He emerged from obscurity to become starting linebacker
SEATTLE Ñ If physically possible, Isaiah Kacyvenski would have been the first to do it.
So excited, so delirious, so honored was he that Kacyvenski would have jumped right through the telephone line and hugged and smooched news reporters on draft day 2000. Not many times before had grizzled Seattle sportswriters come across somebody expressing such genuine joy about being chosen.
Even today, as the Seattle Seahawks' starting middle linebacker, the team's leading tackler and a player in the spotlight after years of obscurity, Kacyvenski won't take anything for granted.
Considering his upbringing in poverty, the family's problems and Ivy League career, he will forever remain grateful to be in the NFL.
'We didn't grow up with a lot of money,' says Kacyvenski, 24, a native of Endicott, N.Y. 'Not that money gives you happiness, but I know I didn't want to live like that when I was growing up.
'Every day, it's a reminder to me, remembering where I came from.'
As the story goes, Kacyvenski's father was a janitor and an alcoholic, and his loving mother held the home together. The family sometimes went without heat and electricity. During Kacyvenski's senior year of high school, his mother was killed in an auto accident. Spurred by the trauma, his father kicked the booze, and he and Kaz became closer.
He attracted little interest from college football teams, but two weeks before signing day, he spoke with Harvard for the first time.
'A lot of teams called me a 'tweener.' I weighed about 205 (pounds) and ran a 4.88 (40-yard dash),' he says. 'They didn't know if I was fast enough to be a strong safety or big enough to be a linebacker.'
He went to Harvard for the academics, taking pre-medicine while playing football in his trademark all-out style. By his senior year, he was looking forward to medical school and not pro football, even though he'd started every game and been named all-Ivy League three times.
'I didn't know I'd be in the NFL,' he says. 'I played four years and put my trust in the NFL and how it works. I know they can find you wherever you play.'
Then the call came from the Seahawks: Kacyvenski had been picked in the fourth round, 119th overall.
New job beckons
Two years of learning the NFL on special teams for the Seahawks helped prepare him for this season. Surfing one day on the Internet, he read on the team's Web site about the release of Levon Kirkland. Kacyvenski's life took another turn.
Middle linebacker suddenly was his job to lose at training camp in Cheney, Wash. And he did not disappoint. From the beginning, he was put in charge of the defense, and he responded with his documented enthusiasm.
'He had the shoulder problem last year. He had that fixed in the offseason,' coach Mike Holmgren said during camp. 'As a coaching staff, we really love this guy.'
The Seahawks need a speedy, more athletic linebacker Ñ a guy who can run sideline to sideline and not just stuff the run Ñ to compete in the NFL West with St. Louis, San Francisco and Arizona offenses.
On Sunday, the 6-1, 252-pound Kacyvenski gets to chase after the Rams' Marshall Faulk for the first time. In that effort, he'll employ the nonstop energy of a 2-year-old, the smarts of a military tactician and the humility of a rookie.
Kacyvenski has led the Seahawks (1-4) in tackles through five games with 39, including 17 in the opener against Oakland. He also has an interception to his credit.
Says defensive tackle Chad Eaton: 'He's really, really smart, and that's what we need. A high-motor guy, a smart kid.'
Kacyvenski knows that his career could be on the line this season. If he excels, he could join Miami's Zach Thomas and others regarded as the NFL's best small linebackers. If he slips, the NFL could be a harsh reality. Of course, he knows all about harsh realities.
'I've gone through some growing pains; a lot of offenses have gone hurry-up to get me flustered,' he says. 'I'm going to keep learning. The biggest thing is getting the reps. Every week has gotten better and better.
'Any mistake I make is going to be done going 100 mph.'