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'I bring my own juice:' Inside Isaiah McDuffie's linebacker climb
Go Long pounds chicken wings at Elmo's in Western New York with the man hoping to wreak havoc in the middle of the Green Bay Packers' defense for years to come.
Football is almost here, hallelujah, football is almost here. Training camps across the league kick off this coming week which means we’ll no longer have to waste brain cells on arm tattoos, 2-on-2 golf “matches,” Madden ratings and quarterbacks allegedly, uh, courting their mother’s best friend.
The 2022 season begins to take shape. Now.
And across the NFL, there will be young players like Isaiah McDuffie fighting for a role. Drafted in the sixth round by the Green Bay Packers out of Boston College, the 6-foot-1, 227-pound inside linebacker is biding his time on defense while hoping to spark the team’s sagging special teams units. Last week, Go Long reached out to McDuffie here in Western New York and quickly realized he also loved the No. 1 wing spot: Elmo’s in Getzville. So, hey, it seemed like the perfect time to pound 10 hots, 10 “double dip” BBQs and talk shop given all of the Wisconsin and WNY readers at our newsletter.
McDuffie hails from football royalty in Buffalo. He played for his father, Steve, at Bennett High School and broke the school records for single-season tackles (161) and single-game tackles (29) at linebacker, while also career touchdowns (70) and career rushing yards (5,529) at running back. On to Boston College, he ranked fifth in the nation and second in the ACC with 107 tackles (54 solo) in 2020. He’s the brand of heat-seeking missile all teams seek.
Now, it’s just a matter of staying patient and making a play or two this summer to get noticed.
Throughout Packers history, we’ve seen linebackers (like Desmond Bishop) put in their time on special teams before busting through as a key starter on a Super Bowl contender.
McDuffie is aiming to be the latest success story.
He wears his city on his sleeve. Literally. McDuffie rocks a tattoo of the “Shea’s Buffalo” sign that lights up Main Street. We got into his rise, his style of play, the torn ACL that shaped his mental approach, Green Bay’s special teams overhaul under Rich Bisaccia, how Luke Kuechly inspired him and — most importantly — how the Packers plan to bounce back from last season’s excruciating loss to San Francisco.
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Where does it start for you? Your football journey. At Ralph Wilson Stadium for those sectional finals in high school? Does it go back further than that?
McDuffie: Honestly, it goes to before I was born. Just the lineage of my Dad, my uncles playing. My grandfather instilled in them football at an early age. So when I was born, it was expected. Not to play football but to be around football at least. And then I just fell in love with it at a really young age. It was something our family really bonded over. My Dad played for Grover Cleveland High School. So did my uncle. And then my uncle went to Temple University coming out of Grover and my Dad went to Louisville and they ended up transferring back to Buffalo to play there. I have a cousin who was recently at Buffalo and he transferred to Georgia Tech. The Buffalo lineage is there. I went to Boston College out of high school. So we’re a big football family around here.
I had no idea about your Dad around here.
McDuffie: He’s a high school coach now, too. He made it to states last year and fell short.
You came back for states, right? That was your bye week?
McDuffie: Yeah, it’s crazy. It was my bye week so I got to go. It’s crazy because of the lineage we have with the community and football, it really sticks out.
People outside of Buffalo may not realize it, but high school football in Western New York isn’t really a huge thing. Not compared to Pittsburgh or South Florida or out west. To have a football family with that imprint is a big deal here. The fact that it goes back like that, you don’t see that often. The Gronkowskis, I guess?
McDuffie: That’s probably the only other family around here. It definitely carries weight. I’m not going to say it’s expected that you played football but being around and falling in love with it? That’s what we naturally do in our family. Honestly. We’re good athletes naturally. So if we decided to play football, we’d go places. It opens up other doors for us to do different things that we want to do. I had another uncle who played at the University of Buffalo, too. My uncle, Chris. So there’s four in the family who went to the University of Buffalo. Which is crazy. Two of my uncles and my Dad went to Buffalo and then my cousin went to Buffalo and transferred to Georgia Tech for this upcoming season.
Do you remember the moment you fell in love with football? A hitting drill? A run? A hit?
