PHOENIX – They still marvel at the move, the one where Isaiah Oliver seemingly launched himself into the universe and everyone wondered when he’d come down. That was 10 years ago, when Oliver was a dual-athletic threat at Brophy Prep, wowing everyone on the gridiron and the track.
“Isaiah went up one-handed; it was like that cartoon go-go gadget. His arm just extended probably 12 feet in the air, then (he) sprinted untouched for the touchdown,” said former Brophy Prep football coach Scooter Molander, fondly reminiscing about one of Oliver’s acrobatic feats in high school.
Nearly a decade removed from his time with Brophy, Oliver, now a cornerback on the San Francisco 49ers, will get a chance to shine on the biggest stage in sports Sunday when the 49ers meet the Kansas City Chiefs in Las Vegas for the Super Bowl.
Oliver, a native Phoenician who hails from a family of prominent athletes, attended the University of Colorado after Brophy, playing for the Buffaloes through his junior year before declaring for the 2018 NFL Draft. Atlanta took him with the 58th pick in the second round, and after a couple of setbacks and injury-filled seasons with the Falcons, Oliver has found his footing with the 49ers.
“It really just takes hard work,” Oliver said, describing the mentality that has helped him persevere and survive in the NFL, to the point where, in his sixth year, he is expected to start at corner for the 49ers Sunday as they attempt to shut down Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
People who coached and watched Oliver during his formative years at Brophy aren’t surprised by his determination and drive. Oliver’s speed made him a threat on both sides of the football, where he played wide receiver and cornerback. In Oliver’s senior year, he racked up 1,352 receiving yards and scored 12 touchdowns, and on defense he accumulated 60 tackles and seven interceptions.
“He never left the field … his senior year, he set records that have not been broken and probably won’t be broken in a long time, but the impact that he made was incredible,” said Molander when talking about Oliver’s impact as a two-way player.
Oliver accomplished a lot while at Brophy on the track as well, running Arizona’s best 400-meter dash time with a 47.13 in 2015. Oliver also holds the Arizona record in other events like the 4 x 400-meter relay from 2013, where he, Robert Grant, Devon Allen, and Jack Rubenzer ran a 3:16.84 time.
“He was fluid; he was one of those guys who ran with a longer stride,” Brophy track coach Bill Kalkman said of Oliver. “Track and field helped him a lot, changed the focus. Watching him as a coach, as an athlete … he improved quite a bit.”
With Oliver’s success at Brophy Prep, he was listed as the 19th-best football prospect in Arizona, which led him to attend Colorado, where he would continue to run track and play football.
Oliver saw limited playing time his first two years in Boulder, but in his junior year, he played 627 snaps and recorded 27 tackles, 22 of which were solo. He also had two interceptions and led the team in deflections that year with 13.
Oliver’s time with the Falcons proved to be another study in tenacity. He stayed in Atlanta for five seasons and entered 2021 as the Falcons’ starting cornerback, but a knee injury he suffered in Week 4 ended up sidelining him for parts of the 2021 and 2022 seasons.
Despite suffering a knee injury, Oliver was able to come back and continue to chase his dreams in the NFL.
“It takes a long time to come back from an ACL,” Oliver said. “I kind of knew that going into it but just really just working on it every day and not giving up when things got hard.”
He became a free agent after the 2022 season and signed with the 49ers on a two-year, $6.75 million contract. In his first year with the 49ers, Oliver has recorded 48 solo tackles, two pass deflections and an interception.
Oliver’s story is very much his own, but his family plays a significant role when it comes to chasing his dreams and making it to the big game. Family members like his siblings and his father, Muhammad Oliver, who also played football and ran track. Selected by the Denver Broncos in the ninth round of the 1992 draft, Muhammad played in the NFL for five seasons and found himself on a different team each season. Damon Mays, Isaiah’s uncle who starred in basketball at Central High School in Phoenix, also played in the NFL for four seasons.
Muhammad wore the number 26 twice in his career, with Washington and with the Chiefs. While Isaiah didn’t get to wear that number his rookie season, he wore it later with the Falcons and will wear it when he takes the Allegiant Stadium field Sunday in Las Vegas.
“Twenty-six is our family number,” Muhammad said. “So when I was finally able to get 26 in my NFL career, I loved that number. Then I played Arena Football with the (Arizona) Rattlers, and I was number 26. Isaiah has younger brothers and younger sisters, and they wear number 26 as well … so whenever they play flag or tackle football, you’ll see Oliver 26. That’s our thing.”
The number on his back and the tradition it signifies is important to Oliver.
“It means a lot,” Oliver said. “I’ve always been 26 just my whole life and then him (his father) wearing that as well, my little brothers wear it, my little sister wears it when she plays football and it kinda just means more than what a lot of people know. It’s not just a number to me.”
It’s a number that will be prominent Sunday on the biggest stage in sports. Through hard work and perseverance, Oliver’s dreams have taken him from the Brophy fields to the bright lights of Vegas. If all goes right for him and the 49ers in the Super Bowl, he’ll continue to make jaws drop.