Tom Gage / The Detroit News
DETROIT — Dad was a dishwasher — when he was sober.
Mom was a loving mom, devoted to her five children. She used to sing softly to them to quiet their fears. Mom, however, was killed in an automobile accident on the day her youngest son was about to play one of his biggest high school games.
He played in the state quarterfinal anyway — fighting back tears and tragedy as he has all his life.
The story of Isaiah Kacyvenski is one of challenge and personal triumph. Of not just the will to overcome, but the way it can be done.
If you watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, you might never hear his name or notice what he does. That’s the plight of a special-teams player — which Kacyvenski has become. In his sixth year with the Seahawks, there’ve been seasons in which he has started as an outside linebacker. In 2004, for instance, he started 13 games.
But he’s not a starter now. Don’t put it past him, though, to someday to claw his way up the depth chart. Put nothing past him, in fact. Nothing.
“There were days we had nothing to eat but popcorn,” he remembers of his childhood. “Popcorn for dinner, popcorn for lunch, popcorn all the time. I used to sprinkle water on it in the morning to make it seem more like cereal.”
After school there were snacks, but only if he could dig deep enough in the alley trash.
“If the store had thrown away its old doughnuts, we’d find them. Even if they’d fallen on the ground, we’d eat them. That was our treat.
“I remember other times, pulling up in the car to the garbage, and my Dad would grab the stuff they were throwing away or about to throw away.
“Two separate times I remember living in a tent. The first time was for three months, we were homeless. It was in Rockport, Massachusetts, where my Dad had a dishwashing job in a nursing home. He’d bring us scraps from the home to eat. The second time was rougher because it wasn’t in the summer.
“We got kicked out of our house because we hadn’t paid the rent. We had nowhere to go but a tent. Seven of us all huddled up.”
His saving grace
How does a child who once had nothing, literally nothing, rise from adversity and accomplish what Kacyvenski has accomplished?
He went to college. He went to Harvard of all places, and would be a doctor if he wasn’t running around a football field, still giving more than his all to the sport that helped to elevate him from the abyss.
Which it was, you know.
A deep, psychologically dark hole of wondering when his father, David, would again take a strap to him or his brother.
“He hit us for nothing,” Kacyvenski said. “I never knew why. He hit us so hard that sometimes I couldn’t sit down for four days.”
Football saved him — for it was football that provided the escape.
Once he identified it as exactly that, an escape, he embraced it and never let go
“Football has always been a place I could just lose myself,” he said. “I don’t think about anything else when I’m on the field. Everything goes blank
“It’s a good feeling. People find that in whatever they love. This is what I love.”
The family settled in Endicott, N.Y. — a town of around 13,000 on the banks of the Susquehanna River — near Binghamton.
His troubled times began in his boyhood.
But for as much despair as his father provided, his mother countered with an equal amount of hope. They’d both come from broken homes, raised in orphanages. When he was 9, they divorced.
“She was a very religious person,” Isaiah said of his mother. “She made me believe in the fact there is a God. My real fear, though, was one of failure. I didn’t want to live with how I grew up. I was afraid to ask my dad for a dollar for fear he’d just haul off on me and I’d get whipped.
“My father grew up around alcoholics his whole life — and the abuse that goes with it. When he drank, it brought that out, the low self-esteem, even more. When I was in college, he got hit by a car while crossing the street after running out of gas. He still has a titanium rod in one of his legs.”
Setting clear goals
One fear of Kacyvenski’s fueled the other, however.
Seeing so clearly what he didn’t want to become, the fear of failure dominated his life.
“I had a road map of what I wanted to accomplish,” he said. “I didn’t want to fall short.”
Excelling in high school football, Kacyvenski (pronounced Kas-si-VEN-ski) had wanted to go to Notre Dame, but Notre Dame wasn’t interested in him.
He was planning to attend the University of Connecticut when, out of nowhere, Harvard called.
Kacyvenski was stunned. But he kept an open mind about what he was going to encounter:
“It was a free trip, so I said why not? But it was turned out awesome,” he said.
“You’ve got the legacies at Harvard, they’re there because someone else in the family went there. You’ve got people who study 18 hours a day and don’t sleep. But you also have people who’ve fought and clawed their whole life against all odds. Those are the stories I love.”
Because he’s one of them.
“I made a sign in college out of poster board and magic marker that read “Let No One Outwork You Today.” I put it right above my bed, so I woke up with it every morning.”
He uses it as a guide even now.
“Isaiah is a very high-motor, intense individual,” Seahawks special teams coach Bob Casullo said. “You see it in practice that guys get upset with him because he’s going so fast. His motor’s always running. But they also know, ‘that’s Kas.’ He does it every play, every day.
“The players respect him for what he does, what he is and where he’s come from.
“In the NFL, you’re always told don’t get close to the players. But you hear these stories and it really touches you.”
Missing mom the most
The death of his mother was the nadir of Kacyvenski’s life. Nothing could get worse. Nothing could possibly get sadder — and nothing has.
His father stopped drinking when Isaiah was 14, and has remained sober to this day.
In fact, it was David Kacyvenski, in cap and gown, who accepted his son’s diploma at Harvard graduation while Isaiah was a rookie in training camp.
“Our relationship is good, but continues to be a work in progress,” Isaiah said. ‘I’m trying to have a normal father-son relationship, and hopefully will have a normal family relationship someday.”
That’s not proven to be easy, though. Isaiah’s brother, Daniel, still doesn’t speak to his father. But they’ll both attend the game Sunday.
One of the great coincidences of Isaiah’s life took place his freshman year at Harvard.
He’d been assigned uniform No. 49. In his mother’s Bible, which he looked through after her death, he found that she had underlined Isaiah Chapter 49, verse 15 — the verse that ends with these words: “I can never forget you. I have written you in the palm of my hands.”
“That hit me deep,” he said.
Isaiah became a four-year starter at Harvard and also the first player ever to start every game of his career. He set a school record for tackles, was named All-Ivy League three times, eventually was drafted in the fourth round in 2000 by the Seahawks, made the team — and has stayed on the team.
“He’s an overachiever,” teammate Grant Wistrom said. “It’s the best label you can ever have in your life.”
From the worst of times, to the best of labels, Isaiah has come full circle.
From sadness to joy, from pervasive fear to its absence — from having only popcorn in his bowl, all the way up life’s ladder to the Super Bowl.