His dad would pick up a young Keith Ismael from school sometimes on a Friday and announce they were headed out of town on another road trip.
It might be to Las Vegas. Or Seattle. Or Los Angeles. Regardless, it meant one thing to the rookie Washington offensive lineman: a long drive from San Francisco to somewhere, alone with his dad.
It planted a seed for what Ismael did this offseason after being selected in the fifth round of the NFL draft out of San Diego State. He drove solo across the country to reach his new football home. He started May 13 in San Diego, weaved his way through the Southwest, with a long stop in Dallas, and two months later reached Ashburn, Virginia, in time to report for training camp.
When he started, the coronavirus pandemic was dominating the news. On his way, social justice protests began in many cities and the team that drafted him changed its name.
“What a way to enter my rookie year,” said Ismael (pronounced Iz-MALE). “All the changes for the good and the bad. So many events happened all at once. But I never lost focus.”
Mainly because this trip mattered to him. Ismael looks back fondly on the drives he shared with his father, George Ismael, who remains in the Bay Area.
“Those are times I cherished,” Ismael said, “where we found those moments of bonding together.”
This summer’s road trip wasn’t fueled by sentimentality alone; there were financial reasons as well. Because of the pandemic, Ismael hadn’t signed his contract and didn’t want to pay for a flight to Dallas, where he would work out, and then to Virginia. He also said it would have cost him $1,000 to ship his car across the country — and then he had clothes to send as well.
“I’ve always been really conservative and try to save as much money as possible,” Ismael said. “Airplanes are kind of crazy, so I might as well stick to my roots.”
George was a corrections officer who often worked graveyard shifts, and when he’d have his son every other weekend, their sleep schedules often conflicted. So they didn’t always get to spend time together until his son was a little older. That’s why the road trips mattered. At least once a month they would drive eight or nine hours to Las Vegas to visit Keith’s paternal grandmother. Other times it was 12 hours to Seattle or six hours to Los Angeles to see more relatives. Ismael also drove often to visit his mother’s family as well.
With his dad, the younger Ismael would chew sunflower seeds and they would listen to his father’s CDs in his Chevy GMC. They’d sing along together to Boyz II Men, among other musicians and genres. It’s largely the same music he played on this trip.
“That’s what I grew up listening to,” Ismael said. “Oldies, ’90s R&B, rap. I could get closer to him and share his interests and see what he liked and it ended up being the stuff I liked.”
Despite treasured moments, Ismael told himself at a young age, “I’m never driving cross country.”
He didn’t pause for the irony.
“Look at me now,” he said.
Ismael recently completed the roughly 2,380-mile trip that took more than two months. Ismael said he departed California as a kid leaving college and arrived in Virginia as an adult ready for his first real job.
“I can take care of myself,” he said. “I’m ready.”
Here’s a snapshot of what it was like:
May 13: San Diego to Calexico, California, about 117 miles
Ismael didn’t know what to do when he saw his maternal grandmother, Marcia Woodby, for the first time in two years. His only surviving grandparent, she was the one he had always been closest to. But at 83 years old, she has respiratory issues and, of course, there is a pandemic.
As he emerged from his car, wearing a mask, he had to make a decision: Should he hug her or not? He had no reason to believe he had the virus, but did not want to take any chances.
“I was very hesitant to be near her because I was scared that maybe I would pass it on,” Ismael said. “We practiced social distancing, but that’s my grandmother and I’m her only grandchild. At some point she said, ‘Forget it, I need to give my only grandson a hug … I love you so much.’ What do I do? Tell her no? She’s by herself. I don’t know the next time I’ll see her.”
Before he left the next day, they went for an evening walk. When Ismael was a kid and his grandmother lived in Northern California, they’d walk by the Russian River near her house. They’d go for hikes.
“It reminded me of the precious times we shared as a kid,” he said. “We felt the warm air. We talked, laughed, smiled and shared memories.”
And then, the next morning, it was time to get back in the car.
May 14-16: Calexico to Phoenix, about 240 miles
While staying with friends in Arizona, Ismael ate at a restaurant. At the time, Arizona was just reopening. Ismael said they spread out; he wore masks and gloves and there was hand sanitizer on the table.
“It was very odd,” he said.
He stayed with former college teammate Nico Siragusa, sleeping on his couch for two nights. Siragusa and Alex Barrett, whom he also saw in Phoenix, were senior mentors for Ismael when he was a freshman. Ismael considers Siragusa an older brother.
Baltimore selected Siragusa, a guard, in the fourth round of the 2017 draft; he has spent time with three other organizations and remains unsigned. Barrett, a defensive lineman, signed with Detroit as an undrafted free agent in 2017 and will be in San Francisco’s camp this summer.
“We all realized how much we had grown and for them, their little bro had made it,” Ismael said. “Now it turns into them sharing knowledge on how to be a successful pro.”
