Beyond the field: Isaac Rochell puts football, life in perspective at Notre Dame
Marek Mazurek | Friday, November 18, 2016
Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared in the Nov. 11 edition of The Observer.
When he lines up in a three-point stance, senior defensive lineman Isaac Rochell is imposing to say the least.
The McDonough, Georgia, native looks every bit of his 6-foot-3 1/2, 290-pound frame, and his four years at Notre Dame prove that his bark is just as potent as his bite.
When the Irish suit up to face Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Stadium, Rochell will make his 20th consecutive start on the defensive line. In that time, Rochell has recorded 94 tackles and two sacks. Last season, he led the Irish defensive front with 63 tackles — the program’s most by a defensive lineman since 2007. In fact, you’d have to go back to October of 2014 to find the last game Rochell didn’t make an appearance on the stat sheet.
But when interviewed after practice Nov. 9, what Rochell was the most eager to talk about wasn’t his individual accolades or how Notre Dame’s defense plans to attack Army.
He wants to sell you coffee. Specifically, coffee from Street Bean in Seattle.
“Basically, Street Bean is a nonprofit coffee shop, and they employ homeless youth in the Seattle area and give them an opportunity to reclaim their lives,” Rochell said.
For every bag of coffee Street Bean sells, it gives a homeless youth in Seattle one hour of free job training, and Rochell spent two weeks there over the summer learning the inner workings of a nonprofit business.
“I’ve never seen a nonprofit company that’s as unique as Street Bean is,” Rochell said. “I just reached out to their owner pretty much, just kind of random. They weren’t really expecting it. Nor did they really know Notre Dame. I was blessed and fortunate to have the opportunity to go out there. It was one of the coolest experiences I ever had.”
Not only did Street Bean not expect an application from him, Rochell said, but it also didn’t expect a Division I lineman to be quite so large.
“I don’t think they fully understood it until they saw me, and they’re like, ‘OK this dude’s kind of big,’” Rochell joked. “But I think that’s what makes it so beautiful, that they were willing to take a chance, not knowing who I was, in order to teach somebody about nonprofit. It was great.”
Though he recently worked with Street Bean, Rochell said he came into Notre Dame with an interest in philanthropy. For Rochell, political science seemed like a good fit because the discipline deals with organizing communities and affecting change socially.
“I think I was just more interested in the idea of being able to help people and getting involved with philanthropic stuff,” Rochell said. “A lot of that deals with political science because you’re dealing with the law and whatnot. And a lot of the initial classes I dealt with weren’t dealing with politics, but they were more discussing social issues.”
And Rochell’s leadership doesn’t stop in class or over the summer. The four-year veteran was awarded a captaincy for his senior season, and Rochell said he couldn’t be more honored.
“It’s definitely the biggest honor of my life, to be considered a leader of Notre Dame football,” Rochell said. “All in all, it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced. Also, I have the opportunity and privilege to be a captain with some good guys.”
A key to Rochell’s leadership: learn from those who came before you. After being teammates with players like Sheldon Day, Stephon Tuitt and Romeo Okwara, Rochell said he sought to recreate the vibrant atmosphere he inherited on the defensive line.
“When you’re playing with great players, you’re taking a lot of great things from them,” Rochell said. “Obviously, they cared about their teammates. [Sheldon Day] cared about his teammates. Tuitt cared about his teammates. And so you learn a little bit about being a leader.
“Everybody’s got their own personality, and when you bring everyone together, you have a good time. I personally love all the guys on the D-line. But I would say in general, the D-line on teams is the jokester group.”
While Rochell benefitted from Day and Okwara around to guide him in his first few seasons with the Irish, he felt somewhat odd being turned to as the sole leader of the unit. However, Rochell said he recognizes the transition as part of the leadership process and hopes next year’s leaders are able to find their own way.
“It’s definitely weird, and I know it will be weird for whoever that guy is next year,” Rochell said. “Just the absence of some people who you’ve always been here with. I’ve always been here with Sheldon, I’ve always been here with Romeo. And that’s kind of defined my experience in a lot of ways, so with them gone, you feel like you’re embarking on a new journey. So it’s definitely different, but it’s an experience. It’s cool. It’s a challenge at the beginning of the year I enjoyed because it’s a new challenge. It’ll be cool to see guys do the same thing next year.”
Yet Rochell said he learned some of his most important lessons while wearing his barista’s smock, not his shoulder pads. Sometimes, Rochell said, it’s important to step back and realize that football isn’t the end-all-be-all of life.
“I think anytime you’re working with underprivileged individuals, it puts things in perspective,” Rochell said. “Just the idea that football is just a game. There’s a bigger picture. Even with the guys on the team, guys are going through stuff, different issues going on that need to be handled. Sometimes you have to keep it small. This is just a game, let’s look at the bigger picture of life. That’s the biggest takeaway, just a bigger understanding of a human.”
Even with an eye toward the NFL, Rochell hopes to make it to the next level not just to cash paychecks but to start something bigger than himself.
“I think the NFL is definitely something I’m thinking about and excited about,” Rochell said. “Then, within that, I want to get involved with some type of philanthropic, Street Bean-type thing. Just because I think it’s so important. If you don’t do that, one day we’re just going to be old wondering what we did with our lives. That’s definitely my plan, and I’m excited about it.”