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Isiah Pacheco Is Running for Much More Than Super Bowl Glory

The second-year Kansas City Chiefs running back has become famous for his distinctive playing style, but there’s passion, pain, and somehow joy behind every step

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Before every game, Kansas City Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco takes a moment to himself, bowing his head and saying a quick prayer for his late siblings, Celeste Cannon and Travoise Cannon.

They are always with him. Before the game. During the game. After the game. In his heart, his mind. He thinks about them often—and if they could see him now. See how far he’s come since he lost them.

Pacheco was just a high schooler trying to find his way when Travoise was killed in January 2016, the victim of a stabbing at his apartment complex. Celeste was murdered 20 months later, in September 2017, in Millville, the city in South Jersey where Pacheco grew up.

The memory hurts no less now than when they both left his world, leaving him devastated. How could something so unfathomable happen …. twice? There were no answers, only fresh grief. More questions. What was home without those who loved him, cared for him—helped him morph into one of the most heralded young football players in the state?

The family buried Celeste on a Friday morning. Pacheco was 17. He had a football game for Vineland High School later that day, hours after the ceremony. He felt an urgent need to play. To run, to escape. To do something to contend with the incomprehensible reality in front of him.

The game, for him, was a kind of release. A refuge. His mentality that day?

“Leaving it all out there on the field, knowing that my teammates needed me and not being selfish,” Pacheco said earlier this week. “I knew that they had my back, and I needed them at that moment as well.”

Pacheco’s coaches, however, didn’t expect him to play. They reminded him that nothing was more important than family and his own well-being. “Take the time you need to sit out, be with your family,” Dan Russo, his coach at Vineland, remembers telling him.

“No, coach,” Pacheco said, according to Russo. “I don’t want to miss anything. I want to stick it out and I want to play and help the team.”

He played that night for Celeste. As he ran harder, he let his emotions flow through him. Carry him. Afterward, when asked by his coaches and teammates how he was able to perform so well, rushing for 222 yards and throwing for a touchdown, he shrugged. “He doesn’t make it about him, and he never has,” said Jason Volpe, former offensive coordinator at Vineland.

Pacheco has dedicated the rest of his life, and the rest of his football career, now as a budding star with the Chiefs, to honoring his siblings’ memory. The second-year pro, picked 251st in the 2022 draft, has a chance to win his second Super Bowl ring on Sunday as Kansas City faces the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas.

As a rookie last season, Pacheco, known affectionately as “Pop,” was instrumental in the Chiefs’ 38-35 Super Bowl LVII victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, running 15 times for a game-high 76 yards and scoring a touchdown. He’s been an even bigger part of the Chiefs offense this season, leading the team with 935 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, often serving as the engine for the offense as the passing game has struggled, particularly with its wide receivers. He’s been the player that quarterback Patrick Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid have counted on to pick up tough yards and crucial conversions, and to provide a spark to those around him. At his core he is a team-first player. His main concern, his “why” that pushes him each day, is his teammates.

“Just doing it for one another,” Pacheco said earlier this week. “You get this memory for the rest of your life.”

Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Every game, every snap, every touchdown, Pacheco is also motivated by his family. “Everything he [does] is for them,” said Nihym Anderson, Pacheco’s close friend and high school teammate. Anderson attended the funerals for Pacheco’s siblings and later joined Pacheco in college as the two played for Rutgers.

“For him to wake up every day and still be as strong as he is, losing all the people that he did, and just being able to keep going every day ...” Anderson trailed off. He admires his friend’s resilience, amazed that Pacheco has made it this far, not just to the NFL, but to Super Bowl stardom.

Pacheco’s family, and the heartache they’ve faced, is his fuel. His friends see it in his running style and how he plays with a sense of urgency, an electricity that is palpable to anyone sharing the field with him. You can see it in the intensity with which he sprints, the physicality and toughness he brings to every practice rep, and every handoff he takes from Mahomes during a game. You can see it when he gets tackled, how quickly Pop pops back up. “He’s very energetic,” says Todd Pinkston, the Chiefs running backs coach. “He’s very genuine. He’s just a hard worker, and you can see it on the field.”

Pacheco doesn’t just run hard; he runs through people. Defenders seem like mere plastic cones rather than blood and flesh. He never sacrifices a play, as if he could get cut at any time. “There’s really no off switch,” said Nick Basile, his former youth coach, who is still close with the Pacheco family. “Whether it’s a 1-yard run or a 40-yard, he doesn’t know any other way to run,” Basile said. “He just won’t be outworked.”

Even in drills. “Even in walkthroughs, he’s going full speed,” said Chiefs receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling.

