Dave Wojeski / For The Recorder Amsterdam's Izaiah Brown pulls away from the rest of the pack as he competes in the boys 400 meter during their meet against Catholic Central and Schenectady on Monday afternoon.
Michael Kelly/Recorder staff Amsterdam High School track and field's Izaiah Brown, center, takes a handoff during the 4x400-meter relay from teammate John Hardies on Wednesday at AHS. At left, coach Jaime Julia watches.
Michael Kelly/Recorder staff Amsterdam High School boys track and field head coach Kevin Wilary is shown during Wednesday's meet at AHS.
Michael Kelly/Recorder staff Amsterdam girls track and field head coach Stu Palczak is shown at a recent meet.
By MICHAEL KELLY
Recorder Sports Staff
For roughly the first 250 meters of his signature race, Amsterdam High School's Izaiah Brown lopes along with the rest of the pack, content to allow his competitors the glimmer of hope that his reputation overstates his ability.
It doesn't, though. Coming around the bend into the final straightaway of the course, Izaiah's stride somehow becomes both looser and more powerful. In a wink, that gallop has Izaiah pulling further and further ahead of his foes, leaving them to watch as his frame grows smaller and smaller in the distance.
From start to finish, Izaiah's expression never changes during his races. A placid demeanor from wire to wire, there are no pained expressions or grimaces to show off how hard he is working; heck, when he pulled a muscle in his quadriceps during last spring's outdoor track and field state championships, nobody knew anything was wrong with him until he was found rolling around on the track's infield in pain after the race.
The sophomore makes it all look so easy. That's a major reason why college programs from across the country are already sending him letters of interest, gearing up for the fall when the recruitment of the 16-year-old boy with the potential to be an Olympian will commence in full.
Izaiah's greatest trick, though, has been that he is so good and so well-accomplished at such a young age that he has managed to shroud how hard it has been for him to get to the point he is at now, where he is a desired commodity with the world at his fingertips. Two trips to the state championships in track and field -- his injury-marred trip last spring in the outdoor season that ended in a sixth-place finish, and a successful one this past winter when he won the 300-meter dash -- has made Izaiah look like a kid who must have always been in charge and on the path to big things.
The truth is not that simple.
The truth is that prior to the start of his freshman season of outdoor track and field, the campaign would have been deemed a success if he merely managed to stay the full season with the team without getting kicked off or quitting. The truth is that Izaiah finished middle school with a reputation as a wise guy who had all the talent in the world, but spent most of his efforts channeling his athleticism and smarts into mischief. The truth is that Izaiah came to high school as one of the most at-risk students possible in the Greater Amsterdam School District -- a minority male from a one-parent, low-income household.
The truth is that if Izaiah was going to have a chance at succeeding, he needed help. He needed guidance. He needed a team of supporters so vast it would cause those who already believe it takes a village to blush.
Izaiah Brown needed to find all the puzzle pieces and mash them together just right.
It has been anything but easy.
-- -- --
The first thing Izaiah ever did in his life was win a race.
"First baby arrives," reads the headline from an article published in the Recorder on Jan. 3, 1997, announcing Izaiah's arrival as the area's first newborn of the year. The eight-pound boy -- "Baby Izaiah," is the title the short story gives to him -- is the son of Crystal Albino and Edward Brown Jr., who gushes in the article about the future athlete his son will be.
"He's going to take after his father," says Izaiah's daddy, who was a track and field star at AHS just a few years prior.
Both of Izaiah's parents are 21 years old when he is born and neither are high school graduates. Those facts alone should have made things tough enough for the family, but Izaiah's father dies in an auto accident when the child is 4 years old, leaving Albino to raise two children -- Izaiah's sister, NyAsia, is a few years younger than him -- on her own.
"It was a little tough after that with Izaiah, especially when he started getting taller than me and bigger than me," says Albino, who stands a foot shorter than her 6-foot-3 son. "He tried to be a little more defiant then."
From the time Izaiah enters the Greater Amsterdam School District, he is a handful. Izaiah does not talk easily about his father, so it is difficult to ascertain if his behavior is because he was acting out because he was upset about losing his dad. Izaiah simply says boredom and bad influences explain his behavior.