McDuffie: For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a football in my hand. Even pictures. I look back as a kid, I always had some type of football jersey on. Or a football in my hand. I remember always turning on Monday Night Football and Sunday Night Football with my Dad, and just watching that at a young age and being in awe. Like, “Holy crap. I want to do that one day.”
Bills fan growing up? Those were some lean years.
McDuffie: Oh yeah, I was a diehard Bills fan.
We’re talking Trent Edwards, JP Losman…
McDuffie: I’ve seen some rough seasons. Definitely a rough patch in there. But I stuck true growing up. Definitely stuck true.
Any good memories going to the games?
McDuffie: It’s crazy because I feel like the last game I went to as a fan was against the Packers. My Dad got tickets for winning Coach of the Week. They gave him tickets and they beat the Packers that day. It was crazy.
That 2014 season had a wild finish out in Seattle for the Packers. Your new fans have endured quite a bit since then.
McDuffie: Especially these past three years. With Tampa Bay and what happened vs. San Francisco, those are both heart-breakers.
That had to be a tough loss last year.
McDuffie: The locker room afterward was pure disbelief.
What was it like in there?
McDuffie: Disbelief. We thought we were going to the win the Super Bowl. We legit thought we were going to win the Super Bowl that year. When that happened, everyone didn’t really know what to do. We were expecting to go all the way. Not just breeze through teams but that’s kind of what we did in the regular season. The playoffs are amped up but we were locked in, we were ready to go. We had a good week of practice. It was just like, “Wow.”
Watching from afar, it was a weird game. It reminded me of Green Bay’s loss to the Giants in 2011. Same deal. Those Packers were 15-1 and the offense just dominated, and then that was a lethargic atmosphere. It was just dead inside the stadium, and the play reflected that. Watching your ‘Niners game, we kept thinking the offense would get it going. And they couldn’t.
McDuffie: It was disbelief. We felt going in that we were going to win the Super Bowl. That’s our expectation this year. I’m excited for this season.
We got to know Juwann Winfree here…
McDuffie: He’s actually my locker mate.
You see him in practice. Is he legit?
McDuffie: He is. He is. He definitely has those flashes where you’re like, “Wow.” He can go.
Winfree said he was planning a Super Bowl trip with his family. They were all ready to book rooms in Los Angeles.
McDuffie: Everyone in that locker room thought we were going to win the Super Bowl.
It’s good to have that swagger, but where does that come from? The source of that feeling?
McDuffie: From the top-down. Honestly. From the leaders to everyone. We know what we’re capable of — especially that season — with what we had on that roster, what we could’ve done. For it to end short, it hurt. Going into this one, I feel like we’re just as loaded. So I’m excited. I really am. Camp’s going to be fun.
You come back to Buffalo for the regular season, too. The same stadium you played in with Bennett.
McDuffie: I played at the stadium three times. Two heartbreaking losses. And then we won my senior year.
Bringing it back to your upbringing — running back, linebacker — what did you love more growing up?
McDuffie: I always loved defense. Always. I always loved defense growing up.
More than having the ball in your hand scoring touchdowns?
McDuffie: Yeah, I just always loved defense. Probably because my Dad was a linebacker. I wanted to be like him growing up. And then I just fell in love with defense. Defense, you make your own plays. You have a chance to really wreck the game on defense. My cousin plays running back. He was more of the offensive guy. My uncle played running back. And my other uncle and my Dad played defense. I just feel like defense is more to my liking.
There had to have been a hit here, hit there. Whether it’s Modified, JV, Varsity. When you think back, what was that moment? When you rocked somebody and you fell in love with football?
McDuffie: It was my sophomore or junior year of high school. This is one of my biggest hits ever. I said, “Wow. I didn’t know I was capable of doing this.” The running back ran to the flat and I was the outside linebacker. I was buzzing the flat. So I saw it and I lined him up perfectly and legit just rocked him. Picked him up. Dumped him. Rocked him. I was like, “Damn, I didn’t know I was capable of doing that. I was just starting to lift weights my sophomore year and just starting to get strong and stuff. I was like, “Yeah, I kind of like this.”
That has to be a good feeling because that became your game. Just reading up, you were a seek-and-destroy type of hitter. But you need to have that mentality.
