Redman's faced obstacles tougher than Broncos

Isaac Redman tosses a ball in practice as the Steelers prepare for the Broncos

The lawyers cost money but they could keep her son out of jail, so Leslie Redman kept paying them until there was nothing left and she had to declare bankruptcy. Soon came the creditors to collect for the various unpaid bills, and they took the car and the house. Her husband vanished, leaving her with just her daughter and her son, Isaac, who prosecutors threatened to send to prison for 20 years. There was no way she'd let that happen.

"We can always get another house," she told her children.

So if you think the Pittsburgh Steelers lost something big when running back Rashard Mendenhall went down with a knee injury, that they won't be able to replace him with someone as driven, as relentless, then you don't know about Isaac Redman, the man who will line up in his place against the Denver Broncos in Sunday's AFC wild-card contest. Redman once had everything – big colleges knocking at his door, the promise of a bright career, a smooth ride to the NFL. Then, the schools, the house, his reputation and everything else were all gone. And building it all back has been a far longer process.

"My mom stood by me," he says. "She sacrificed everything."

He was a high school star in Paulsboro, N.J., a town just outside Camden in the Philadelphia suburbs, a running back who was impossible to stop. Big schools called. There were scholarship offers and recruiting visits. Iowa was persistent. Temple was close to home and it seemed right. Then came April 17, 2003, and a party in a nearby town. He and another young man were accused of first-degree sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl in a car outside the house. He was 18 and about to finish high school.

Redman declines to elaborate on the details of that evening, but he eventually took a plea deal (resulting in three years of probation and no jail time) that convicted him of fourth-degree sexual contact (humiliating or degrading intimate touching). Leslie Redman says there were family pressures that led to the complaint and that someone familiar with the charges eventually apologized to Isaac for the fact they were brought.

But before the case was resolved, he faced 20 years in prison. Suddenly the colleges stopped calling. A low SAT score gave Temple reason to put his scholarship on hold, his once-gleaming future clouded. He spent months in a legal haze, with no college, no football, nothing but the fear he had lost it all.

When Isaac was arrested, Leslie cried for a week. "I knew he wanted to do so much with his life and it might not happen," she says. "But I have faith in God and I keep praying and if you do that, God will take care of everything."

A friend who rents houses called and said she had a house they could have free of charge. It was small, with no closets and barely enough room for Leslie, Isaac and his sister, but it was a house. It was a new start and what else could they be but grateful? With Temple stalling and nothing else looming for him, there came another surprise. It was something small, not much, but what choice did he have? Bowie State, a Division II school in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. was willing to take a chance.

Again, Isaac Redman could be nothing but grateful.

Around Camden, Marc Harrison was known as sort of a last hope for athletes who fell through the cracks. And around Camden lots of athletes fell through the cracks. He was once a runner himself, a track athlete who made it to Bucknell and had become the director of compliance for the athletic department at Bowie. There had been plenty of desperate phone calls from parents longing to see their kids in college. Was there any way he could help? Often he could. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't.

One night, as Harrison napped on his couch, a friend called. The friend had a cousin, a running back, someone who was good. Did Harrison think he could talk to the football coaches at Bowie?

Harrison said Bowie had 10 running backs and wasn't looking for any more.

"It's Isaac Redman," the friend said.

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Harrison jumped off the couch. He knew all about Redman. Who from Camden didn't? Paulsboro was the rival to Harrison's school. He followed the papers and went back to an occasional game. He had seen Redman play, watched him crash through tacklers. The last he heard he was going to Temple or Iowa.

"There were complications," the friend said.

The friend sent Harrison a highlight tape. Harrison took the tape to Bowie's coach at the time, Mike Lynn, who had the same reaction as Harrison when the friend called. Bowie didn't need any more running backs.

"Just watch the tape," Harrison told him.

Lynn did.

"His jaw dropped," Harrison says laughing. "He couldn't believe what he was seeing."

And right there, Lynn decided that Bowie could use an 11th running back.

"When I gave him the opportunity he said, 'Mr. Harrison, I'm going to be the best they ever had here. I'm going to make it to the league,' " Harrison says.

Had Harrison not taken the tape to the Bowie coaches, who knows what would have happened to Isaac?

"That tape was ridiculous," Isaac says. "There were a lot of plays on it that would blow your mind."

He doesn't say this in an arrogant way. In fact he sounds almost muted, stating a simple fact. And when he got to Bowie in the late summer of 2004, he set about to make sure he had many more.

