Tina Neal would’ve been happy with whatever her son Isaiah wanted to do, regardless of whether or not football was in the picture, but she can admit now that she isn’t sure what she would’ve done with herself if football wasn’t in the picture.
She can also admit now that when Isaiah first started playing youth football, way back as an eight-year-old lineman, he wasn’t very good.
“Initially, when he was first starting out, he was horrible,” Tina told PSN, laughing. “He was horrible, and I was just like, ‘Oh, my God.’ And then the fact that he was horrible, he has this thing inside of him where he just wants to succeed. He went out the next year and was a totally different kid and fell in love with the sport. He’s been playing non-stop ever since. It’s almost like we find things to fill the space until football starts again because he’s so passionate about the sport.”
Isaiah, who has since grown into a 6-foot-3, 265-pound frame since those early days of pee wee football, committed to Pitt over the weekend. He chose Pitt over heavy interest from North Carolina State, Maryland, Rutgers, Duke, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, and for Tina, it was an indescribable feeling to see her son fulfill the first of a lifetime of dreams.
“It’s like I’ve been through everything, I’ve seen him work so hard and just to finally see his first set of dreams reached, it’s just the most fulfilling — I think as a parent — feeling that I’ve had ever,” Tina said.
It’s been a very, very long road for the Neals, with the pair leaning heavily upon each other as Tina raised Isaiah as a single mother. But with the blessing to be able to stand atop the hill now, Tina is beyond fortunate to be able to reflect upon the journey — and the son she raised as her best friend.
Isaiah may not have been very good as a young football player, but it wasn’t exactly his fault either. It took a quick conversation with his mom to unlock that killer instinct that helped him earn offers from nearly every major university in the northeast.
“The first year, they had him on the line and it was just like he didn’t have — It’s just me and him, and I raised him to keep your hands to yourself, don’t hurt anybody, so that’s what he did the first year,” Tina said. “Like, okay, let me reiterate, you can do that now, you’re allowed to push people back. And then he switched teams after the second year and the coaches were different, and the atmosphere was different, and they saw something — I don’t even think I knew it. I wasn’t a football coach, I didn’t see it and they coached that.”
Isaiah turned a corner, unleashing that aggression in his growing frame, and while he excelled as a line, his focus shifted toward playing tight end. Until he entered his freshman season at Gonzaga College High School in Washington D.C. that is. With a new set of coaches, playing for a premier program in the nation’s capital, Isaiah’s journey as a defender began — and mom approved of the move.
“He played tight end up until high school, and then when he went to high school, they put him on the defensive end of the ball,” Tina said. “His first impression was like, ‘I can do all.’ And I said there’s something about you, your motor, your aggressiveness, you fit on the defensive side of the ball. And he’s been running with that ever since.”
And as a defensive lineman, growing into his role as a leader on Gonzaga’s defense and now ready to play his senior season at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, Maryland, he established himself as one of the top defensive linemen in the class. As a recruit always looking to learn, he didn’t have to look far during his official visit to Pitt.
Isaiah was able to meet with former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier and benefit from Shazier’s ‘don’t quit, keep going’ testimony, but it was Los Angeles Rams — and former Pitt defensive lineman — star Aaron Donald that gave Isaiah goosebumps and almost brought Tina to tears. After all, if Isaiah has idolized an NFL player, it’s been Donald.
“I think the initial introduction between him and Aaron, I would’ve cried if I could have but I was like, ‘Let me hold myself together.’ Just to see it happen, it was almost like a dream come true for him,” Tina said. “(Isaiah) had a conversation with (Donald), and (Isaiah’s) first thing was, ‘How did you become who you are?’ And (Donald) gave (Isaiah) his thoughts, and it wasn’t a long drawn-out thing, but it was just like after that, (Isaiah) just… the fire was burning even more than it was before he met him. It was unbelievable to see.”
It was an impactful meeting, and not just because of the years of respect that went into the meeting for Isaiah, but because the Neals actually missed Donald on the first day of their visit. Pitt, aware of Isaiah’s respect, made sure to connect the pair on his second day of the official visit, and it was a one-on-one visit that will never be forgotten. The weekend of strong character isn’t something that will be forgotten either.
Pitt was always a factor for Tina — and Isaiah evidently — as an early offer jumped to the top. But the official visit went above and beyond. Tina has seen how her son’s humongous personality has grown over the years, often serving as the center of attention, the life of the party, and she was worried that Isaiah might need to tune himself down for a potential school. With Pitt, she sees a perfect fit into the family that’s already there.
“I thought how much of him would he have to change? And with Pitt, I feel like he can absolutely, exactly Isaiah,” Tina said. “And that is something that — the football is wonderful and he’s a 4.0 student so the academics were great, but it was just watching him be who he is.”
Isaiah hadn’t planned upon committing to Pitt after his official visit, with official visits scheduled for North Carolina State and Rutgers, but he came before Tina on the last day of the visit and said confided with his mother over his thoughts.
He wanted to commit that day.
“Are you sure this is what you want to do?” Tina asked.
‘I’ve never been so sure about anything in my life,” Isaiah said.
“Go ahead, so long as you’re sure,” Tina said, with just one condition.
“I’m strong on if you give your word, that’s it,” Tina said. “I’m not big on ‘I found something better…’ I’m big on making sure this is what you want to do because your character and the way people see you is very important and I just wanted to make sure this is the decision he wanted and I’m sure that it is.”
— Tina “Ghost Ma” Neal (@TiTithatsme) June 6, 2022
Pitt is now family for Isaiah and Tina. Tina has built a bond with some of the moms of fellow June 2 commits, both Tina and Isaiah have built a bond with defensive line coach Charlie Partridge — Tina’s twin — and Pitt has just felt easy. It wasn’t rehearsed. The Neals are who they are, with no if, and or buts about it, and Pitt made them feel like that was okay. It was encouraged actually.
After a lifetime of fighting for every single step, preserving in the face of adversity and rising above any previous expectations, Isaiah’s commitment to Pitt has proven that the Neals have made it. It’s a pair that’s unstoppable, and the Pitt commitment proves it all.
“Out story is definitely a story of perseverance and overcoming,” Tina said. “I think by the time Isaiah was in the sixth grade, we may have had 12 or 13 different addresses. I tried everything to hold it together, but it wasn’t always easy. I just always wanted to instill in him, no matter what we’re going through, just keep pushing. It’s not always going to be like this. And I think this proved to him that no matter, I can do whatever I want to do, and nobody can stop me. And this was just reassurance that it was true.”
Isaiah is Tina’s best friend, and vice versa, so when things were tough, there was nothing that was off-limits. Tina never read Isaiah a sob story, it was never a ‘woe is me’ feeling or sulking in a sorry state. The Neals had each other, and if nothing else, nothing lasted forever. There were brighter days ahead.
“Joy always comes in the morning, and that’s what I’ve always told him, and to see those pictures (taken at Pitt of Isaiah with) just a genuine smile, it’s living proof that joy comes in the morning,” Tina said.