McDuffie: My mentality is, “I’m going in there. I’m going in there.” That’s what I pride myself on. My physicality as a player. When I get those chances I have to really capitalize on those.
That “throw my body into somebody’s knees” playing style, you really can’t overthink it. You just have to go, don’t you? Without fear?
McDuffie: It’s instinctual. The best way to describe it — there’s drills to help it — but when you’re in that moment, honestly, it’s instinctual. It really is.
Maybe some of that is in you, DNA-wise?
McDuffie: You just have to have the confidence in yourself.
At some point in high school, taking everybody out, you realize: “This could be my livelihood.” When was that?
McDuffie: In Little League, I knew this was what I wanted to do. People were always asking me, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I’d say, “Play in the NFL.” People looked at me like, “Yeah, OK.” I took it serious. I remember I always put in that work. I owe it to my Dad truthfully because he instilled that work ethic in me at an early age: “You have to do extra if you want to be great.” I can’t put a specific age on it. But it was something I always wanted to do. If I put the work in, it could become a reality.
Were you watching any specific linebackers?
McDuffie: I was probably in 7th and 8th grade. I liked to watch Luke Kuechly and it’s crazy because I ended up going to BC. I saw him fly around and was like, “Holy shit.”
He was a linebacker who lived in the offensive huddle.
McDuffie: The thing with him, he is so smart. He’ll legit just call out exactly what they’re doing.
How does a linebacker get to that point?
McDuffie: Honestly, watching formation tendencies. Knowing the possibilities of the play. Limiting down to “Alright, it could be this play or this play.” And then they motion and it’s “Oh, it’s definitely this play now.” Little keys within the play. The little nuances. It’s so hard to do that — to get yourself lined up, calling the front — and to do all that.
Is that a strength of yours? How do you get to that point of knowing what’s going to happen before it actually happens?
McDuffie: The first step is knowing the system that you’re playing like the back of your hand. Once you know that, it’s “Alright, now I could watch the little nuances. OK, this tackle? There’s something off about that.” Little things like that, like “That’s his pass set. That’s definitely his pass set.” It’s crazy — all the little details — especially coming from college and then as a rookie last year, you just kind of sit back and look like, “Wow.” I thought I knew football but the NFL is a whole other level of understanding.
Those little tendencies. I wish Luke Kuechly was sitting right here. He probably has a million examples of body language tendencies that led to his tackles, his big plays. Hell, my Dad knew when I’d throw a 22 Jet Pass in high school because I had a pep in my step getting the play call from our coach.
McDuffie: You were excited!
As a linebacker, you can pick up on all of that stuff from players across the line of scrimmage.
McDuffie: Even the running back. If the running back is staring straight ahead, you know he’s getting the ball. If he’s looking around, he’s looking to see who he has to block.
You’re on all these special teams, waiting for your chance to play 1,000 snaps in a season, but are you building up that database as a middle linebacker in the meantime?
McDuffie: For sure. Even though I’m not the starter, I prepare like I am the starter. You never know. You’ve got to go into the week thinking anything can happen. You don’t want to see anything happen, but if it does, you’ve got to be ready. If that’s the only shot you get, you have to make sure you’re ready for that shot. They don’t come around often.
This predates you a decade but Desmond Bishop was a linebacker in Green Bay who played special teams for three years before he got his shot. He had a big play in the team’s Super Bowl win in 2010, and was their best player on defense in 2011. It’s that patience, that waiting for a chance. There are linebackers across the league who wait like that. You have to approach it — every week — like you’re going to start.
McDuffie: Especially nowadays. You’re only playing with two linebackers, two inside. Sometimes one. So when you get that shot, you’ve got to capitalize.
What makes you perfect for today’s game then?
McDuffie: I feel like my speed and my pursuit to the ball evens things out. I’m not the biggest linebacker but I feel like I’m one of the most physical.
You seem like a jacked fella here at Elmo’s, but maybe it’s because you’re around us old white guys.
McDuffie: (Laughs) Especially playing inside linebacker, they come in all shapes and sizes. It’s a mindset. You’re hitting 300-pound men every single play, so it’s your mindset. You’ve got to have that dog in you. That’s step one to being a good linebacker.
Which, honestly, not everybody has that.
McDuffie: Yeah, exactly.
In today’s NFL, you can get by without being a tough player. Even on defense.