"I was a screw-up," he says. "Behavior-wise, I was a terrible kid, starting right in elementary school. I was like a mini-Satan."
That last part goes too far and is delivered with a chuckle. But Izaiah's rap sheet begins early and grows quickly; there is a first detention in second grade, a few more after that, and the suspensions begin in middle school for fighting and general mischief. He is wildly athletic, but he has no interest in organized sports -- Uncle Freddie, his father's brother, makes Izaiah try out every sport Amsterdam has to offer, but nothing is to his liking -- and he thinks it is cooler to be known as the class clown than a teacher's pet. He is bright, but his inclusion in the National Junior Honor Society is a short-lived one, as he is kicked out of the program.
The oddest part of Izaiah's resume from those years is certainly worth a debate. Likely the most bizarre thing Izaiah did was engage in roof jumping, an activity which calls for a willing individual to climb to the top of a building and then make his or her way down a street, leaping from one roof to the next.
"I'd be walking somewhere, I'd get bored, and then climb up (a building) and do some roof-jumping," says Izaiah. "It's hard, though, because you need to get down once you get to a corner."
Those exploits are short-lived, though. One major fall is enough for Izaiah to call it quits on that activity -- "I hit a tree and it shortened the fall. I didn't break anything, though," he says -- but the other truly curious endeavor Izaiah gets involved in during middle school goes on for longer. Izaiah becomes a tagger, hanging makeshift stickers around the middle school, the higher the location the better home for his form of graffiti.
"I had like a crew and everything," he says. "I'd slap them up all around the school."
That activity eventually goes too far. Using a huge poster board and flour mixed with water as an adhesive, Izaiah places a huge piece on the outside of the Lynch Literacy Academy middle school and earns himself an in-school suspension.
Things finally came to a head not long after that at home, when Albino had finally had enough of Izaiah's antics. Fed up, Albino presented Izaiah with a stack of legal papers that she had procured to make it possible for her to sign over custody of the wild child.
"My mom said that if I didn't straighten up my act, I'd have to go live with my grandparents in Glen," remembers Izaiah. "And, I really didn't want to do that. I didn't want to leave my friends."
Since that threat -- "The deal," he calls it -- Izaiah has kept out of any real trouble for the past few years. There's one problem with this part of the story, though.
"It was all a fib," admits Albino. "I used that to intimidate him (because he didn't want to leave his friends), so threatening to move him up there would be like Kryptonite to Superman. ... So, I lied and told him I went to court and produced the papers to sign over custody and he started to turn around then."
When Izaiah finds this out -- just more than a week ago -- his eyebrows dart up his forehead to make room for his bulging eyes.
"No way. What? Are you kidding me?" he says.
After a moment, a smile comes across his face.
"I'm gonna kill her," he says, laughing. "Now I know I need to check papers to make sure. She never really did show me the papers. She had a stack of papers, though, and it looked legit."
-- -- --
Quietly, though, even as Izaiah was going about his phase as a self-described "screw-up," he was beginning to collect many of the people he needed to help himself turn things around. As much as many of his behaviors should have been -- and likely were -- alienating some people from embracing him, enough good shined through with Izaiah to land key people in his corner.
"One of the reasons he's always been a soft spot for me and one of the ones I'll always remember ... is that we knew he had ability, but there was something more about him. He's got a special personality," says Colleen McHeard, a longtime physical education teacher in GASD whose time working in the middle school overlapped with Izaiah's.
"The thing, too, with Izaiah, is that he's always been a good-sized kid, so, when you looked at him ... I think some people forgot he was still a little boy," McHeard adds.
McHeard is one of the first people Izaiah brings up when discussing the positives from his time at Lynch Literacy Academy. While many probably saw Izaiah as merely a wise guy -- "He was pretty good at being that," McHeard says, laughing -- she saw something more. McHeard saw a kid with all the talent in the world who needed help breaking out of his shell -- especially academically.
"He sometimes did not want other kids to know how good he did in classes because he wanted to fit in," McHeard says.
Where Izaiah most began to fit in, though, was at the home of one of his best friends, Christian Andersen. Parents Bill and Christina Andersen already had four kids when Izaiah first started coming around their house five years ago, but Izaiah might as well be their fifth.
