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Isabelle fights through family illness to shine

With the matchup against Virginia Tech only three days away, the thoughts of most members of the Virginia football team are centered on their foes in Blacksburg. But middle linebacker Yubrenal Isabelle's chief concern lies not to the south, but to the west, where his mother Deberah continues her battle with breast cancer in Bluefield, W.Va.

"She was diagnosed with it about seven, eight years ago, and then it just reappeared recently," Isabelle said. "It's more of an emotional strain and a mental strain. You ask yourself why a lot but you can't do that. All you've got to do is keep your faith [and] understand that God has a plan for everything."

Dealing with a parent's illness is tough enough, but the integral role Isabelle's parents play in his life makes things all the more difficult.

"It's different for me not to have her there with me because I'm used to having my parents there with me for everything I do and every game," Isabelle said. "When I go out on the field I know she's not watching me, but I know she's with me also. I want to go out there and make her proud of me."

Right now, there's no telling whether Deberah will be able to make the trip to Charlottesville for Saturday's clash with the Hokies. Regardless, Isabelle will keep his line of communication to Bluefield open: He calls home several times a day.

"Ever since I've been away from home I've always called my mom at least once or twice a day," he said.

Sitting with Isabelle and listening as he recounts daily calls home and jokes about getting the best long-distance rate makes you stop and wonder. Is this the same young man who displays such fire on the field? Who pumps his fist at the crowd? Who provides a powder keg of energy for the Cavs every Saturday?

Rest assured, below Isabelle's cool, calm exterior lies the heart of a hard-hitting ballhawk. That aggressive style of play has drawn some comparisons to Isabelle's predecessor in the middle, current Cleveland Brown Wali Rainer.

"Isabelle hits hard," cornerback Tim Spruill said. "He's exciting. When he sees the ball he goes and gets it. I think there were a lot of questions [about] whether he was gonna fill in the void with Wali being gone. I think they're the same type of linebacker -- they're both mean [and] they both will hit you."

So far Isabelle has made more than his fair share of hits: Four weeks into the season, he leads the team with 41 tackles, 25 of them solo. His 10-tackle showing against Wake Forest earned him the ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week award.

And the honors probably won't stop there.

"I think that I'm getting better after the first four games," Isabelle said. "I feel like if I continue to work hard and continue on the pace I'm on right now then I'll have a good year."

Not surprisingly, Isabelle's inspiration comes from his family -- especially his mother.

"My mom always told me when I go out in public I was representing her, so represent her well -- that's all I ever think about," he said. "She wants me to do my best and I'm doing my best. I think I'm making her proud and making her feel better."

Success could not come any sooner for Isabelle, who sat for two years behind Rainer. The time on the sidelines left Isabelle aching to play a big role this season.

"It was tough sitting for two years, but while you're doing that you learn a lot, and I learned a great deal about college football in those two years," he said. "I think I learned a lot more about the game by watching, but my emotional part wanted me to be out there."

Exactly where Isabelle would be playing in college was an issue of contention at the tail end of his prep career. Any Virginia fan worth his salt can recite the tale of Ron Curry's about-face, forsaking the Cavs for the bluer pastures of North Carolina. Isabelle experienced a similar situation with Virginia Tech.

Named as an All-American at Bluefield High School and USA Today's West Virginia Player of the Year, Isabelle gave an oral commitment to Virginia Tech but then rescinded and signed with the Cavaliers.

"By the time the recruiting process was over ... I felt like a lot of people were pushing me to go to Tech," Isabelle said. "I thought maybe it would be a good thing to do. But I felt better about Virginia."

While Cav fans still find delight in running down Curry, Isabelle is not affected by any remaining wrath among the Hokie faithful.

"I don't worry about it," he said. "I can't go back and say I should've done this or I should've done that. I made a decision -- it's all I can do.

"I have enough stuff to worry about without worrying how somebody else feels," he added. "The best thing for Yubrenal to do is look out for Yubrenal and then everything else will be okay"