McDuffie: You can. You really can. It’s crazy. That’s 100 percent true. Everyone has different styles. Especially inside linebacker. You can play it a bunch of different ways. It’s finding what you’re good at doing and perfecting what you’re good at.
Having a thing. What would yours be?
McDuffie: I’m still figuring it out, but the way I run to the ball. The way I seem like I’m always around the ball. The way I finish to the ball. And getting off blocks. I don’t have the longest arms. I’m not the biggest guy. But the way I can hit the linemen and get them off of me. Everybody has different techniques for how they do it, but my technique is going to be different.
The defense in Green Bay — and it’s weird to say — could be this team’s strength. You could be winning 17-13 games this season. Maybe that’s the style of play we’re going to see.
McDuffie: Our defense, for sure, is going to be very good this year. For sure.
What makes you confident?
McDuffie: I just feel like we have a lot of really good players on that defense. A lot of good players. And I feel like we all work together, too. They all work off of each other perfectly. Last year was the first year we ran that system and this year’s going to be Year 2. It should be better. Definitely.
As an old-school soul you probably enjoy winning that type of game, right? In Green Bay, they’re used to winning the 38-35 shootout. Can it still be aesthetically pleasing to win a different type of game? Fans aren’t used to it.
McDuffie: Defense wins championships. It’s always been that way and it’ll probably be that way until the end of time. Defense always wins championships.
Even as they throw the flags and change the rules and soften the product.
McDuffie: Defense wins championships. You see that. Look at this year. Who won the Super Bowl? The Rams.
23-20… Aaron Donald…
McDuffie: Exactly. He sealed the game with what he did. The game was still up in the air. If the Bengals would’ve gotten that first down, who knows what would’ve happened after that?
Kenny Clark could be that kind of force in the middle of this defense, too.
McDuffie: Yeah, Kenny is a dog, man. A great guy, too. A dog. A beast. The way he throws grown men around is crazy. (laughs) He just throws them. You can’t move him. There’s no moving him. He’s a strong dude.
He’s similar to you in that you both seem like super nice guys off the field — big hearts, kind — and then you’ve got that switch. You’re able to turn that asshole on.
McDuffie: You’ve got to! I feel like being on a football field and you in life should be different. If I was the guy I am on the football field I wouldn’t be a nice person. I wouldn’t want to be that way.
How would you describe Isaiah McDuffie off the field vs. Isaiah McDuffie on it?
McDuffie: Me? I feel like off the field I’m a laidback guy, chill guy. I’m not really too flashy. I’m staying in my own lane doing my own thing.
What do you get into?
McDuffie: I like nature.
You said that were just staying overnight at Allegany State Park, right?
McDuffie: That was the time of my life. I like doing stuff like that — hiking, nature, fishing. I like catching bass. That’s my favorite fish to catch. I fish down in Lake Erie and they’ve got some mean-looking fish down there. They’ve got sheepshead. They are… whew. Mean-looking fish! They kind of look like catfish but they have a lot of fins. Dorsal fins. A lot of them. They’re black and white. They have freshwater ones and they have saltwater ones. The saltwater ones look weird, too. They have a full set of teeth.
When you’re on the field and need to take names and kick ass, how do you flip that?
McDuffie: In pregame, I get my tunes going. Start to lock in. My process with stretching, getting more locked in and locked in. Once I step foot on that field, I’m ready to wreak havoc. I listen to a lot of different music. My top 3 people I listen to are probably Kanye, Drake and Lil Wayne. If I had to come up with a GOAT list, those are my top 3.
There has to be a go-to song.
McDuffie: There are so many good ones. I like everything but probably “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Stronger.” That stuff, and even some of his newer stuff.
I’ve got to check out his newer albums. It seems like things got weird a bit.
McDuffie: Yeah, Kanye’s been going through some shit. So has Lil Wayne truthfully.
Those instincts, in college when did you realize you were maybe the best defensive player in the ACC? When did you cross that threshold?