"Those are his second parents," Izaiah's mom says.
"They've definitely been there for me, up and down, left and right," says Izaiah. "I call Christian's mom, 'Mom,' too."
The Andersens' house started as the boys' base to play video games from with their other friends and quickly grew into something more for Izaiah. It is not unusual for Izaiah to spend three or four nights a week at the Andersens' home -- he stays even on school nights -- and he keeps essentials like clothes and a toothbrush at the house. He does chores at the home and has stayed there on his own. Christian's parents have acted as Izaiah's taxi service as late as midnight or 1 a.m. While school is out in the summer, the impression given is that Izaiah spends more time at the Andersens' home than at his mother's house.
When Izaiah won his state championship in the 300-meter dash this past winter, the Andersens made the three-hour trip to Cornell University in Ithaca to watch him compete in person. Christina says she cried when he won that race. From the sounds of it, she cried harder this past June when an illness kept her from being there for Izaiah after he lost the state championship race in the 400-meter dash because of his injury.
"He called us and he was devastated because he pulled something in his leg," says Christina. "He's bawling on the phone, crying, and I start crying, too."
To Izaiah, none of this is odd. He's become so accustomed to staying at his buddy's home and with the Andersens that the only unusual thing is when he is told he needs to step out for a bit.
"He looked at me shocked the other day because I told him we were having dinner with my aunt and he had to go home," says Christina. "And he gives me this look, a shocked look, like: 'I've got another home?'"
In Izaiah's time at the Andersens' home, it is pretty clear how the roles break down. Christina claims she has raised her voice before with Izaiah to discipline him, but she seems more like the soft one. She uses the word "love" a lot when discussing Izaiah.
But, Bill? He seems like he can be plenty tough.
"Maybe once a week," is Bill's answer when asked if he ever yells at Izaiah to discipline him. Bill is about tough love, the kind where his words might first sting before bringing someone up.
"Don't ever forget that someone is better than you," he says he told Izaiah before his state championship race this winter. "You can do it, I know you can win. But don't you ever forget that. There's no reason in this world why you can't be the best. You're the best -- you can become the best."
That is what McHeard believes, too -- and it has nothing to do with track. She has had Izaiah involved in a summer swim program in the city for the past few summers and sees how little kids gravitate to him. He's magnetic to them.
"If something happened to him and he couldn't run tomorrow, it wouldn't diminish him as a person at all," says McHeard. "He's one of those that is going to make us proud. There's something about him."
Ever since he was 4 years old, Izaiah's dream has been to grow up be a dentist. Given where he started and the amount of help he has received from outside parties, McHeard expects that goal to be reached and for Izaiah to use any good fortune he accrues to help others.
"He's going to be the dentist who has enough money to scholarship a kid to go someplace or to be the dentist who helps with the track team or a club. I don't think he's going to forget where he came from," she says.
-- -- --
Most people do not know this, but Izaiah is kind of a geek.
When asked what he did as a little one, the first thing he comes up with was how he watched Discovery Channel programming, and then goes on a quick tangent about how much he knows about ancient Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. His favorite class is Earth science and that fact is delivered along with a story about how he is "into rocks." While other athletes might be prone to Googling their names with frequency to check their latest clippings, Izaiah's only searched his name once -- and that was because of an accident during a nerd moment when he was trying to look up a famous scientist and misspelled the name.
"I was Googling and I typed in 'I-Z,' because I didn't know how to spell Isaac Newton," he explains. "So, I was trying to figure it out and I did the 'I-Z,' and then my name came up (as a suggested search) -- so, I clicked on that."
While Izaiah was deemed special last spring by the track and field community, GASD gave him that designation prior to entering high school. Izaiah was in eighth grade when the district invited him to take part in "Smart Scholars," a program that looks to give extra resources and opportunities to potential first-generation college students.
"We look for kids who have a financial need, and we also look for students that have some academic potential," says Susan Stoya, the director of the office of secondary instruction for the district.
