Isaac Keys: a name you may or may not know. Whether it’s from football, acting, or being an all around inspirational guy, his name comes up in many a conversation, not to mention Google searches.
Odds are, he’s been on your TV at least once. The Saint Louis, MO native has had a few stints on the big screen, either as a former NFL linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals, a contestant on Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth’s dating reality show The Ultimate Merger (she was the protégé from Donald Trump’s Apprentice and this dating show is a scaled down version of The Bachelor), or as McDonald’s Man of McCafe looking mighty fine. Professional football player-turned-actor, Keys is finally finding his stride, this time in a new arena.
Since The Blonde Side is a sport’s column, my obvious interest in interviewing Keys was about sports. When most people think of professional athletes, they think of guys like LeBron or A-Rod– someone the media and every single notable in the sporting world has been watching since the age of four just foaming at the mouth ready to cut him a check with entirely too many zeroes. But for a lot of the other guys, it’s their hardwork and unprecedented dedication that propels them to that next level.
Take Keys for instance. He was able to walk on to the University of North Alabama’s football team and then later Morehouse College. During his bit at Morehouse, he was a Pre-season All American, 2-time Defensive Lineman of the year and was selected for the 1st team All Conference. Pretty impressive, right? But not enough to make him one of those bigtime SportsCenter names rotating through each hourly broadcast and still not enough to get drafted, but just enough to get signed as an undrafted free agent by the Vikings in 2001.
After being riddled with injury after injury, Keys finally settled into his role with the Arizona Cardinals in 2004, lasting three seasons. No longer in the game (at least not the one on the field), Keys gave me a little insight into his role back then as a free agent where he frequently refers to himself as a “blue-collar athlete.”
“We weren’t all millionaires,” he explained. At the time of his signing back in 2001, the league minimum was $209k, but Keys notes he didn’t make that much. Instead he made a split salary, which dropped to $120k – which is still good money, but not the kind of money we lay people think of when we think of an NFL player + Bank of America. “The public was used to seeing #1 draft picks, millionaires, endorsement deals and guaranteed salaries – no one sees ‘my kind’. It was hard. I was in the life, but not living the life,” Keys explains. “I was putting forth sacrifice on my body and my career, without any guarantee. The average player lasts about 3 years, but it takes it takes 4 years to get your pension. If you get released, you never know how long it’ll take to get picked up again and there’s always a fear of being cut. My parent’s didn’t understand my life until they first watched HBO’s Hard Knocks – it sounds funny but it finally gave the public an impression of the mental, physical and emotional side of athletes,” he says. Keys was spot on: for a good majority of the time and within most front offices, they are more invested in a 1st or 3rd round pick than they’d be with say your typical run-of-the-mill free agent.
His last year with the Cardinals was a bit of a roller coaster. The team released him, brought him back, then moved him to the practice squad and after a couple more dosey doe moves all the while having kept him under the radar where other teams wouldn’t notice him, his value dropped. Well past $120k and well out of the league. “The phone just stopped ringing,” Keys recalls.
Having been out of the NFL for almost 5 years, Keys explains, “I didn’t stop playing football, football stopped playing me.” But fear not, this is not some sad desolate “poor guy” kind of story. Football “quitting him” opened up new doors as he set out on a soul-searching endeavor in an attempt to find what else he was passionate about. As he started getting comfortable in front of the cameras, Keys realized this was another natural talent of his and ran with it, no pun intended.
Currently his next big goal? Aiming for a feature film or sitcom. As you can see on his website, he’s definitely putting some valuable face time in front of the camera as of late. Turns out, acting and football are a lot more alike than you think.
[The Blonde Side] Compare NFL to acting.
[Keys] Call me crazy, but they are kind of the same, without the physical aspect. Acting is just as unstable as football. Just like football, acting requires you to put yourself out there – for others to critique and judge you. Both professions require me to watch film and both are an extreme balance of learning to handle your emotions.
[The Blonde Side] Which has more competition?
[Keys] They are equally competitive. Somewhere down the line, someone eventually gets their break (like Brady when Bledsoe got hurt back in 2001). LA is an expensive city to live in, people have to throw in the towel at some point and head back home. A lot of people want to do both, that’s why they are both tough industries. Cuba Gooding Jr. got his break after being an extra (in a barber chair) in Coming to America – you’ve got to learn from guys like him and be persistent.
[The Blonde Side] What feels more natural – acting or football?
[Keys] Now, acting. Then of course, football. I felt like I was born to act and it allows me to show more of who I am.
[The Blonde Side] Favorite actor?
[Keys] Will Smith – I like his range and his personality, charm and charisma.
[The Blonde Side] Favorite NFL player?
[Keys] Lawrence Taylor and Mike Singletary – I’ve played both of these positions and both of these guys are playmakers. Taylor was just a beast on the field and Singletary played with such tenacity.
[The Blonde Side] What are you most proud of you in your career(s)?
[Keys] Not just one thing. It’s the obstacles I’ve overcome. I’m doing things most people dream of – millions of people dream of playing in the NFL and I can say I’ve done that. Millions want to be on TV – I’m doing that. I’m very blessed.
Wise words to leave you with from Mr. Keys: Live life. Don’t let life live you.
This was also part of The Blonde Side’s 30 Before 30 series.