“He has a crazy amount of energy,” Valdes-Scantling said. “From the moment that Pop walked into the building, he was going to be a special player. He does everything with so much passion and assertiveness. … Having a guy like that, on and off the field, is a staple to this team.”

He’s known for his unique, gritty, explosive running style: high knees, head down, arms pumping, feet stomping, plowing through the defense as if it had stolen something from him. It doesn’t matter how many defenders are thrown at him; he punishes anyone who dares try to tackle him, easily breaking them as if he were merely playing hopscotch. “He’s not a hit taker. He is a hit giver,” said Augie Hoffmann, Pacheco’s running backs coach at Rutgers.

Many on social media have tried to come up with different ways to describe Pacheco’s running style:

He’s angry at the ground!

He’s like a little kid trying on new shoes.

He bite people.

His Chiefs colleagues have even come up with their own. Pinkston likened Pacheco to a “wind-up toy.” Or there’s this, from offensive tackle Donovan Smith: “He’s stomping grapes, making wine with his feet while he runs.”

His teammates also get a kick out of the different descriptors others have offered online. “The funniest one I saw: ‘He runs like the ground is hot.’ I think that was a good one,” Valdes-Scantling said. Others, meanwhile, call Pacheco’s intense style “violent” or “angry” running, but perhaps there is an even more apt description: He runs with purpose.

To honor his siblings.

To give his Kansas City teammates everything he has.

“It’s the competitiveness in me. I love competing,” Pacheco said. “That came from my parents taking me to school, understanding that when you give respect, you get respect.”

Some of his former coaches laugh, though, when they hear the “angry” descriptor; not because they disagree with it, but because Pacheco is pure sunshine off the field. Joy, they say, is at the center of everything he does, everything he is. When he’s playing, they say he’s in his happy place, free from anything holding him back.

It was true in high school, and remains true on the NFL’s biggest stage. Pacheco’s charismatic personality is infectious, rubbing off on his Chiefs teammates. They feed off his energy. It’s the giant smile he makes after scoring, flashing his braces. It’s the way he sprints back to the huddle. His teammates see how he doesn’t even take something as simple as that—just being in the game—for granted. Not after what he and his family have endured.

“He’s very genuine. He’s just a hard worker. You can see it on the field,” Pinkston said. “When we’re going over plays, going over protections or whatever, he’ll take it upon himself to get up and teach the guys and tell the guys his protections. … He’s just a leader.”

Growing up, Pacheco loved baseball. He was talented enough that his former football coaches are convinced to this day that he could have pursued a professional baseball career if he had wanted to. But the way he maneuvers around NFL defenders nowadays, making them fall at his feet? Some of his former coaches think that comes not from baseball, but from another one of his early talents: dancing. Pacheco, known for his joyous dance celebrations after Kansas City touchdowns, would always dance through the halls at his high school. He even won the Mr. Vineland talent show by dancing onstage, wearing ski goggles while jamming to club music.

More than anything, though, that joy comes from within. From a deeper appreciation of how precious life is, how close death can be. From the love that his parents showed him, how they kept the family strong despite their own grief.

Those close to Pacheco said he was always close to his parents. He loved his mother Felicia’s cooking, especially when she’d make soul food. On special occasions, she even cooked for Vineland’s football team. And his father, Julio Pacheco, was a regular at Isiah’s practices and games. But they all grew even closer after the devastating losses of Celeste and Travoise.

Isiah felt he had to grow up quickly and be strong for his parents. “He was trying to be the leader of the family and keep everybody together,” Russo says. “It was very difficult.”

Football became his haven. He was determined to make something of himself in the sport. “Even back then,” Basile says, “he had a vision and what he wanted to do and what he wanted to accomplish.”

Football was where he could express himself. Mourn and celebrate. Every emotion seemed to come out of him when he clutched the ball and bulldozed his way through the defense. And much like today, with his touchdown celebrations, his joy couldn’t be contained—even as some of his coaches asked him to tone them down at times. But life, he knew, was too short not to find pockets of goodness and hold on tightly to them.

He was a true hidden gem that many scouts simply passed over because he might not have been good enough at one particular thing. They might not have known that he played quarterback all four years of high school, wanting the ball in his hands and being able to take off running as many times as he could. His high school coaches said he’s always been in tune with every position on the field, knowing the ins and outs of each role. Rutgers was one of the few schools recruiting him at running back; others saw him as a defensive back.

The memory of his siblings was never too far behind, as he opted to stay within his home state and play for Rutgers. “I think it actually drove him to be the best that he could be,” said Chris Ash, the head coach who recruited him to Rutgers and was there for Pacheco’s first two years of college in 2018 and 2019. “It was driving him to even be better and work harder.”

