Mark Whipple was sitting in his office on a Sunday in February 2018 when he noticed something unusual happening on the field at UMass’ McGuirk Stadium.
There had just been a snowstorm the night before in Amherst, but Whipple, then UMass’ football coach, looked out the window and saw someone shoveling the field by themselves. He knew exactly who it was, and so he called UMass Athletic Director Ryan Bamford.
“Whip’s like, ‘You’ll never believe it. I’m in the office. Guess who’s out shoveling a 40-yard path in the snow at McGuirk?’ ” Bamford recalled.
“Who?” Bamford replied.
“Andy Isabella,” Whipple said.
Isabella, the former UMass star wide receiver who was then preparing for his senior season with the Minutemen, had eyes on the next level, and he was clearing a path in the snow that day to do sprint workouts. It came as no surprise to people that knew him.
“That just goes to show you that he wasn’t going to be outworked and that the level of investment that he was going to make was going to determine his ultimate success at the next level,” Bamford said. “And it certainly has.”
That work ethic Isabella consistently displayed for four years at UMass paid off for him, as he went on to become a second-round NFL draft pick by the Arizona Cardinals in 2019. On Sunday, he’ll return to Gillette Stadium — where he played in five games in his college career — as the Cardinals visit the Patriots.
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Isabella, now in his second season, hasn’t made a huge impact in Arizona yet but has played a small role within an exciting Cardinals offense led by Kyler Murray. The speedy wideout has compiled just 24 receptions for 373 yards and three touchdowns in his career thus far, but has displayed big-play ability with an 88-yard score as a rookie and a two-touchdown game earlier this season.
“He’s just a wonderful representative for this institution and obviously for our football program,” Bamford said by phone this week. “He deserves everything he’s certainly earned and deserves everything he’s gotten, and the opportunities he’s gotten with the Cardinals and the NFL comes because of how much work he put in in the four years he was with us. Quiet, humble, but nobody works harder and nobody believes in themselves more than he has and he’s carved himself out already a good role, and I know that’s evolved over time.
“They’ve got a really good, young team in Arizona and I know he’s excited to be part of it. We’re just immensely proud of the things that he’s been able to do.”
Bamford became UMass’ AD in 2015, just before Isabella’s freshman season, so he’s seen the receiver’s development firsthand. His first impression of Isabella was his raw speed — he won a high school state title in the 100-meter dash, and later ran a 4.31 40-yard dash at the NFL combine — but he watched him evolve into a complete receiver over his four years in Amherst.
“We’re spoiled here in New England where you grow up watching Wes Welker and (Julian) Edelman and (Danny) Amendola, and you start thinking about Andy. You’re like, man, Andy because of his size and speed, he could absolutely fit this type of mold in the NFL,” Bamford said. “But his breakout, I mean, he had some games his last year with us. I think about the game at Georgia where he had over 200 yards receiving and they had two or three D-backs that went in the first three or four rounds of the NFL draft, and he just torched them.”
Bamford is hoping he can see Isabella torch the Patriots on Sunday. The last time he played at Gillette, Isabella had 10 receptions for 85 yards against BYU as he was putting the finishing touches on a senior season in which he produced 102 receptions, 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns in 12 games.
Bamford, who’s a Patriots fan, likely would’ve made the trip to Foxboro this weekend during normal circumstances in which there was no pandemic. But he’ll be tuning in from home, rooting Isabella on.
“I hope Andy has 300 yards receiving and six touchdowns, how about that?” Bamford joked. “I want him to have ultimate success. This is a good year to say that with the Patriots. As much as I love them, hey, we’ve had six Super Bowl titles, so you know what, this would be a good day for Andy to shine and if the Cardinals win, that’s OK.
“But no, I want what’s best for him. He’s a wonderful representative, a wonderful young man. I’ve enjoyed working closely with him and just trying to support him in any way we can. We want him to come back to New England and come back to Gillette where he has played a number of games, and it is a familiar turf for him, so I think that could be an advantage. Sometimes when you get homecomings like this, it’s kind of a unique circumstance and good things happen. I certainly hope that’s the case for him this weekend.”
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