The grant-funded program is in its third year and allows participants the chance to earn upwards of 20 college credits from Fulton-Montgomery Community College by the time high school is through. What the program really offers, though, is the chance for students like Izaiah to escape statistics. In the most recently released report card from the state, the student groups that Izaiah fits into are among the ones that GASD -- if not all schools -- struggles the most with in terms of getting to graduate. Izaiah is considered economically disadvantaged by the state, and the most recent graduation rate for that grouping of students in GASD was 44 percent; males in the latest report for GASD had a graduation rate of 53 percent; and, while Izaiah does not fit neatly into a single ethnic group -- he is black, Caucasian and Hispanic -- only 36 percent of students not designated as "white" graduated in the report.
Figures at GASD saw those risk factors and Izaiah's talents, and wanted to do something.
"We all decided to kind of make this effort to make sure he got on a good track," says Stoya, her pun seemingly unintended.
"We saw his leadership, his academic potential, his athletic potential -- and we saw the potential for it to all go unused," Stoya says later.
Stoya says that desire to make sure Izaiah made good on his abilities started with one of her first encounters with Izaiah, right when he first began in the Smart Scholars program.
"I was at one of these orientation activities, a team-building activity, when Izaiah was in ninth grade, and we had a guy come in who was doing activities with the kids," starts Stoya. "And Izaiah was kind of a leader. At one point, he was standing on a table, trying to get everyone organized to do what they needed to, and I thought: 'Wow -- this kid has a lot of leadership ability.' I made a comment to (boys track and field head coach) Mr. (Kevin) Wilary about it and he told me: 'Oh, he has a lot of potential. You should see him in track, but he keeps quitting.'"
-- -- --
By the time Izaiah began his freshman season of outdoor track and field, he had been in and out of Amsterdam's cross country and track and field programs four times. He tried cross country in seventh, eighth and ninth grades, and track and field in eighth grade and never completed a season.
Stu Palczak -- the de facto leader of the high school's cross country and track and field programs, who serves as the girls' head coach -- is diplomatic when assessing Izaiah's first forays into the sport.
"He was inconsistent in his attendance in coming to practice and competitions," says Palczak, "and there becomes a point where inconsistency is no longer just inconsistent."
The weird thing about Izaiah's inability to stick with the program is that he says he always planned on competing in the sport. His father did not live long enough to tell him how he wanted him to take up his sport -- the first Izaiah had ever heard of the article announcing his birth and that quote was a couple of weeks ago -- but Izaiah says he had always wanted to compete in the sport.
"I knew once I hit high school, I was going to be doing track and field," he says. "I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my Uncle Freddie and my dad because I wanted to break their records."
But he had too much energy and too little discipline. Jaime Julia coached Izaiah when he tried in eighth grade to compete for the modified track and field team, and the coach says that the youngster was too much to handle.
"He was tough," he says. "I used to call him out because he was tough to deal with and to coach, because I was constantly turning around and he'd be jumping. He'd be horsing around with his friends. He was not disrespectful in that he wouldn't come back at me, but he just had too much energy.
"He was always doing something that he shouldn't be doing," Julia finishes.
So, eventually Izaiah quit. Or got kicked off. Or something.
But he was always allowed back the next season -- and that may have made all the difference. McHeard -- Izaiah's middle school teacher -- is someone who seems to have given real thought to Izaiah's personality and situation. Her take is that Izaiah is a kid who embraces loyalty and needs guidelines to follow in order to be successful. In holding him accountable during each second chance they gave him, the track and field coaches -- Julia, Palczak and Wilary -- earned Izaiah's trust. They became people he wanted to impress by holding him accountable.
"And, if you set a bar, people rise to it," McHeard says.
Slowly, Izaiah began to do just that. There were a couple missed practices here and there, but for a kid who relies on rides from a variety of sources because his family does not have a car, he did pretty well in getting to nearly every practice. In school and outside of it, he stayed out of trouble.
Meanwhile, on the track, he blossomed.
His performances in early-season meets and invitationals were impressive, especially for a freshman. But the breakout day came in late May, when Izaiah dominated the competition at the highly competitive William F. Eddy Jr. Invitational in Schenectady, winning the 400-meter dash with a record-breaking time of 47.8 seconds. That time set the state freshman record and the AHS overall record, was the third-fastest time ever in Section II and was the second-fastest time turned in by a freshman in the country in 2012.
"That was when we realized that he's not just Section II good," says Palczak. "He's nationally good."