May 16-18: Phoenix to Albuquerque, New Mexico, 420 miles
Because Ismael’s red 2015 Nissan Altima gets about 40 miles to the gallon on the highway and has an 18-gallon tank, he could make this leg in one straight shot. It prevented frequent stops. He didn’t stop to eat anywhere on the trip.
“I’m an impatient person, so once I get on the road I just like to go and not stop at all,” he said. “I try to run the tank all the way down until I have to get off or I have to use the bathroom or I’m running out of water.”
Ismael stayed with the Guzman family — he was close to several members of the family who attended San Diego State, one of whom graduated with him in the spring. That’s another reason this trip mattered: The graduation ceremony had been scheduled for May 15 but was canceled because of the pandemic. It was a satisfying and bittersweet moment.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘We did it! We made it!'” Ismael said. “We were basking in the moment, the transition we were about to step into as adults.”
This was also more than a month before Washington’s name change.
“Their cousin, who went to San Diego State, had an uncle who was a big Redskins fan,” Ismael said. “Years and years as a Redskins fan. He joked that he was one of five Redskins fans in New Mexico and he had vintage Redskins gear with old chili stains on it — not beef and bean chili, like green and red chili. I signed those for him and took pictures.”
May 18: Albuquerque to Dallas, 650 miles
Ismael stocked up for the nine-hour journey. Even though he had the air conditioning on, the sun still warmed the car up, so Ismael made sure he had enough water and energy drinks. He had a case of Gatorade in the back seat. He did not bring his favorite sweets: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Instead, he opted for a bag of dill pickle sunflower seeds and a can of Pringles.
“Bags get flimsy,” he said.
Ismael purchased his Altima when he was a sophomore in college; at this point in his trip it had 79,546 miles on it.
“It’s not the flashiest, but it’s been good for me,” he said. “I’m still paying the note on it. I love it. It got me through college and it’s going to take me across the country. I drove my mom’s car in high school and she got tired of taking me to 6 a.m. weights. So this is my first car and I make all the payments.”
After he hung up the phone, Ismael still had to navigate West Texas, going through towns such as Amarillo and Wichita Falls. He passed through Memphis, Texas, which he had not known existed. But there it was — population 2,058 and 280 miles from Dallas.
“It was beautiful,” he later said of the drive. “The flatlands and the sunset was cool. I passed through small towns, places I’d never get to if I wasn’t driving. I just played my music and was relaxed.”
Ismael reached his destination — a two-bedroom Airbnb apartment in suburban Lewisville, Texas — at about 1 a.m. He did so feeling good about the cost of the trip thus far: After driving a combined 30 hours through four states, Ismael said his total gas bill was about $170.
May 18-July 20: Dallas, Zooms and protests
While in Dallas, Ismael was among those working with renowned offensive line trainer and scouting consultant Duke Manyweather, one of the organizers of an annual offensive line summit called the OL Masterminds in the area. Washington also started virtual organized team activities, so Ismael sat in on four to five hours of Zoom meetings (some with his position group, some with the full team) every weekday.
Washington offensive lineman Keith Ismael knew a cross-country trip would be arduous — even with a two-month layover in Dallas to break up the monotony. It’s no surprise which part was the toughest. Video by John Keim.
Workouts with Manyweather started around 7 a.m. Ismael said Manyweather focused on building his game from the ground up — working on ankles, knees, calves, hips and core muscles. They focused on details, such as making sure he’s turning his heels properly and balanced in his stance. After a break of an hour or so, Ismael would join his new teammates and coaches on Zoom.
At night, he’d watch “Snowfall” on Hulu; then later it was “Money Heist” — fellow lineman and first-round New York Jets pick Mekhi Becton turned a group of them onto it — and he finally wrapped up “Ozark.” Ismael was cooking for himself. On this night, he was making salmon, roasted veggies and potatoes. The menu for the following night: short rib ragu over polenta.
But Ismael couldn’t avoid what else was happening in society, not only in Dallas but around the country. Ismael’s mom, Johanna Woodby, is African American. He’s also part Samoan, Filipino and Native American. Ismael did not join the protests; the only time he could have done so was at night and he did not want to put himself in harm’s way.
“That’s when these things get violent,” he said.
He was calling friends and family, checking in to make sure they were OK — and they were doing the same with him. Seeing the protests also brought back the memory of a cousin who, he said, was murdered because he was around the wrong crowd. Ismael has a tattoo tribute to him — a Samoan sleeve — on his left arm.
Ismael majored in international security and conflict resolution in college. It led him to study revolutions and civil wars.
