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Jim Weber

Catching up with Isaiah Mustafa: Obscure Sun Devil, famous pitch man

Jim Weber
Dr. Saturday

Jim Weber runs LostLettermen.com, a site devoted to keeping tabs on former players and other nostalgia. This week he tracked down one of the breakout alums of 2010: Former Arizona State wide receiver Isaiah Mustafa.

Unless you've been in a fallout shelter for the last 11 months, you're probably well acquainted with the few seconds of Isaiah Mustafa's life that transformed him into "The Old Spice Guy," the chiseled star of those winking, hyper-masculine "manmercials" that hit the air in February.

But Mustafa's route to the national stage has passed through enough twists and serendipitous turns – one of them leading him to Arizona State, as a member of the team that nearly became the most unlikely national champion in the history of college football – that Jay Leno once compared it to "Slumdog Millionaire."

That's not far off, from the trivia triumph to the humble roots. Born in 1974 as the youngest of seven children to a Muslim family, he moved from Portland, Ore., to Mission Viejo, Calif., as a kid. His dad set up a limousine service, but was killed when he fell asleep at the wheel driving late at night.

"I think my optimistic spirit and nature come from him," Mustafa said during an interview this week. "He never allowed me to say 'can't,' which was frustrating for a 7-year-old… But that must have stuck."

As a 6-foot-3 center on two state championship teams at Santa Clara High in Oxnard, Calif., Mustafa dreamt of playing for mighty UCLA, where his older brother had attended. But Division I colleges weren’t interested in a big man with point-guard size, and he didn't have the ball-handling skills for the backcourt. So Mustafa headed instead to Santa Monica College, where his hoop dreams fizzled out.

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From there, he landed at Moorpark Junior College and competed in the decathlon, twice finishing second at the state’s junior college championships. Realizing that track wouldn’t lead to a scholarship, though, Mustafa looked for a sport that could get him to the next level. He tried out for football, and became Moorpark's starting safety that fall – with no prior experience.

[Related: Kenny Mayne: Bench-warmer to ESPN star]

One day in practice, Mustafa was needed in emergency duty on the other side of the ball – "For whatever reason, our receivers on our team decided not to come to practice because they were protesting our offense" – and showed enough as a wideout for coaches to give him a shot in a game. He scored two touchdowns on two receptions in his first game in 1993. In 1994, he set single-season school records for catches and receiving yards.

With schools drooling over his 6-foot-3 frame and track speed, Mustafa picked up a college football preview magazine and flipped to the Pac-10 section to figure out where he wanted to play. That's where he read about a scrawny quarterback at Arizona State, Jake Plummer, who had begun to emerge as one of the conference's best passers as a sophomore.

When his dream of playing for UCLA was dashed (the Bruins handed their final scholarship to another player), Mustafa took a visit to the desert and instantly bonded with "The Snake" after meeting him in passing.

"We said something and both kind of started laughing," Mustafa said. "Then he said, 'I hope you make the right decision. It'd be nice to have a nice, tall receiver to throw to.' At that moment, I knew I was going to Arizona State."

Mustafa saw immediate playing time in Tempe, until he wound up in the doghouse with a case of the dropsies. He spent the majority of his remaining time at ASU on special teams, catching just five balls for 56 yards as a senior in 1996, when the Sun Devils took an 11-0 record into the Rose Bowl against Ohio State. There, they came within 19 seconds of finishing off an undefeated season that likely would have left them No. 1 in the final polls, just one year removed from finishing 6-5 with no bowl game.

Inexperience and lack of college production aside, Mustafa's raw athleticism enticed NFL scouts enough that the Houston Oilers invited him to camp for $5,000. "For me, that was like a million bucks," he said. "I was like, 'You want to give me $5,000 just to come to camp?'"

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He wouldn't make much more during three years as a journeyman on assorted practice squads and in NFL Europe, and lost what he did have in a barbecue business that went under. The failure left Mustafa, in his words, as "a bit of a lost soul."

At some point in that stretch, during which he often found himself "sleeping on friends' couches," Mustafa was watching a game show, "The Weakest Link," and thought, "I could do that." He did, and subsequently nailed each question until he was one step from the final prize. All he had to do was give Dr. Frankenstein's first name. Drawing on the name of another character, Dr. Doom, he blurted out "Victor," a lucky guess that won him nearly $50,000.

Mustafa used part of the cash to take acting classes, and eventually landed bit parts in films and TV shows. This time last year, though, he was still auditioning, looking for his big break after nearly a decade in the business.

One of his auditions was for an Old Spice ad. The first time he read for the part, he played the character straight. Before his second audition, he dialed up his old quarterback, Jake Plummer, and left a message in an over-the-top voice that pushed the character's machismo to the extreme. He used the same voice in the callback and landed the role.

The original ad passed 25 million views on YouTube earlier this month. Dozens of followups and viral responses to Twitter followers have been seen well over a million times.

The once-obscure Sun Devil began 2010 as an unknown, and ended it on the heels of a media whirlwind that included chats with Ellen, Oprah and Jay. Mustafa's 2010 has also included an Emmy Award, proposing to the girlfriend of one of his Twitter followers over YouTube (she said yes), being named one of People magazine's "100 Most Beautiful People," landing a role in a Tyler Perry movie and another one alongside the likes of Jennifer Anniston, Jamie Foxx, Colin Farrell and Kevin Spacey.

The only thing he hasn't accomplished this year: Getting the greenlight for a movie about his own improbable life: "That's probably the point where I'd be like, 'OK, who’s behind the curtain?'"

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Jim Weber is the founder of LostLettermen.com, a historical college football and men's basketball site that links the sports' past to the present.

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