"From then on, it was like he did something more amazing each week," Wilary says.
Those next few weeks saw Izaiah win a sectional championship in the 400 meters, then qualify for the ill-fated state championships. By the end of the season, he was a star in track and field circles who attracted spectators to his races to watch "Amsterdam's Izaiah."
It all happened in a blink.
"It's scary to think that a kid who at this time a year ago or so was a kid I wasn't sure if I wanted on the team because he might just create headaches for us is now a kid where you go to any meet and everybody points at him and goes: 'That's Izaiah Brown,'" Wilary says.
-- -- --
Life is much different now for Izaiah than it was a year ago. Kids he does not know greet him at school and it is not uncommon for strangers to come up to him when he is out in the city to wish him well.
"It's all the time," says Izaiah's buddy, Christian Andersen. "I'm always like, 'Who is that person?' and he'll be like, 'I don't know. He must have just seen me doing track.'"
Izaiah says he was uneasy about that new part of his life when it first started, but he has gotten used to it. For his mother, the transition has been a fun one.
"I'm more popular now, for sure," she jokes. "But it makes me feel great. It makes me feel proud. I can't describe how happy I am for my son and how prideful I feel."
Life has not been easy for Albino. She came to Amsterdam from New York City just a few years before Izaiah was born, and the father of her two children died a dozen years ago. She is still seeking her GED certificate. It is hard not to watch her as she screams and claps as Izaiah runs by her during one of his events -- besides the 400-meter dash, he also does the 200-meter dash, the 4x400-meter relay and the high jump -- at an early-season meet and smile. She is open about how difficult being a single mother has been and similarly open about how much Izaiah's success means to her.
"I can't lie: I feel very proud," she says. "It's a wonderful feeling."
Her goal for her son, like so many of the people around Izaiah, is for him to make it to the Olympics.
For Izaiah, the Olympics could not be a topic further from his mind. One would expect Izaiah to be -- at the very least -- somewhat knowledgeable about the sport he is dominating, but he's not even a casual fan. When asked if there is a track and field athlete he looks up to, he answers "Joe Carr," who is a 2012 graduate of nearby Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School that won multiple sectional championships last season. On the world stage, Izaiah says he is not aware of any active track and field athletes besides Usain Bolt, and Izaiah has practically no historical awareness of the sport. He responds "Who?" when asked if he has heard of Carl Lewis. But when asked whether he knows Michael Johnson -- the world record holder in the event Izaiah is best at -- the 16-year-old nods and says he knows him.
Sitting nearby, Wilary hears this, smiles and laughs. He then explains to Izaiah that the Michael Johnson in question is not the ninth grader with the same name on the AHS track and field team.
It is clear the Olympics are not on Izaiah's radar. His goal remains to break the records of his Uncle Freddie. He has not looked any further into the future than that. During this past summer's Olympics, Wilary let Izaiah know that his freshman-year times in the 400-meter dash would have put him in fifth or sixth place in most of the event's preliminary heats. In response, Izaiah shrugged.
"That's pretty cool," Wilary says Izaiah responded.
"He's only 16," reminds Uncle Freddie. "That's what everyone has to realize. He's still young. He's not even through his immature phase yet. I think he's coming out of it, but he's not through it yet."
When asked if he thinks it is odd that Izaiah does not have a bigger goal than breaking his records, Uncle Freddie disagrees with the notion that his nephew is not working at what's most important.
"I definitely want him to keep his focus on what he wants to be when he grows up -- which is a dentist," Uncle Freddie says.
"His first goal should be (figuring out) where he wants to go to college," adds Wilary. "That's what he needs to worry about, first and foremost. He's not going to the Olympics before college, anyway."
Every now and then, Wilary jokes with Izaiah about how he needs to protect his legs from harm, reminding him that his legs are worth thousands of dollars in scholarship money.
"But he's just a kid. He wants to have fun and I understand that. Like, I walked into the gym the other day and he's jumping up and grabbing the rim," says Wilary. "At first, I was like: 'Why are you doing that? You could hurt yourself.' But then I get thinking how when I was 16 years old -- if I could do that -- wouldn't I want to try that, too? Absolutely."
