CHAMPAIGN — Isaiah Gay took a deep breath between questions and prepared to go down the road of a conversation he’d not publicly walked down before.
It’s not often that the Illinois senior edge rusher is asked about his younger sister, Brianna, or her tragic death when Isaiah was in first grade. She never saw him play football at Northern Nash (N.C.) High School or develop into a three-star prospect who is embarking on his fifth year of playing in the Big Ten. She’s never seen any of his 5.5 career sacks or 11.5 tackles for a loss and the celebration that comes with tens of thousands of fans packed in Memorial Stadium cheering for the moment.
When he announced he was taking advantage of an NCAA-granted extra year of eligibility, he added a hashtag on Twitter: #Dis4ULilSis. It also rests in his bio on social media. The motivation is real and the gas in the engine of his football career.
“I always played the game of football for her because I knew I wanted her to come see me play football one day,” Gay told Illini Inquirer. “I was just getting into sports — I bounced around a lot of sports like basketball in my younger days in rec leagues and stuff like that. When I really got comfortable with football, she wasn’t there to see it. That’s why I do it.”
It’s hard to imagine the grief and the loss he experienced years ago and how it must be a struggle to talk about it again, to be vulnerable enough to find the words and share of the grief into a computer screen during a Zoom call, even a decade later.
“That was my first time losing a family member at that early age,” Gay said. “It was, like, all of a sudden. Because I was a little kid, I didn’t know what was going on. …
“For that all of a sudden to happen, it really hurt me because I had never really gotten a chance to hold her. I was saying if I ever got that chance again I would hold her and tell her this is what I do it for.”
Sure, there are schematic reasons to return for another year with a new head coach in Bret Bielema, a new defensive coordinator in Ryan Walters and a new defensive line coach in Terrance Jamison. They’ve talked to Gay about putting him in the best position to utilize his speed and skillset to create havoc for opposing quarterbacks, and one that will hopefully help him make a lot of money as a professional football player.
Gay said he spoke with all three of his new coaches before announcing his decision to come back for a fifth year.
“I think that’s what’s going to make me a good player because I always kept things that old coaches have said to me and I just stacked those on and used them as tools to better my game,” Gay said. “When Coach Jamison comes in, I think he’s going to teach me a lot of things I need to know to get me to the next level.”
When Bielema was hired, he indicated he could run a 3-4 defense, though it remains unclear if that’s the path the Illini will go. Walters and Bielema have leaned on building “Illinois’ defense,” or crafting a scheme to best fit the personnel, at least initially. Though Gay, at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, would seemingly fit in well as an edge rusher in a 3-4. No matter what scheme the Illini run, Jamison said he will allow Gay to rush out of a two-point stance (standing up) rather than a three-point stance (one hand on the ground) if he is comfortable.
“It’s very exciting because I always wanted to showcase my speed more than anything,” Gay said. “We all saw how strong I was and how well I can rush the tackle, I wanted to be the main one coming off the edge and getting those big highlight plays, setting the edge, big sacks, just a playmaker on the edge.”
All of that will be figured out as the team returns to Champaign in the next week or so and spring ball — presumably in March — approaches.
Then there’s the matter of Gay’s sister, one of the driving forces behind his football career. As he stood up from his interview from inside the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center, he acknowledged he hadn’t expected to have such a deep conversation before he walked in, but that it was one of his best interviews yet.
It was as if the he wanted to share about Brianna, even if it was difficult and unexpected.
“I kind of use it as why you remember someone,” Gay said. “I want someone to remember me like I had a motivation and a drive to get somewhere and I finally got there and I never let anything get in my way. I just focused on one thing at a time and used everything as a tool. I want to be a role model for someone and that’s what I try to be for her.”