Standing 6-foot-5, Mak Issa isn't hard to miss. That natural size handed Issa a spot on his high school basketball team, but as for football, the Ann Arbor native had never played a snap of organized ball in his life.
"I played one week of pee wee football and I was overweight," Issa joked in an interview with FanBuzz. But if you think the challenge of making the Michigan Wolverines, one of college football's most historic programs, with zero experience was going to stop him, then you just don't know Mak Issa.
Raised in the shadows of Michigan Stadium, Mahmoud Issa, known better as "Mak," knew the University of Michigan was his dream school. But initially, the Central Academy graduate didn't get admitted. Issa recalls that of "The Fab Five" — the nickname given by teachers to his high school's top five students — three girls were accepted to UM, while Issa and the fourth girl did not. He took his acceptance an hour north to East Lansing where he began his undergraduate classes at Michigan State University.
Living across the hall from Michigan State football players like All-American linebacker Kenny Willekes, four-year letterman Tyler Higby, and quarterback Brian Lewerke — still the Spartans' all-time leader in total offense — East Lansing wasn't just a pit stop. Issa's stay was brief, but the charismatic kid's influence on everyone around him built friendships with those Spartans that remain to this day.
"'Mak, you're a Michigan fan. What're you doing at this school?'" Lewerke once joked with Issa.
"Those guys knew who what I was. I was a Wolverine at heart."
Mak's Return to Ann Arbor
When he arrived at Michigan, it was Wolverine basketball players Moe Wagner and Duncan Robinson, both of whom are in the NBA today, who helped Issa assimilate into the culture on campus.
"This is going to be a hard transition just because you didn't come in as an undergrad," Robinson told Issa during his first days on campus. "So you don't have to go around and try to make friends. You got us."
Keep in mind, Issa wasn't an athlete when first enrolled at UM. He studied Movement Science as an undergrad, and college athletics wasn't on his radar until his cousin, who had played football for the Wolverines, told Issa he was a "waste of size." Realizing that his natural build and athleticism from years on a basketball court might translate, the switch flipped.
Issa began exploring the possibility of walking on to the Michigan football team.
Chase Winovich took Issa to Schembechler Hall and showed him techniques on blocking a defensive end. Ian Bunting taught him route combinations as Issa slowly learned a game he'd never known. His relentless pursuit included reaching out to the UM coaching staff on social media to figure out the details. Some were hesitant, but he wouldn't be denied.
"I still have DMs from one of the coaches saying, 'This is real farfetched. You're probably not going to make it.'
"I'm a big chip-on-the-shoulder guy. I'd rather prove someone wrong than prove someone right, you know? That gave me all the motivation I needed."
Issa began working out at Barwis Methods, which he calls "one of the best strength and conditioning facilities in America." Owned by Mike Barwis, a nationally-recognized strength coach who works with the New York Mets and Detroit Red Wings, Issa trained five days a week alongside collegiate and professional athletes to improve his strength, speed and agility.
The results speak for themselves.
Life as a College Football Walk-On
From the initial signup of more than 120 hopefuls to the physical tryout of about 30, Issa eventually made the final cut as a Michigan walk-on, earning his spot every single day throughout offseason programs and spring ball. The moment was surreal.
"I took huge pride walking around with the U-Mich backpack, the jacket, the winter coat. It was just cool to me," Issa recalled. "When I had that stuff on, you could see people turn their heads a little bit, giving you a head nod, giving you a little 'Go Blue.' It was just surreal to me."
"I'd turn my head left, I see everywhere I grew up. Driving by Schembechler Hall, I'd think 'Damn, I'd love to just walk through there one day.' Now I'm waking up everyday at 6 a.m., you know, 5 a.m. and trying to be the first person in the building. I know I'm not going to be a starter. I knew I wasn't going to play. I probably wouldn't have lettered. But I just knew that what I was doing was unheard of in that football world."
When Issa brought the news home to his family, it sounded too good to be true. Issa says his brothers — three of the four Issa boys went to Michigan, and the other went to nearby Eastern Michigan University — didn't believe him at first.
"My brothers were telling me, 'He's waking up at 6 a.m. just to get us to believe the lie.'"
The reality that Mak was a Michigan football player came soon enough. When the spring game rolled around, family members were invited inside Schembechler Hall. There stood Issa wearing his maize and blue Michigan jersey, waiting to grab a picture with his brothers. In the presence of head coach Jim Harbaugh and the rest of his Wolverine teammates, the family finally saw first-hand what Issa accomplished.
When it came to Harbaugh, Issa knew immediately that the khaki-clad leader cares deeply about every member of his program, even the little guys.
"I remember the second day of practice during spring ball, I actually wasn't feeling well, and I was near the back of the O-line group. On the third day, [Harbaugh] says, 'Issa, where were you?' I'm like, 'I was at practice coach.' He says, 'I need to hear you. I need to feel you.'
"I just sat there. I turned the corner and stopped and I'm like, 'Wow. This guy cares about me.' And I probably had the least talent of this O-line group... For him to even say that and be thinking about me just shows what kind of person he is."
Soaking in graduation day alongside Benjamin St. Juste (All-Big Ten in 2019 at Minnesota), Tyree Kinnel (now with the XFL's DC Defenders) and Ron Johnson, Issa realized that their love for Michigan, the memories they made, and the family they created would stick with them forever.
"Four different people. Four different paths in life. Four different upbringings, but one home."
From his first week on the spring roster, Issa realized that the Michigan alumni network was there for him. In every facet of life, even after his days as a Wolverine football player were over, UM set him up for success.
Mak Issa didn't want clout. He didn't need fanfare and scouts chasing him down, telling him which path to take. As he moves into the next chapter of his life, those values on humility, hard work, determination, and, most importantly, family are the ones he'll take with him forever.
"It's about who you are with hard work and what you're willing to do to be successful."
Just as I said, if you thought an impossible task was too tall, then you must be the only person who missed Mak Issa walk into the room.
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