McDuffie: It was kind of weird how it all happened because going into my sophomore year I wasn’t starting. They ended up starting me. I was playing well. I made my identity as a player. Who I am. Like, “This guy can really play.” Getting my feet wet. Putting myself on the map. Then, I tear my ACL. That derails me mentally. I’m like, “What the heck?” I’m supposed to have a great junior year. So I do the rehab. Take it one day at a time. Grind through it. I was able to come back for the last four games but, while I was injured, I feel like it helped me mentally. My mental side of the game. I came back in 10 months.
How did it help you with the mental side?
McDuffie: You’ve got to play every play like it’s your last. I feel like everything was taken away from me. I couldn’t even walk. I had to literally learn how to stand up and walk. You know what I mean? In my head, after this injury, it taught me that I can’t take things for granted. Especially when I’m on the football field because you never know what play what could happen. When it could be your last. So my mindset, I play like every play could be my last play.
Because that had to be brutal to sit there and watch.
McDuffie: Exactly. It’s tough. It’s really tough. But I feel like it made me better in ways. It made me — again, with the mental side — I feel like if I had to go through another injury, I’d know how to handle it.
What was the hardest moment with that torn ACL?
McDuffie: Knowing I could help contribute — it was a rough season that year. I feel like I could help us win games but I can’t because I’m hurt. That was the hard part about it. The rehab stuff, I just attacked that like anything else I do. But just knowing I can’t go out there and I can’t help the team. We’re struggling. That was the hard part.
It definitely gives you an appreciation. You don’t know what you really have until it’s gone. Plus, when you come back, you’ve got to get your legs under you. Was there any hesitation?
McDuffie: My thing was, I’m not going to go out there feeling like I’m not ready to be out there. So once I thought I was ready, it was getting your feet under you. My first game back was against Florida State and I probably had like 20 plays. Feeling it out. The next game was Notre Dame because I wanted to come back for Notre Dame. That was one of my dreams. It was at Notre Dame. I had that circled on the schedule. I wanted to play in this game. That was motivation. I want to be back for this game. It was close to halftime. They caught a second wind and ran it up on us.
You get back to where you want to be, start taking people out in 2020, and then you’re drafted by the Packers. With all of the linebackers that’ve come through Green Bay — back to Ray Nitschke — that has to be pretty cool.
McDuffie: Because I had no idea they were going to draft me. They weren’t even on my radar. I had no idea. I talked to them, but not more than other teams. There were other teams I talked to four or five times, to the point I said, “I think they like me a lot. They keep calling me.” It worked out perfect.
Did you know much about the Packers when you went there?
McDuffie: Obviously the Lombardi Trophy is named after the famous head coach. Vince Lombardi. I had some knowledge of the Packers. I didn’t know it was the way it was. When you get there, the Packer Effect, you go “Wow, there’s no place like this place.” It’s crazy.
Green Bay is a lot smaller than Buffalo, too.
McDuffie: The best way I can describe it — when people ask me what Green Bay is like — it’s literally like an NFL college town. It’s small. People know if you’re a Packer player. Pretty much everyone there is white. If you’re a big black guy, they’re going to know you’re a Packers player.
Players coming in from big-time colleges are probably wondering, “What the hell is this?”
McDuffie: There’s not a lot to do in Green Bay. There’s not. But that’s my vibe. Me as a person, that’s what I’m about. It doesn’t matter. If it was big or small, I’d still be doing the same thing anyways.
Do you get your morning coffee at Luna in De Pere or Kavarna in Green Bay?
McDuffie: I don’t even drink coffee.
What? When you get up in the morning, how do you even get started?
McDuffie: I’m going to start drinking coffee when I really need it.
You’ve never tried it?
McDuffie: It’s funny because our position coach in college said — he played in the NFL — that coffee extended his career four more years once he started drinking it. He didn’t drink it until he was in the NFL. Once he started drinking it, it extended his career four more years. I had a glass one time and I kid you not: I was bouncing off the walls. The caffeine in that coffee, and I think it was an espresso so it was loaded with caffeine, for my first time ever drinking it? I was pretty hyper.
Ever do preworkout drinks? Any caffeine?
McDuffie: I’ve never done any of that.
How do you function through the day? If I didn’t have it, I think I’d be like an addict in desperate need of a fix. You can find an organic adrenaline rush?
McDuffie: I bring my own juice.
