Raiders.

“When I watched him in drills at his pro day, he got so low I thought he was going to fall down, but he keeps his feet,” says a veteran NFL talent evaluator.

His pliability isn’t confined to football. “He’s very adaptable,” Lisa says. “He will see a situation and adapt to it, fit in as needed, try to give a solution.”

Isaac with his mother, Lisa Wiltshire-Isaac. (Courtesy of Wiltshire-Isaac)

He wants to keep helping people with disabilities. Potential charity initiatives swirl in his mind. He graduated last December with a major in rehab and human services and thinks about devoting his post-football life to children with disabilities, potentially counseling or teaching.

After Adisa worked out for NFL scouts at Penn State’s pro day, he, Allen, and Allen’s two sons sat outside the Penn State Berkey Creamery eating ice cream. Allen asked him if he realized he would soon be rich.

Adisa said yes. His family now lives in a rough area in East Flatbush. His goal is to provide a better home for them, and he wants them near him.

“I feel like God knew what he was doing putting me in this situation,” Adisa says. “It’s clear cut that I’m here for a reason.”

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photo: Todd Rosenberg / Associated Press)

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