“It’s almost a numbness at this point,” he said. “Today, driving to workouts, I started to think about the system in place and my cousin. He wasn’t killed by police, but by other people. I got emotional about all the lives lost over the years, decades, centuries. We as a Black community have been taught to in essence hate ourselves, hate our image, hate each other, hate our history. It’s terrible, because we don’t love each other the way we should and so many lives are lost to senseless violence, whether by police or by one another. It goes further than the Black community. There’s no empathy for your fellow human beings. Nobody thinks about the other person.”
The one person who was thinking of Ismael often during this time: his mother.
“It breaks my heart to hear the worry in my mom’s voice, and not just now. It’s years,” he said. “She called me after [President] Trump’s statement about sending in the military to enforce ending the protest, and the fear and weight in her voice that she couldn’t be there to protect me. That broke my heart and it continues to break my heart. The last thing anyone wants is for their parents to worry, and she worries every day because of the color of my skin.”
July 20: Dallas to Nashville, Tennessee, 660 miles
At 8 a.m., Ismael pulled out of his temporary home after making a chorizo-and-egg breakfast burrito to take with him and started on the final leg of his journey. He had planned a trip to Louisville, Kentucky, but that was scuttled because he was running short on time. He stuck around Dallas for Manyweather’s offensive line summit and then got in more workouts before hitting the road.
“I can finally say I drove across the country by myself. I proved to myself how strong I really am and how ready I am for the next phase in my life. I’m a professional now. I deserve to be here.” Keith Ismael, Washington center
He did pass through Memphis, Tennessee, on the way to Nashville, but didn’t stop.
“It was such different scenery than the drive from California to Dallas,” he said of the drive. “I saw a lot more foliage and vegetation. It was a lot prettier than driving through the west part of Texas and New Mexico. That was all desert.”
But about 5 p.m., he arrived at the home of Julia Faron, vice president of media and public relations for Steinberg Sports & Entertainment, the agency that represents Ismael. Then he did what many tourists do when in Nashville: He ate a hot chicken sandwich at Hattie B’s.
July 21: Nashville to Ashburn, 650 miles
Because he had a physical scheduled for 3:30 p.m. near the Washington practice facility, Ismael had to get an early start. Like 5:15 a.m. early.
He was drained, and this leg of the trip was probably the hardest. It didn’t help that he was also going from the Central time zone to Eastern, which he had to account for in his planning.
“At noon Eastern I had three more hours and I was like, ‘Wow this kind of sucks,'” he said. “The second half of the journey, from Dallas to Nashville and then to Ashburn, was long. It was tiring. My adrenaline was pumping for sure, but in the beginning when I drove to Dallas I was just coming off getting drafted and I was excited to leave home. But it was bittersweet to leave Dallas. All my boys training in Dallas, we had a strong connection. I can’t lie, that second half was kind of a drag.”
By this time in his trip, Ismael was well aware that his new franchise was changing its name. Two days after he left Nashville, it announced it would temporarily be called the Washington Football Team.
Dan Graziano provides a timeline on the steps Washington will have to take in order to adopt a new name.
“It’s a good change,” he said. “We’re moving in a positive direction in a lot of aspects in this country. … For me, I just want to play football for whoever that is, whatever the team name will be. I’m willing to sacrifice for the city of D.C. But everyone keeps asking me what it’s going to be; it’s getting annoying because I don’t know, it’s not my decision.”
But as the drive continued, the mental boost he needed came in southern Virginia, where a rain had cleared up and the scenery exploded into view.
“I was passing by some big beautiful mountains and it was really refreshing,” he said. “I was like, this is kind of cool. It gave me energy and I realized I was only 100 miles or so away. My mom called and I told her how far I was and she said it must be really refreshing. I was like, ‘Yep.’ And I hit the pedal. The second I saw Ashburn on the interstate I was like, ‘Dang I made it; let’s go.'”
He went directly to the hospital to take his physical, arriving 15 minutes early. Ismael passed, then later headed to a hotel near Dulles Airport. The next day he checked into the team hotel at Lansdowne in nearby Leesburg.
“I can finally say I drove across the country by myself,” he said. “I proved to myself how strong I really am and how ready I am for the next phase in my life. I’m a professional now. I deserve to be here.”
Check out the highlights of former San Diego State center Keith Ismael.
July 22: Landsdowne to team’s practice facility, 6 miles
Though Ismael had arrived in town a day earlier, this day represented the punctuation, not only to this trip but to another leg of his football journey. Now, heading to the practice facility, his insides stirred. He saw the team name; he saw his masked coach, Ron Rivera, greeting his new players.
Ismael saw a few teammates who, when he told them how he got there, replied, “You’re crazy.”
Then he went to sign his contract (four years, $3.6 million).
“Man, it was great,” he said. “It all set in when I signed my contract. It was a very emotional moment. It was a long road trip, not only for the past couple months to get here but in my life. I took a couple deep breaths and I teared up a little bit seeing my name on the paper. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really here. I made it.'”