COLUMBUS, Ohio – Isaiah Pead slips into the driver’s seat, metal leg first, turns the key and savors the seductive purr of the BMW-powered engine.
Pead’s newest toy is a cream-colored Campagna T-REX, the closest he can get to a motorcycle -- and quite the fearless choice for someone who nearly lost everything in a car accident.
“This is for the young and wild,” said Pead, pulling out of a garage filled with toddler toys in plastic bags. “It’s like playing running back, low to the ground, see things before people see you. You have to make a split-second decision.”
Pead skirts out of the driveway, bolting through his suburban neighborhood in the oversized go-kart and clinging to normalcy at all costs.
The man who ran a 4.47-second 40 at the 2012 NFL combine isn’t about to slow down now. Pead, who spent five years as an NFL running back, lost his left leg in the early hours of Nov. 12, 2016, after his 2011 Cadillac CTS-V hit a divot on I-670, spun off a guardrail and took a terrible tumble at least 40 feet down an embankment.
What happened in that car, and the eight surgeries that followed, only fueled his competitive drive and led to a second act: A push for the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo as a sprinter in the physical impairment classification.
Pead earned nearly $4 million as a player, qualified for an NFL pension, started a trucking company based out of his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and has a 19-month-old son, Deuce, who was born a week before the accident.
So why is he spending most of his days grinding on a tattered high school track with his prep coach?
Because running backs run.
“My dream is done. But I’m still young, have my whole life ahead of me. What’s next?” said Pead, 28, wearing a diamond-encrusted wheelchair charm on his gold necklace “What do you want to be remembered for?”
Pead is back at Eastmoor Academy, where he once competed for state titles with effortless explosion. But this time around requires far more maintenance.
About every 10 minutes, Pead must pull a rubber cover off his "nub," which requires constant lubrication as it shrinks throughout the day and causes the prosthetic bowl to rub against his crotch.
He’s tried various cream powers, but the chafing has affected his regimen in recent weeks.
From a blue tarp, Pead recalls the ease with which he used to square up defenders in the second level, ready to torture that poor backpedaling linebacker.
“With this, I just don’t know what to expect,” said Pead, who keeps a ripped torso from daily push-ups, still resembling an NFL back. “I want to perfect it, but I don’t know what average is, or what it feels like. If I don’t feel like it’s great, then it’s obviously not great.
“I want to be an athlete. This comes with a lot more than what I’m used to with being an athlete.”
Pead rises from the tarp and starts a series of leg kicks, which are all the more impressive against the backdrop of an accident so unsettling that family members have difficulty describing it nearly two years later.
That uncertain morning, medics used "war packing" to control bleeding since they couldn’t close up the mangled leg, mother Leshawna Pead remembers. Doctors eventually removed all but about 10 inches of the leg because the damage was too severe.
Pead was en route to Waffle House to meet friends with former University of Cincinnati teammate Wesley Richardson, who avoided serious injury. But Pead was ejected from the car and might have bled out if not for the 911 call from an onlooker.
While family members waited nervously in hospital halls, Pead, tube in mouth, was kept on IV sedation until regaining coherence two days later.
He put everyone at ease in the hospital room by writing "my whip game proper" on a piece of paper. Pead was not impaired the night of the accident but admits to going over the speed limit.
Loved ones knew Pead would eventually be in this position, somehow competing. Within weeks of his hospital stay, he started timing his trek from the bed to the wheelchair.
Thirty seconds. Nineteen seconds. Twelve.
“You cannot stop that man,” said Ruby Bowman, Pead’s longtime girlfriend and mother of Deuce (Isaiah II). “He got back into grind mode.”
On this May afternoon, under the signature Ohio gray, Pead raises his knee to his chest and lands softly on the blade, grunt-tap, grunt-tap, grunt-tap in a sideways shuffle.
“Let’s see how strong that glute is!” coach Jason Lewis orders Pead. “Is the bouncing going to help you get in that rhythm?”
Pead hops over to put his arm around Lewis, explaining the difficulty of trusting the leg to do the work. Lewis ensures they will get that "Pogo stick" right.
The quick-twitch movements are gone, no hamstring push, all buttocks and back for power.
“Take your time,” Pead tells himself. “Be patient with the technique.”
Lewis can tell Pead is fighting the mechanics, so he turns to something he knows will get his attention: timed races.
He needs that clock, Lewis figures. He always has.
After the third tarp rest, Pead takes to the white line, head down, waits for the go, reminds himself to ignore the fear of wiping out.
A few short runs get Pead warmed up for his first crack at a 60-meter run. Pead starts slow but gets his arms swinging like an open-field stride, each squeak from the leg joint representing progress. His eyes are fixated on the track lane as Lewis, shooting smartphone video, urges him to "get there, get there."
Pead’s leg keeps jetting out toward the end but after three tries, he records a personal-best time of 12.6 seconds.
Low 12s will get him into competition range, he figures.
The goal is simple: Keep getting "PRs" (personal records).
“These small victories, I can go home and beat my chest,” he saiud. “Whatever goal I set, I’ll know I’m on my way there.”
And that’s the difficult part, knowing which goals to set.
Pead and Lewis are hardly experts at this. Inspired by a suggestion from former Rams teammate Janoris Jenkins to become a Paralympian, Pead called Lewis a few months ago with a message: "Coach, I want to run."
So he got a state-of-the-art running blade from a manufacturer in Oklahoma, but otherwise he and Lewis are limited to YouTube training videos and advice from coach Joaquim Cruz, a two-time Olympic medalist who coaches U.S. Paralympians at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center.
