LATROBE, Pa. — It’s a long way from Long Beach Poly to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but cornerback Isaiah Green believes his time with the Jackrabbits thoroughly prepared him for a career in the National Football League.
Along with the dozens upon dozens of Poly grads in the NFL, such as Gene Washington, Tony Hill and Willie Brown, the powerhouse high school counts Major League baseball player Chase Utley, MLB Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn, former tennis superstar Billie Jean King, actress Cameron Diaz, rapper Snoop Dogg and musician Spike Jones among its most famous alumni.
Green, who was among the more than 5,000 students enrolled at Long Beach Poly on a yearly basis in grades 9-12, is hopeful to be listed among those NFL greats someday. That time might come, but for now Green is fighting for a roster spot with several other young cornerbacks on the Steelers roster.
“My older brother and I believed we were among the top athletes in our area, South Central Los Angeles, Calif., so we wanted to take our talents down to Long Beach Poly,” Green said. “My mom actually sold our house, and we moved to Long Beach to be in that district. We played football and ran track.
“Long Beach Poly got voted by Sports Illustrated as the No. 1 sports high school in 2005 when I got there. It did so much for us. We traveled to Africa, all over the nation to compete in sports. We did so much there. Long Beach Poly gave us some great opportunities, so it was fantastic just to be part of that school.”
Green participated in the 2005 World Youth Championships in Africa, anchored the 4×100-meter relay team that won a Gold medal and was on the national high school record-setting 4×200 relay team. He believed that Long Beach Poly’s academic and athletic endeavors helped him earn a football scholarship to Fresno State. His brother went to Central Arizona on a track scholarship.
“Long Beach Poly is a big school and has done a lot of good things, as far as sports and academics are concerned, so you got seen by people a lot more,” Green said. “It prepared me for college and eventually a professional career.”
Green is a first-year NFL player, but he was on the practice squads for the Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers in 2012. The Steelers re-signed him this year and brought him to training camp at Saint Vincent College where he has competed the past few weeks for a roster spot at cornerback.
“It’s really been a great experience so far with the Steelers,” Green said. “I played for Buffalo a little bit and Indianapolis, which was a great organization, but just to be a part of this culture in Pittsburgh has been great. The Steelers are a great organization, one of the best.
“The fans are terrific, hard-working and knowledgeable. And their mentality is always on the Super Bowl. Just reaching it isn’t enough, either. If the Steelers don’t win it, the season isn’t successful, and I want to be a part of that type of team. They expect nothing less than the best.”
The Steelers secondary has been decimated by injuries thus far, and Green has taken advantage. Cortez Allen, slated to start opposite Ike Taylor at one cornerback spot, could miss another two weeks after knee surgery. Key backup Curtis Brown also has been bothered by a left hamstring and ankle injury.
Veteran Will Gay moved into Allen’s spot for now and is expected to be the first corner off the bench in the nickel defense after Allen returns. That likely leaves three spots up for grabs on the final 53-man roster, since the Steelers have kept up to six cornerbacks in the past and four safeties.
Brown’s injury issues and lackluster play should eliminate him from the competition, although he was a third-round pick in 2011. Another third-year, former third-round pick (by Oakland), DeMarcus Van Dyke, has been injured a lot the past two seasons. He has missed all of camp with a hamstring injury. A shoulder problem sidelined him for the second half of last season as well.
So, Green and first-year player Josh Victorian, who was pressed into action late last season due to injuries, newcomers Ryan Steed, Devin Smith and Buddy Jackson are battling for those final roster spots at cornerback. Another player who would have been in the mix, fifth-round pick Terry Hawthorne, has been out since the spring after right knee surgery.
“It can be a little bit tough to stand out, but it’s all a healthy competition,” Green said. “And, fortunately, I’ve been able to stay healthy. There are guys fighting for positions on every team, so it’s no different here. My objective every day is just to put my head down and work hard, harder than the other guys. Really, though, it all comes down to making plays.
“You have to take advantage of every opportunity you get, because you might not get too many. And you might not get another one if you don’t do something with the chance you get. So, we’re all out here competing, (and) it’s been a lot of fun. I’m trying to learn all the corner spots, which makes you more valuable, (but) I understand my role here is probably going to be on special teams.
“That’s the way I’m going to make this team, and if I’m successful then I might get other opportunities,” Green added. “That’s the way it works in this league. That’s why every practice is important and all the preseason games. Those live games, you can really make an impact. They give all the young guys a chance to show what we’re all about, and I’m looking forward to that opportunity.”
Taylor is in his 11th NFL season and until a foot injury late last season, he was an iron man in the secondary. Taylor likes what he’s seen so far from Green.
“He’s fast, real fast,” Taylor said. “He’s been able to get some extra playing time, with all the injuries we’ve had, more than I can remember in a long time at camp. And he’s going to be real strong on special teams. But we have a lot of good, young, talented guys in the secondary, and seeing them working hard to get better has to help our team out.”
Every player in the Steelers secondary should benefit from the club’s coaching staff, as position coach Carnell Lake was a Pro Bowl performer at both safety and cornerback. Coaching intern Rod Woodson also earned All-Pro honors at both positions and was a recent inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Then, there’s defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, another Hall-of-Famer, who spent 14 seasons as a cornerback in the league.
“Working with all our coaches and veterans like Ike and Will Gay, even Troy and Ryan Clark, what group,” Green said. “There’s a lot of wisdom in this camp, and a young guy just has to soak it all up. If you don’t learn something from those guys, you don’t know what you’re doing.”
All indications are that Green is picking things up quickly, and that should pay off for him and the Steelers.
Dale Grdnic covers the Steelers for Inside Pittsburgh Sports. This story is a special for the Post. Read more of his work at insidepittsburghsports.com
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