Sept. 6, 2016
By Todd Burlage
Like so many of Isaac Rochell’s most fulfilling life events—be it becoming high school class president or even ending up a student-athlete at Notre Dame—his recent trip to Seattle for a two-week crash course in “java-penuership” happened much by chance.
Craving more knowledge on how to someday operate his own not-for-profit business, the Notre Dame defensive lineman weighed his internship opportunities the old-fashioned way, via a Google search.
The options were many, but one in particular stood out because it provided Rochell both a chance to help himself and others at the same time—from the grounds up.
Street Bean Coffee is a nonprofit coffee house that helps homeless young people by giving them a chance at some on-the-job training, a paycheck and therefore hope for a robust future.
For every bag of Street Bean coffee sold, the business is able to fund an hour of job training for a young person trapped on the dead-end Seattle streets.
So armed with the blessing of his family, the approval of Street Bean’s executive director and a little assistance from the Notre Dame internship fund, this 290-pound Irish roughneck set off in May to study Seattle’s coffee business and street life as the biggest barista America’s caffeine capital has ever seen.
“I learned a lot about homelessness and struggles,” Rochell said. “I met people who have been homeless since they were 12 years old. And, obviously, they didn’t make a decision to be homeless at 12 years old.”
Because Rochell majors in political science and not business, this internship was important because it provided him a chance to study how to manage all the moving parts of a not-for-profit operation, a career path he someday hopes to follow after football.
Be it creating marketing manuals, filing paperwork for the proper permits, helping to screen potential job candidates or mixing cappuccinos behind the coffee counter, Rochell did it all.
“Nonprofits are not just about helping people, although that’s obviously a big part of it,” Rochell said. “There is an entire business side to it that needs to be learned.”
If Rochell’s decision to work with the homeless in Seattle seems out of the ordinary for most modern-day athletes, it is. But if you think it is out of the ordinary for Rochell to help where help is needed, it is not.
Isaac’s father, Steve, shared a story from his son’s senior year at Eagle’s Landing Christian High School outside of Atlanta when Isaac turned down a lavish all-inclusive senior trip with a classmate to the Bahamas in favor of a humble mission trip to Nicaragua.
“That’s how Isaac has always been,” Steve Rochell said. “He always puts the needs of everybody else ahead of his own, sometimes maybe too much so, but I’d have it no other way.”
All In The Family
Steve Rochell never harbored NFL dreams, college scholarship hopes or long-term wealth for his two boys when they were growing up in McDonough, Georgia.
Instead, Steve Rochell and his wife, Gina, took a much more pragmatic, in-the-moment approach to raising Isaac and Matt.
“They didn’t have to be great football players, they didn’t have to be great students, we just wanted them to be decent kids,” said Steve Rochell, who at a hulking 6-foot-7 and 300-plus pounds was likely able to keep his message on point. “That was the No. 1 goal of ours—simply to raise decent kids, that’s all we wanted.”
Steve and Gina got much more than that.
Oldest son Matt earned a football scholarship to the Air Force Academy and became a three-year starter at left tackle. Matt graduated in May as an Air Force 2nd lieutenant and he will serve in space operations at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California. Matt also hopes to someday attend law school.
Younger son Isaac will be in his third season starting along the Notre Dame defensive line and has become a steady voice and the cornerstone in the Irish leadership hierarchy. Isaac will graduate next spring with a degree in political science, a sheepskin he can call upon when he finishes what promises to be a successful NFL career.
“I am more excited that he is going to graduate from Notre Dame than anything else. I am so proud of Isaac for the person he has become,” said one proud papa. “If he goes first round, second round, wherever he goes in the NFL Draft, that’s just gravy.”
And when asked about his evolution as a player and a person, Isaac is quick to pass many thanks to Matt for being much more of a friend than a typical, bullying big brother. The two are separated by only two years, one grade, about 1,000 miles and one quick text message.
“(Matt) is my rock, he is my go-to guy with a lot of stuff,” Isaac said. “Whether it was during recruiting or playing, he always gave tons of advice on how to handle things because he went through everything before I did.”
On The Road Again
Steve Rochell has relied on an interesting mode of transportation about the last five years to be certain he could attend as many of his sons’ football games as possible.
As an experienced, over-the-road, 18-wheel semitrailer truck driver, Steve often has the freedom to choose his routes and destinations. And for the three football months every fall, a game schedule serves as his road map.
“It can be stressful trying to make everything on time,” he said. “But I live for those 12 weeks of football every year.”
So through creative route scheduling, a little logistical luck and a lot of hot coffee last football season, Steve Rochell was able to take in seven of Matt’s Air Force games and six of Isaac’s Notre Dame games.
“And I have every intention of getting to all 13 of Isaac’s games this season,” Steve said, explaining that he changed his cargo hub this year from Atlanta to Gary, Indiana, to be closer to his youngest son.
Of all the cities and journeys Steve Rochell has rolled through—he drove his rig about 2,000 miles in only five days from Atlanta through Texas and then over to Arizona to catch both of his sons’ bowl games last season—one particular game day stands above the others.
The year was 2013 when Notre Dame played at Air Force in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Matt was a sophomore and a first-year starter for the Falcons. Isaac was a true freshman, a greenhorn still trying to make his mark with the Irish.
Air Force won only twice that entire season and entered the game with Notre Dame on a six-game losing streak, while the Irish headed out west winners of four of its previous five games.
But nostalgia, season records or the 45-10 Irish win mattered little to the Rochells that October day.
“For me, that was by far my best experience in college,” Matt Rochell said. “I had never seen my brother in a Notre Dame uniform because I couldn’t go to his games. It sounds weird, but I felt like I finally got to go to one of his games. It just so happens we were lined up right across from each other in the fourth quarter.”
As a four-star prep prospect from the talent-rich, football-frenzied Southeast, Rochell’s scholarship offer sheet read like a who’s who of Southeastern Conference football powers. Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee were just a few of the elite southern schools competing for his services.
But, as so often happens in football recruiting, mother knows best, and Gina Rochell persistently persuaded Isaac to at least keep an open mind and give Notre Dame a look.
“I didn’t know anything about Notre Dame,” Isaac Rochell recalled. “I remember driving and thinking I wasn’t going to go there, but I still thought the trip would be fun. And then I left campus and loved it. It’s like no other school. I was sold.”
Fast forward four years and Isaac Rochell has parlayed his college choice into a great football career and a bright future.
Rochell finished fifth on the Irish in tackles last season with 63, including 7.5 for loss. And based on the improvement and performance Irish head coach Brian Kelly saw from Rochell this offseason, the Irish head coach believes the best is yet to come.
“Isaac Rochell is a beast. I mean he’s a beast,” Kelly said. “If he continues to play at this level, he’s virtually unblockable in a one-on-one situation.”
And as for Steve Rochell, he’s just gonna keep moving forward as a driver and a father, proud that one simple message to his young boys to be decent has helped to make both of them great.
“The only things I required from my kids were to always have a good attitude, be respectful and always give 100 percent,” Steve Rochell said when asked to explain his incredible journey as a father. “If you do those things, everything else will take care of itself.”
A strong message from an even stronger messenger.
Todd Burlage is a free-lance journalist covering the Irish athletics scene