Youngest Israel continues family football ties as he leads Irish into home state Jersey
By KATHLEEN O'BRIEN
Associate Sports Editor
The light is always blinking on strong safety Ron Israel's phone in his O'Neill Hall dorm room when he returns from Notre Dame football games.
Ron's older brothers, Steve, a defensive back with the New Orleans Saints, and Tim, a former football player at Temple University, call each week to give their younger sibling some constructive criticism. They give him a thumbs-up when he makes a big play — and an earful when he misses one.
"They praise me when I do well, and get on me when I'm doing something wrong," Ron said. "While they're watching the game, they call me. I'm actually playing in the game, but they call and leave a message on my voice mail as if I was in the room to tell me what I just did wrong, or if I did something good, they're on the phone praising me."
Ron regularly turns to his football-playing brothers for tips on his game. They talk weekly, with Ron on the receiving end of the coaching lessons.
According to Steve, Ron's a quick study.
"He's like a computer with an endless amount of megahertz," Steve said. "His memory bank is infinite. He's a very intelligent player."
With football so strong a tradition in Ron's family, there's a lot he can learn from his older brothers. Steve, 31, is in his ninth NFL season after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh. He's currently on injured reserve, but has started through much of his professional career. Tim, six years older than Ron, is now a police officer in their hometown of Lawnside, N.J.
Despite the family tradition, playing football was something Ron chose for himself.
Even as a 7-year-old kid, he had a love for football. At the time, Ron shared a room with Steve, a senior in high school being recruited to play college football. The two would lie awake at night talking, and Steve wanted to be sure Ron didn't feel pressured to follow the same path as his brothers.
"I would tell him, `You don't have to play football just because myself and Tim play football,'" Steve said.
"I know," the 7-year-old Ron answered. "I just like to play football for me."
But Ron still loved football. He convinced his mom to buy him a junior-sized uniform so he could go out and play like his brothers.
"He [Ron] used to get fully dressed in his uniform and go out and play by himself," Tim said. "He would have a whole game by himself, falling down, getting tackled, all in his personal-sized shoulder pads and pants."
Attending Steve's and Tim's games heightened Ron's interest in the sport.
"Any younger brother kind of wants to do what the older brothers do," Ron said. "Steve's influence on us was probably the biggest in that Tim and I both tried to follow in his footsteps in football and get an athletic scholarship.
"Both of them, I used to go to their high school games, and when it was time for me to be in high school, I was going to their college football games. Then Steve got drafted, and I was going to college and NFL games."
The trio of gridiron junkies even converted their father James into a football fan.
"Really I was a baseball fan and basketball fan before they got into football," James said. "I forgot about baseball and basketball. I'm a football freak now."
Having older brothers as athletic role models allowed Ron to set his sights close to home. While other kids worshiped Michael Jordan or Jerry Rice, Ron idolized his older siblings — not only Steve and Tim, but also oldest brother James and older sister Lisa, who guided him off the football field. As the youngest of five children, one thing Ron missed out on was serving as a good example to younger siblings. Now that he has seven nieces and nephews, he's found an outlet for his paternal instincts. One of his strongest goals is to be a good example for them.
"Some people say, `Who are you playing for?'" Israel said. "I play for the University, I play for my family and I play for myself, but also another way of looking at it is I play for my nephews. I want to be a good role model for them."
With two older brothers who were hometown heroes in football, it took a little bit extra for Israel to become recognized for his own talents. In 1993, Al Mailahn's first year as head coach at Haddon Heights High School, Ron was a freshman. Mailahn saw Israel's gift for football, and put him into the starting lineup on both offense and defense. He worked so hard that Mailahn named him a captain as a sophomore. The team won just one game that year, but Israel had helped lay the foundation for a winning team the next year.
"When I came to this school, the program was pretty much down in the dumps," Mailahn said. "Israel really put his mind to getting it into winning ways. I always refer back to those kids, their work ethics and their determination to be winners."
Haddon Heights reversed its fortunes with Israel on the team, finishing with a winning record from 1994-96 for the first time in 26 seasons. Israel played a crucial part in the turn-around, completing his career with 16 interceptions and 254 tackles on defense, along with 145 catches for 2,565 yards. He earned all-conference honors three years in a row, along with all-state mention and USA Today honorable mention All-America selection his senior season.
"We loved him on offense because he probably had the best set of hands on the team. He could catch anything we threw at him," Mailahn said. "Whichever side of the ball he went on, he would produce."
Israel's high school efforts grabbed the attention of Division I programs across the nation, from Ohio State and Notre Dame to Miami (Fla.) and Florida.
Besides the lure of a top-notch education and national television exposure, Notre Dame had the added bonus of a coaching connection to Mailahn. Earle Mosley, an assistant under Lou Holtz, and the coach responsible for recruiting in the New Jersey area, had coached Mailahn in college and coached with Mailahn at Temple.
It was the academics that made the difference in the end.
"You can play bigtime football at Ohio State or Florida, but I wanted to get a bigtime degree," Israel said. "Out of all the schools I could have chosen to go to, Notre Dame was the most highly-ranked institution academically."
In 1997, Israel enrolled at Notre Dame, but beneath a new head coach, Bob Davie. The hardest part of coming to college was the wait for playing time, as Israel did not play at all during his first season, leaving him eligible for an added year.
In `98, he played just one minute, eight seconds. Last year, Israel saw substantial action for the first time, and this season, he moved into the starting lineup at strong safety.
Life on the field wasn't as perfect as Israel had hoped, however. Late in Notre Dame's 27-21 loss at Michigan State, he missed a key tackle on fourth-and-10.
"I should have made that play," Israel said. "Anytime people are counting on you to perform at a certain level and to make a play that you should make, that's something that's just hard to swallow. It's even hard swallowing now, but it's reality, and it's in the past. We have to just put it behind us and move on, because all we have is the future. We don't have the past anymore."
The past few weeks, despite a nagging groin injury, things have been looking up for Israel. He recorded an interception in the fourth quarter against West Virginia, and another interception late in Notre Dame's victory over Boston College to sew up the win.
"Ron Israel is a guy who loves to play football," Davie said. "He's fought through a bunch of injuries when most guys wouldn't have played at all. He's just a good football player that's gotten better, and the biggest thing I see is that he has passion for the game."
As the season winds down, Israel and his teammates are focused on getting to a Bowl Championship Series bowl. The next potential roadblock comes this Saturday when Israel gets to show off for a partial crowd.
So many friends and family members requested tickets for Notre Dame's contest against Rutgers that Israel had to make a list to keep track. He only hopes his hard work will pay off with an eighth victory for the Irish.
If Ron follows his brother Steve's latest weekly critique, he will have done his part.
"Take it one play at a time," Steve said, "and things will work out."
All Sports Stories for Friday, November 17, 2000