Rookie NFL running back Isiah “Pop” Pacheco, 23, is in Glendale, Arizona to play a key role in his Kansas City Chiefs quest for their third Super Bowl title, but his heart has never left his hometown of Vineland. That’s where this gifted football child grew into one of the greatest ever at Vineland High School (VHS), then starred at Rutgers University, and finally saw his intense work ethic and dreams propel him to Glendale.
From age five, football has been Isiah’s passion. But he is more than football.
He is part of a tight-knit family that has faced hardships. While he was in high school, Isiah’s brother and sister both died tragically within 20 months of each other. Rather than his being crushed by the devastating loss, it made him more determined than ever.
He took the broken pieces of his struggles and molded them into a complete package of kindness, humility, motivation, and dazzling athleticism.
“My brother and sister are always on my mind,” he has occasionally told the media, “I play for them.”
He has tattoos honoring his brother and sister adorning both arms. He carries them along with the ball on 30-yard runs down the sidelines and as he grabs a touchdown pass from his superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Plus, and a big plus, he is a proud member of the community he cares about so much. He was honored last year by his hometown and given a “Key to the City.”
He’s here without fail every year to run a youth football clinic where “the kids go nuts,” according to long-time youth coach Nick Basile. “We always get a good turnout, but after this, I can’t imagine the turnout we’ll have next year,” he said.
He was here as a high school senior as the Class of 2018 picked him for Mr. Vineland and he raised thousands of dollars for the school. He is here for pep rallies at his alma mater, energizing and encouraging the students to never stop their drive to excel and make no excuses while they follow their dreams.
He was here for the 2022 graduation as a surprise speaker, right after he was drafted by the Chiefs, to congratulate the graduates and wish them well in future endeavors.
“We had him hidden; it was a complete shock for the students when we brought him out,” said senior class advisor and high school vice principal Kim Rivera, adding “He’s a really great kid, it was contagious to be with him, it really was—he’s a natural born leader.”
VHS athletic director Donnie Robbins seconded Rivera’s sentiment.
“If you could pick a guy to be ambassador for your school, for your (sports) program, or for your town, there would be no one better than Isiah Pacheco,” he said.
Isiah first played in the Vineland Midget Football League. At age eight, he joined the new Blitz league in its inaugural year. Trying to get more kids into the high school program, a group including Basile started Blitz for players ages five to 14. Of course, it didn’t take long for Isiah to have a huge impact playing for Basile’s team.
“He was not only the best player on the team, he was the best in the league,” said Basile. “In our first game against Buena, he scored four touchdowns; he ran just the way he does now, obviously with a smaller body, but the same way.”
The coach went on to say that Isiah “validated” the new league. The expansion of the town’s youth football program was controversial at the time.
Basile pointed out a factor that was a refrain throughout the interviews for this article.
“He was very coachable,” he said. “He basically did everything we asked him to do; not that we would do it, but if I asked him to switch to the line and play guard, he would just say sure, coach.
Everyone sensed the greatness but there was no certainty, of course.
“No one knew that this career would come to fruition, but I’ll tell you it was on his mind then, he was dead serious about it,” Basile said.
Things haven’t changed, except perhaps to become more intense.
“His car is always the first to arrive at a Chief’s workout and it’s always the last to leave,” said Basile, who described Isiah as like a son to him.
VHS head coach Dan Russo had the next chance to work with Isiah, from 2014 to 2017, and these teams were the culmination of a decade-long rebuilding program.
Coach Russo and offensive coordinator Jason Volpe knew what they had and Volpe designed the offense around the new quarterback.
In both Isiah’s junior and senior years, VHS went 8-2 and played in the postseason; these were the first back-to-back winning seasons since 1990.
“He changed the culture of the program and the culture of the school and the culture of the town,” Russo said. “That was a good run we had there.”
Isiah played 33 career games and amassed 3,185 yards rushing with 44 touchdowns, and he added 1,134 yards passing with 16 touchdowns, according to nj.com. He returned kicks and was effective in the defensive secondary, too.
Significantly, Russo pointed out that the star player also “laid the groundwork” for the next two seasons.
“Tyreen Powell led the way then and we won our first two playoff games in the history of the program,” he said.
Powell is now a junior at Rutgers University, where Isiah had played, and Russo predicted he’ll play in the NFL, too.
Volpe repeated the mantra about Isiah.
“He was always very, very coachable and worked hard, he did what he was told,” Volpe said. “He wanted to do things the right way—the way I wanted him to do. He just wanted to make the team better.