Freshman year, Pacheco pulled off an incredible 80-yard run to tie the score against Michigan, which at the time had one of the best defenses in the country. Torching anyone in his midst, he clutched the football and smiled at the sky, almost as if to say: I’m here. I belong. I can play with anyone.

As his reputation grew, he had the chance to enter the transfer portal and jump to a bigger, more prestigious program. But Pacheco never made the move. He was proud to represent his home state and worked to become more versatile, knowing that modern backs in the NFL have to be excellent at many things, not just purely running the ball.

Though Pacheco had a decent career at Rutgers, serving as team captain and being named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten in his final season in 2021, he didn’t produce the kind of eye-popping stats that would lead one to believe he would make an immediate impact in the NFL.

Pacheco continued to fly under the radar, as no one was quite sure what to expect from him heading to the pros. His stats weren’t all that gaudy; neither was his film. But Pacheco didn’t concern himself with the doubts. He prided himself on his work ethic, on improving every day, not listening to what scouts predicted his ceiling to be.

It drove Pacheco, seeing all the NFL teams that eventually passed over him in the draft. “I definitely think it motivated him,” said Tyreem Powell, another close friend who grew up with Pacheco and who currently plays linebacker at Rutgers. “Teams looked past him, basically. That just put another battery in his back and just made him go harder. All those teams looking past him, I knew when he got his chance, what he was going to do with it.”

And now he’s shown he’s much more than a rusher, excelling at both catching the ball and pass protection. He has elite vision and balance, too. “He could be a wide receiver,” Ash said. “He could be a kick returner. He could go over and line up and play on defense if we needed him to. … He could play on special teams. He just brought a unique skill set to the game that allowed him a lot of position flexibility and just a lot of value.”

His coaches say he isn’t even close to reaching his ceiling.

“He’s on the verge of an elite career,” said Nunzio Campanile, former Rutgers interim head coach and offensive coordinator. “He really deserves it. When I say how hard he worked, watching him from a freshman to a senior, how hard he worked … he bought into it 100 percent.”

He kept raising his game, pushing himself—sometimes to his own detriment. He wouldn’t stomach not making it. He just needed someone to see his talent. “It was there,” Campanile said. “It was just waiting for the opportunity to break out.”

The Chiefs now trust him to make the big plays when needed. In the fourth quarter of a tight game against the Bills in the AFC divisional round last month, Mahomes put the ball in Pacheco’s hands, trusting the running back to make a big play. That trust was rewarded, multiple times over. Pacheco scored what wound up being the game-winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter after a brilliant cutback move to the end zone. And late in the fourth quarter, he iced the game by picking a critical first down to keep Buffalo from getting the ball back.

In just a short amount of time, Pacheco has endeared himself to Kansas City fans—not just because of his electric play, like those clutch postseason runs, but because of the bonds he’s made in the community. He doesn’t see himself as too big time to interact with fans, such as hairstylist Talicia Black, owner of Greenhouse Studio. A Chiefs fan all her life, she stuck with the franchise through years of despair. “It’s just exciting to be from Kansas City,” she said, remembering the days of her childhood when tickets were just $25 and the team played so poorly that “they still couldn’t fill up the stands.”

When Pacheco joined the Chiefs, she came to admire his relentlessness, his drive. I’m going to do his hair one day, she told herself.

Black first met Pacheco at a meet-and-greet and later summoned the guts to reach out to him on social media, tagging him in posts and asking whether she could book him for a session. She figured there was hardly any chance Pacheco would respond, but eventually her persistence paid off and he took her up on the offer. As she began to twist his hair, she was moved by hearing his backstory and what he had gone through with his siblings. She had recently lost her grandmother, and the story resonated with her, as she too was still grieving. “I just thought that it was amazing that he was able to persevere,” Black says.

Pacheco has since helped her secure other Chiefs clients, she said. “You really changed my business,” she wrote to Pacheco one day, thanking him.

Once again, she was sure he wouldn’t respond.

“Keep winning,” he wrote.

That certainly is his own mentality, as Pacheco prepares to meet the moment. Again. There is still much for him, for his teammates, to prove. He won’t take this moment, this chance to win another Super Bowl ring, for granted.

“The job,” Pacheco said, “is not done.”

But even with that sense of urgency, he can still find those pockets of joy. Gratitude to be here, on the biggest stage of his sport, saying a prayer for his siblings before the big game.

They are here.

The Ringer’s Lindsay Jones and Ben Solak contributed to the reporting of this story.


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