"Determination is definitely what he had," says Bowie's current head coach, Damon Wilson, who was Isaac's position coach at the time. "He has a gift and he made the most of it."

Harrison – who has since left Bowie to work at a charter school in Northeast D.C. – remembers the same thing. "He was really determined," he says.

Every day, Redman showed up to campus in a button-up shirt and glasses, carrying books, appearing regularly in the weight room and forever talking about the same thing: getting to the NFL. Harrison looked hard at the sexual assault charges, talking to several people until he was sure what happened and understood that Isaac would not be a problem at Bowie. The administration even researched his background after a Division I coach called and told a Bowie official about the arrest.

Ultimately, Bowie's faith in Redman paid off. Redman, who redshirted in 2006, finished as Bowie's all-time leading rusher with 3,300 yards and 35 touchdowns. Wilson still remembers a 99-yard touchdown run in 2007. But because Bowie is a Division II school that had only sent two players for brief runs in the NFL, Redman drew little professional interest. No scouts came to practice. Nobody asked to see tape. It was as if he didn't exist at all.

In the winter of 2009, following his senior season, Isaac went to Los Angeles to work out with then-USC running backs coach Todd McNair, a former Camden-area star and NFL player, whose wife is Leslie's niece. When McNair played for Temple in the late 1980s, his head coach was the Steelers' current offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, who also became his position coach with the Kansas City Chiefs. McNair sent Redman's Bowie game film to Arians, begging his former coach to watch it. The Steelers invited Isaac to a minicamp. After that came a contract and an invite to '09 training camp.

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At first the Steelers weren't sure. He was strong and could break tackles but he struggled to stay in shape. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin kept calling him "Barlow," a mocking reference to former NFL running back Kevan Barlow who was famous for underachieving. After that first camp, the Steelers cut Redman and signed him to their practice squad. Despite the fact the team kept him around, he felt like he failed, like he had blown his NFL shot, that he had failed his mother and Bowie and everyone who had taken the chance on him.

The next summer he worked to get in better shape and it showed in the preseason games. When coaches started approaching him with friendly back slaps not long before the start of the season – telling him he needed to be sure to have a financial advisor – he realized he was making the team. But his real feeling of belonging didn't come until late in the season when he caught the game-winning touchdown pass in a 13-10 road victory over the Baltimore Ravens.

"It went from being, 'Do they trust me on the team?' to 'I just had a big touchdown in a game against the Baltimore Ravens, our rivals,' " Isaac says. "You become the guy everyone likes in the locker room for a couple of weeks."

From the Steelers headquarters, Isaac sighs into the phone. He contemplates where he would be if Harrison hadn't taken his tape to Bowie coaches.

"Who knows what would have happened," he says. "I would have sat around for another year. I wanted to go to college but people always say, 'Oh I'll go to school in another year.' I know a lot of people who say that and then they never do."

He doesn't talk much about the charges or the year he spent in limbo. Leslie says he is not angry about what happened although people around him have told him he should be.

"It's sad that something like that happened to me so young," he says. "People who know me understand the situation. You can never get past it. It keeps coming up. It's a blessing that Marc Harrison was willing to help me out."

He says he owes his mother everything he can give. It's why he was so driven to succeed at Bowie. He wanted to go to school, make her proud and wanted her to know that losing the house and the car and everything she had because of her faith in him would be worth it.

"I was determined to stay hungry," he says.

Leslie, who says everything is fine now, doesn't want anything from her son. She always tells him his money is his and to please not spend any of it on her. But she knows this is futile. She knows he tells people he owes her, that she sacrificed for him, and with his NFL salary he got her a bigger place to live, something like what she had before. He has a place in Pittsburgh and she comes out for his games, spending the afternoons cooking. He also has a son, a one-year-old named Haiden, and he comes home often to be with him. The other day, on a Steelers off-day, Leslie returned home to have the neighborhood children tell her Isaac had been out on the street throwing a football with them. She smiled. How far things had come from the year her son sat home alone, his reputation torn apart.

Harrison knows he has a friend, a player in the NFL to whom he is the godfather of his son. On the day Harrison's son was going to play his first youth football game, Isaac called the boy early in the morning, without Harrison even knowing, just to wish him good luck. And when Isaac started his first game for the Steelers this fall, the kids on the KLM Steelers youth football team in Prince George's County took their No. 33 jersey, a perfect replica of the Pittsburgh Steelers uniforms, and signed their names across it – a gift to him.

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"He says he's got it and looks at it all the time," Harrison says.

Then he pauses.

"You know, Isaac is really a good kid."

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