“I remember coming home from Rutgers after watching a practice when he was a freshman and I saw how he upped his game since high school: I was thinking, holy cow, this kid’s going to make it.”
The reporter asked Volpe if he was surprised the high school star has gone this far.
“For him to become the starting running back in the Super Bowl? I don’t know if I was expecting that,” he replied.
Athletic director Robbins traced Isiah’s developing career this way: “I would say probably by the time he reached sixth grade, most football people in South Jersey knew about him.
“A lot of high schools were approaching him and he had a chance to go to any program, but he stayed in Vineland because he wanted to represent his community. And then, despite offers from larger and stronger colleges, he chose Rutgers because he wanted to represent his home state,” Robbins concluded.
It Steps Up:
As a running back during his three seasons at Rutgers, Isiah played 42 games and led the Scarlet Knights as he rushed 563 times for 2,442 yards (seventh all time at the school) and scored18 touchdowns. He caught 47 passes for 248 yards. He was captain of the team in his final year and made All-Big Ten honorable mention for his stats and intense work ethic.
Pro scouts were a little slow in noticing such a strong player because Rutgers is not a power in the Big Ten, having to play teams such as Maryland and Michigan State. But, he eventually became a target for the draft.
“I don’t think anybody could have predicted (Isiah) would be this successful this quickly, but I told scouts when they came to Rutgers to see him that he was the hardest practice player I’ve ever coached,” Rutgers head coach Greg Shiano told the New York Post last week. “I’m so happy for him and his family; he has worked for every bit of it.”
Graduating in three-and-a-half years with a bachelor’s degree, Isiah skipped his final year of college football eligibility to enter the draft. No one was positive he’d be picked until he was invited to the NFL combine last April. The combine is a showcase for the best college football talent from across the country. There, on the biggest stage, Isiah’s astonishing intensity propelled him to run the 40-yard sprint in just 4.37 seconds, tied for best time. He leaped onto the radar of several teams.
The Chiefs selected him on the third and final day of the draft, in the final round, as the 251st overall pick after a nerve-wracking three days for his family and friends as they watched, waited, and prayed. When it was over, Isiah spent an hour emotionally hugging, shaking hands, and accepting congratulations.
“It’s motivating for me in the sense of making me want to go harder, Isiah told The Daily Journal at the time. “I’m just thankful for the coaches and general manager of the Chiefs. They like me. I’m a team player. I’m excited, I’m ready to go and do whatever it takes to get on the field.”
Isiah got on the field. It was a unique accomplishment. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid told the media that no seventh round pick had ever started his first year on the 53-man roster during his entire coaching career.
Right away, Isiah earned a spot as a regular running back. He ended up leading the team with 830 running yards and five touchdowns. He played in every game.
Against the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC championship game on January 29, he ran 10 times for 26 yards and had five receptions for 59 more. He had a touchdown nullified by a Chiefs holding penalty, a low point for thousands of Vinelanders tuned in. The Chiefs won 23-20 on a last-minute field goal, which sent the team to this Sunday’s Super Bowl LVII against our Philadelphia Eagles.
“I’ve wanted this for my whole life,” Pacheco told the media last week.”I always dreamed about all of this—being in the NFL, playing in a Super Bowl, I’m so grateful.”
Grateful, humble, hardworking, straightforward, and, oh, the best VHS football player in decades.
“You’re a baseball guy, Robbins told the reporter. “You understand a five-tool player like Mike Trout. Well, Isiah is a five-tool person.”
* * *
Isiah Pacheco is known throughout our area as “Pop” Pacheco. Legend is he got his nickname playing youth football. During a game, he crashed through the blockers and smashed the quarterback. Isiah recalls everybody saying, “Wow, you really popped him.” And so it was “Pop” from then on.
* * *
But They’re Playing Our Eagles!
We solicited different reactions to the conundrum poised by this year’s Big Game.
- Nick Basile said it was a “win-win.”: “If you’re an Eagles fan in this area, if the Eagles win, obviously you’re for the Eagles,” he said. If the Chiefs win, you have a local hometown hero helping win the game. Right now, if you’re a football fan, you couldn’t ask for more, it’s utopia, really.”
- Donnie Robbins said he’d be rooting for both teams. He was asked what if the Chiefs are in the red zone and Pacheco could score at any time? “I’d root for him to score and the Eagles to run back the kickoff for a touchdown,” he replied.
- Dan Russo didn’t agree with either of his colleagues. “I’m 100 percent Chiefs,” he said. “I’m not really an Eagles fan in any case.”