daily californian logo


Apply to The Daily Californian by September 8th!

Out of the Woods: Isaiah Ifanse brings experience to his graduate season

article image



We're an independent student-run newspaper, and need your support to maintain our coverage.

SEPTEMBER 16, 2023

To be an old soul is to have wisdom beyond your years.

And as an old soul moves through life, they continue to gain perspective on their experiences. With the good, bad and ugly, there is always a lesson to be learned.

For Cal running back Isaiah Ifanse, life has gifted lessons aplenty. A collegiate athlete since 2018, Ifanse is one of the oldest players on Cal’s roster. And beginning his football career before the third grade, he may have more experience than even the most seasoned players in all of college football.

That experience has mounted — and rewarded — Ifanse through high school and college football. He has claimed several accolades throughout the years, including Washington Gatorade State Player of the Year while at Bellevue High School, as well as the all-time leading rusher at Montana State.

It would be easy to assume that Ifanse has been a sage and football savant since the moment he stepped on the gridiron, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

In Federal Way, Washington, Ifanse’s first experience with the sport was anything but a walk in the park. As the youngest of four, including two brothers, he was the smallest player on a field full of older kids — none of whom took it easy on him.

“Our mom would make us take him with us,”  said Isaiah’s brother Mario Ifanse. “And we were like ‘alright, we’re gonna hit you as hard as we can because we were older’ and we didn’t want to bring him and babysit.”

The Ifanse brothers tried their best to dissuade Isaiah from coming to the park, but it quickly became clear to Mario and Joshua that the “ball of muscle” Isaiah had a knack for running the ball.

Photo of a Cal Football player.

Before long, Isaiah graduated from backyard football with his brothers and onto the Thurston County Youth Football League. But unlike his dog days at the park, coaches had him starting out in an unexpected position — almost ending his football career before it truly started.

“When I first started playing, I played offensive guard,” Isaiah said. “Then I remember coming home one day and talking to my mom and I was like ‘I want to quit, I want the ball.’ ”

Third grade Isaiah just wanted to be like his favorite running backs from Madden 08, a game that served as his true introduction to football and something he bonded with his brothers over. In fact, he still watches highlights of legendary running back Frank Gore before every game.

Sitting fixated on the Playstation 2 in the family living room, the Ifanse brothers would spend hours on end going head-to-head.

“Our cousins would come over with close family friends. They came over and it was like a whole day of us rotating through Madden,” Mario said. “(Isaiah’s) not that good at Madden.”

The first step in Isaiah’s quest to resemble a Madden-featured running back was overcoming TCYFL’s weight limits — and it took an effort of trimming shoulder pads and cutting wherever they could to finally allow Isaiah off of the line.

The result? In his first scrimmage after the position change, he scored every time he touched the ball.

From there, Isaiah’s football journey began to bloom. Playing through elementary and middle school, he spent each year gaining experience as a running back, only switching to quarterback in eighth grade after the team’s starter was injured.

Moving into high school, Isaiah diverged from his brothers’ and sister’s path by attending Bellevue, a football powerhouse in Washington.

With Bellevue’s run-first, wing-T offense, Isaiah flourished.

“I didn’t necessarily know what to play. I just kind of got thrown in the rotation for running backs and had some success there,” Isaiah said.

A success would be a humble understatement. In four years, including a shortened junior season, Isaiah led his team to three conference championships, rushed for nearly 2,500 yards and accounted for 44 touchdowns.

Despite all of his accomplishments in high school, a truncated junior campaign affected his recruiting profile, leaving him with limited options prior to signing day. The entire process was uncertain, as Isaiah toyed with a handful of suitors.

“I didn’t know where I was gonna go up until I woke up the day of signing,” Isaiah said.

The decision to go to Montana State may have not brought Isaiah’s original dream of playing for his hometown team Washington, but it brought relief — and a promise that he could keep playing the game beyond a decade.

Photo of a Cal Football player.

In his first fall camp, Isaiah worked up the depth chart to earn playing time as a freshman. He took advantage of the opportunity immediately, as he became the only Bobcat freshman ever to gain more than 1,000 yards in a season.

The move from Washington to Montana brought a lot of change. Adjusting to college life was different at first, but it was made easier by teammates and friends who included Isaiah in team activities on and off the field.

“We’re always hanging, having barbecues or just doing something on the water or the river. But it was like there was more than football to them,” Isaiah said. “So whenever we lined up on Saturday, it was always just fun and exciting because you’re playing with your brothers at that point.”

Through his first three seasons, Isaiah tallied just under 3,500 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns. But when an injury kept him out of the regular season of his senior year, he found comfort outside of football.

Photography has become a mainstay hobby for Isaiah, whose goal is to have one of his landscape photos one day featured in National Geographic.

Beyond learning the ins and outs of photography with his Nikon in hand, skiing, snowboarding, hiking, fly fishing and an Australian Shepherd puppy named Milo helped Ifanse find peace as he navigated through his injury. He later returned to the field for the 2022 FCS Playoffs.

In Montana State’s quarterfinal game against William and Mary, Isaiah broke the school’s all-time rushing record on a 68-yard touchdown. Though the Bobcats’ playoff run would end the following week, Isaiah’s career in Bozeman was impressive both on and off the field.

Between working at youth camps, helping out on farms across town and always staying to sign autographs and take pictures after games, Isaiah left an indelible mark on the community.

The following spring, he decided to take his graduate year eligibility elsewhere. First arriving at San Jose State in January, Isaiah quickly flipped to Cal and joined a deep group of running backs.

The welcoming and engaged nature of the coaching staff and players on his official visit separated the Bears from the other schools for Isaiah, accompanied by Mario.

“The first week I got here they could kind of tell I wasn’t really comfortable yet. But they kind of brought me in,” Isaiah said. “We all push each other and they’re always so supportive and we try to help one another.”

Like he did in Bozeman, Isaiah has become the old soul of the room.

“They call me Pops,” Isaiah said. “I have some knowledge that I share with them, knowing that I’m working with the younger group, and it’s just interesting seeing how everyone sees different runs differently.”

With lessons learned from his older brothers and sister and the lightly-put “character-building” moments at that Federal Way park all those years ago, he continues to live and learn — and his family is proud of the person he has become.

“I say he’s always just naturally been a good soul,” Mario said. “He’s a man of few words. But when he does speak, it’s always some wisdom, even for me being 29 years old. Sometimes he shocks me, to be honest with you.”

Now in Berkeley, after a thrilling three-touchdown debut against North Texas, Ifanse is settled in and excited for a new year. Though he may forever be the youngest in the family, he remains the oldest at heart.

Photo of a Cal Football player.

Contact Ryan Sheehan at 


SEPTEMBER 16, 2023