Reps with U.S. Paralympics track and field contacted Pead in the spring, moved by his story and confident his mix of athleticism and determination would aid training.
They also knew Pead faced a tough transition.
“It’s just going to take some time to get used to what his new normal is,” U.S. Paralympic director Catherine Erickson said. “But once an athlete, always an athlete. He’s definitely shown he’s a go-getter.”
If Pead is ready, he can target the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru, next summer and the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai in November 2019, Erickson said.
Pead is flying to Dallas to consult the Adaptive Training Foundation to learn best practices and troubleshoot the leg discomfort. He eventually plans to get a sponsor for his competition trials.
“It’d be a great story,” Erickson said. “Time will tell where he is, and how determined he is will be the precursor of what his success can be. From Day 1 in talking with him, he was absolutely determined. I have no doubt he’ll be successful.”
Lewis has coached track for more than a decade but never like this. The connection to the runner is more emotional. His job is to understand Pead’s mental hurdles, know when to push or stay back.
Pead trusts Lewis, who never asked for anything after Pead made the NFL and stood as a father figure of sorts.
“I’m doing this for him. That’s it. I don’t get paid to do it,” Lewis said. “We have a closeness because of the history of working together. I’ve seen him become a man. I was so grateful he survived the actual accident. Now that he’s doing well, I’m doing this for him. I’m all about being a part of this story.”
This story needs a rewrite after a promising football career stalled well before the accident.
In May, Les Snead got a message from his wife that included a link of Pead running. It made the Rams' general manager tear up a bit.
He sent Pead a text to let him know he was proud. He saw Pead struggle to crack the lineup for two years, then tear up his knee before a potential breakout season in 2014. But that didn’t matter anymore.
“This isn’t a player with a rating on Madden. This is a human being,” Snead said. “He’ll always be a part of my life. What he’s doing now is inspiring.”
Pead is proud of a football career that earned him a second-round draft selection, but he admits life on the thin NFL margins is a painful one.
After the Rams released him in September 2015, Pead spent short stints with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins while bouncing from various Airbnb spots. He tried to sign with the Kansas City Chiefs days before the accident but missed his flight for a follow-up visit because he was leaving the hospital where Deuce was born. The Chiefs rescheduled for Cincinnati’s airport and he didn’t make the two-hour drive in time.
The Chiefs said they would call back, but Pead knew it was over.
“I still hadn’t proved myself to be the player I knew I could be,” Pead said.
In St. Louis, Pead had played two seasons behind Steven Jackson and Benny Cunningham while struggling with typical youthful pitfalls such as pass protection and preparation, Snead recalls. Pead said he butted heads with then-coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and regrets not asking coaches why he was on the bench, admitting pride got in his own way. He internalized, then got in premier shape for an expanded role in 2014 before the knee buckled on a kickoff return in an Aug. 16 preseason game against the Green Bay Packers.
The special teams play was called "bounce left," with Pead selling the inside and needing one more cut to get loose. He heard the knee snap on that cut.
That career stat line of 27 carries for 100 yards and no touchdowns feels incomplete.
“I definitely miss the game. Ain’t no way around it,” said Pead, who had 4,009 scrimmage yards and 33 touchdowns at Cincinnati. “Some of the best moments of my life were on the field.”
Bowman believed 2017 would have been Pead’s “breakout year” if he found the right situation.
But Pead learned early in his recovery to bury all past expectations and replace regret with optimism. His mother taught him that.
“It’s the plan God has for you,” LeShawna said of the accident. “It doesn’t change what is destined.”
Football isn’t done with Pead, who could see himself coaching or running a player development program in the NFL.
Snead said he’d like to invite Pead to a Rams game soon. Pead would take that call.
“There may have been some dislike at the time, but the Rams gave me the keys to my dream,” Pead said. “I’d be open to anything they have to offer.”
Pead knows he will go restless if he plays out all the scenarios of the last two years in his mind. He equates most things to football: Like hitting that divot in the road compared to Russell Wilson’s off-target throw at the goal line to lose Super Bowl 49. In both cases, he explains, a few inches to the left or right and trouble is avoided.
What if he made that flight to Kansas City, he has wondered?
“I’m a firm believer in not dwelling on things, living in regret, but I’m human,” Pead said. “I think about it sometimes. I think about Deuce not having a dad.”
Pead doesn’t live in this space for long. He chooses to hug his son a little tighter or plan that next trip to IKEA with Ruby. The couple is renovating a four-bedroom home sitting on 1.4 acres in the suburb of Reynoldsburg, Ohio.
The "Momma’s Boy" tattoo on his right bicep reminds him of his mom’s constant care, raising him as a single mother and, now, helping him manage medical insurance red tape. Pead has NFL disability but sees the phrase "explanation of benefits" more often than he’d like. “I’ve got three piles (of paperwork),” Leshawna said.
And he’s thankful for his father, DeJuan Taylor, who was in the car that frightful night but got out to connect with other friends early in the evening. Pead was a teenager when his father re-emerged in his life.
The outpouring of support from those following his training progress on social media keep him running.
“It’s humbling. It’s inspirational to keep doing whatever I want to do,” Pead said. “I want to do this, compete at the highest level. The fact of the matter is I came from wanting to do something else that I did, but now this is who I am.”
Pead embraces being disabled, though he searches for a normal life. The constant staring in fitness centers makes him want to open his own gym for athletes with disabilities. Going to the doctor reminds him of what he can’t do.
That’s why he hits the track in the late afternoon, leaving time for a night-time spin in the T-Rex, unafraid to turn at high speeds.
“Get out and ride, man,” Pead said.