There are so many linebackers through the NFL like you grinding on special teams, biding your time. How do you break through to be a mainstay? A go-to force in the middle of an NFL defense? I know it’s all about opportunity — you’ve got to be able to show it — but, other than that, how do you prove that you can be that guy?
McDuffie: Showing flashes. Making plays. Whether that’s on special teams or any opportunity you get. It’s just showing them what you can do. Your film is your resume. Practice, games, anything you put on film is your resume. So if you’re showing flashes of where you could potentially be — to coaches, to GMs, scouts — they’re all taking notice of that. It’s taking one day at a time and controlling what you can control. If you’re not getting the opportunities in a game and you get those opportunities in practice, you’ve got to capitalize. And do whatever you can.
How do you stand out in practice, though? Can you even tackle?
McDuffie: I played scout team last year sometimes. Basically it’s full go. You’re just not wrapping him up.
McDuffie: Yeah, but it’s full go. It’s full speed. You can still make plays. You can still show what you’re capable of doing. You don’t yank someone to the ground or act malicious. If you beat a lineman and make a good play, you make a good play. And then the reps you do get in practice — when you’re going for real with the defense — you have to capitalize.
The Packers’ special teams were not ideal last year. To put it mildly. I’d imagine you’re taking some pride in turning that around.
McDuffie: Coach Bisaccia brought in a culture that’s unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of.
What goes into that? With your new coordinator Rich Bisaccia?
McDuffie: Who he is as a person. Truthfully. It’s hard to describe who he is without being around it. You have to be around it. He’s a great guy and he brings a lot with him that’s going to help us win games. He brings that team camaraderie. He brings a lot of things that — I don’t want to say we were missing — but he helped enhance and bring to another level that could get us over the hump.
People say that about Bisaccia. Wherever he’s been — especially with the Raiders and what they went through last season. Henry Ruggs. Jon Gruden.
McDuffie: He held that together.
I always wonder how a coach builds a “culture,” though. Special teams is its own little world, too. You’ve got kickers, holders, punters, gunners, long-snappers. It’s a weird conglomeration of talents. How do you build a culture within that world?
McDuffie: Creating a standard. That’s where it starts. Creating a standard and then holding everybody accountable to that standard. That’s the first step. And then formulating those relationships. Reliability. If I need to be here, you’re going to be here. The drills he has us go through every day. He puts us in uncomfortable situations to see if he can depend on the man next to us. To build those relationships.
Which is important because a season could be on the line. The guy next to you, you’ve got to know who’s blocking who and who’s doing what.
It’s different because it’s not like a quarterbacks coach showing his QB how to throw a ball or take a three-step drop and read a defense. It’s like a trade school if there were 20 different trades.
McDuffie: Exactly. Exactly.
I’m always fascinated by what makes a good special teams coach.
McDuffie: I feel like it’s who they are, honestly, as a person. I truthfully don’t know. But what makes a good offensive and defensive coordinator is who they are, right? The way they think.
It’s going to be better, though?
McDuffie: I would say so. For sure.
So you can guarantee a Super Bowl win right here?
McDuffie: Hey, I know that we’re going to be playing for that all season. That’s what our end goal is.
How hungry are guys? Like you said, everyone was expecting to get there and win it in 2021. You’ve been there for OTAs and minicamp now.
McDuffie: The same deal. Same deal. It’s not like we’re looking into the future and worrying about what’s going to happen and not focused and being in the moment. But if you don’t talk about that stuff, you don’t have a vision of what you want to achieve. Our leaders on the team — “12” says that all the time. That’s his thing. His thing is, too, being a Green Bay Packer — it takes a certain kind of person to carry the “G.”
Which is funny because last year, up to training camp, nobody knew if he even wanted to play football. Is it nice to know this time?
McDuffie: Who wouldn’t want him as your quarterback?
He is the MVP of the league so I suppose you do everything you can to keep him, but it’s hard not to feel for Jordan Love. He keeps waiting.
McDuffie: When there’s one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time in front of you and you get to pick his brain, that’s going to make you a better player.
We saw a little bit last year. But you see Jordan day-in and day-out. How is he developing?
McDuffie: Really good. Jordan can sling it for sure.
You play a physical position where injuries happen. But you’ll probably get your shot this season to play and fly all over the field and make yourself indispensable.
McDuffie: No doubt.
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