There does seem to be a concern about putting too much pressure on Izaiah to live up to the expectations of others. Izaiah says he does not worry about any of that and that if he were to lose a race -- he's never lost in the 300-meter dash, and only once in the 400-meter dash, which was the race during which he injured himself -- it would not bother him.
"I'm not a bad sport. If you beat me, good job. Great. I know I am a good runner, but, if you beat me, I'll give you props. It's fun to have competition, anyway. It's not fun if I'm running alone," he says. "It wouldn't bother me at all (to lose). I don't see it as racing against other people, anyway. I see it as running against the time."
But others around him wonder if such an answer and his general looseness -- at meets, Izaiah's even-keeled demeanor makes it hard to tell if his event is the next one up or if he is an hour from competing -- might be the defense mechanism of a kid who has spent the past year being told how great he can be down the road. Bill and Christina Andersen point to the tears after the one race he lost as possible evidence. Bill says he thought at the time that the tears flowed mostly because Izaiah thought he had let others down.
"I don't think there's many better than him out there," says Bill Andersen. "But I don't want the kid to be put on a pedestal and, then, all the sudden, he loses and it's a big downfall. People aren't realistic about it."
But Izaiah's just so good -- and he's getting better. He makes it hard to keep things in perspective when he keeps improving. His times this spring in the 400-meter dash have not topped his best time from his freshman season, but his times are about four seconds better than they were a year ago at this time. Wilary says he expects Brown will post a sub-47-seconds time during this season, once he becomes more comfortable with his body -- he's grown roughly four inches in the past year -- and his training and focus continue to improve. This spring, Wilary reports there has not been a single problem with Izaiah missing a workout or goofing around at practice -- issues that plagued Izaiah's first couple of years with the program -- since one brief episode at the very beginning of this winter's indoor season. The childishness at practice is gone, replaced by determination. Like the kid Stoya saw jump up on a table to get his classmates in order, Izaiah has become a leader of the team.
"I think he's accepted the role that he's one of the guys, one of the top dogs and that he needs to be a leader," Wilary says.
-- -- --
It's Monday at the beginning of this week and Izaiah Brown is about to run his 400 meters for the first time this spring at Amsterdam High School.
It should be the least interesting race of the dual meet because everyone knows Izaiah is going to win and do so by at least several seconds. There are certainly some competitors in the state that can push Izaiah, but none of them reside on the rosters of visiting Catholic Central or Schenectady.
Yet, as the race is called, there is a buzz. The members of the AHS teams make their way to the track's border and there is an unquestionable shift in the focus of the attention of the spectators lining the fence. Even the athletes on the opposing teams are gathering to watch, with a handful of Catholic Central competitors bunching up right near where Izaiah will start his race.
"C'mon, Izaiah," shouts several of his teammates as he walks onto the course and takes his position, but they mostly stay quiet and let him concentrate as he gets set.
Right before the race is to start, that silence is broken.
"You're built for speed," freshman teammate Negus Fraser shouts to him, a friendly outburst that is instantly met with reproach from a pair of neighboring AHS athletes. "Be quiet," the pair seems to be conveying to Fraser, as if the noise could adversely affect Izaiah's performance.
Moments later, the gun goes off and Izaiah begins his trek. In this race, Izaiah does not toy with his opponents' emotions for long. Rather than waiting like usual for the final 150 meters to separate from the pack, he starts to take off not even 200 meters into his loop.
When he does, the opponents from Catholic Central who gathered to watch Izaiah cannot help themselves.
"Oh my God," says one.
"He's as good as they all say," responds another.
Izaiah is off and nobody in this field is going to catch him. Coming down the closing straightaway, it is Izaiah and then 50 meters before the nearest competitor. The calm expression never leaves Izaiah's face as he finishes the race.
It looks so easy.
Dave Wojeski/For The Recorder Amsterdam's Izaiah Brown draws attention from his teammates as he competes in the boys' 400-meter dash during their meet against Catholic Central and Schenectady on Monday afternoon.
Recorder file photo He might have been born to run: Newborn Izaiah Brown is shown with his father Edward Brown Jr., left, and mother Crystal Albino in January 1997. In an article in the Recorder announcing Izaiah as the area's first baby of the year, Edward touted that his son would "take after his father," and star for Amsterdam High School's track and field team.