HELENA -- Isaiah Cech is done laying the wood to ball carriers.
Instead, he’s now coaching Carroll’s young players on how to do the same.
The former Helena High Bengal and Carroll College Saints linebacker moved over to become a student defensive assistant on Mike Van Diest’s staff this season. What he originally thought would be a position helping out at practice has become a role traveling with the team and coaching portions of the defense when Van Diest works with other units.
“I love this opportunity,” Cech said, seeing his role as a way to jump-start a coaching career. “It’s been awesome. When I’m out of Carroll and hopefully teaching somewhere in Montana, I definitely want to be a coach wherever I end up. I can’t thank Van Diest enough for the opportunity he’s given me so far.”
Cech, a junior, was not always on a path to become a coach. In fact, after a career at Helena High that included three letters, two first team All-Conference selections, one first team All-State and the 2014 IR Defensive Player of the Year, Cech came to the Saints as a fairly established linebacker. He planned to get a degree in secondary education, and continue popping players on defense.
He also came to Carroll with a history of concussions.
Cech remembers getting his first in high school. It started a dialogue with his family and doctors on how to proceed and treat the symptoms. Cech followed studies on concussions and CTE, and knew risking brain damage would not be worth it long term.
“You always have to stay informed on that kind of stuff,” Cech said. “Especially now. It’s even scarier than what we knew five to 10 years ago.”
Cech said when he got his “last one in high school,” he and his family laid out an ultimatum: One more concussion, and he would have to give up football.
“You only get one brain,” Cech said.
After a concussion last season, his sophomore year at Carroll, Cech retired from the sport. Cech talked to his parents, doctor and coaching staff, all of whom supported and understood his decision.
Van Diest forged an opportunity to climb out of the sullen news. The coach wanted to keep Cech near the team and maintain a relationship with his teammates. Cech would become a defensive assistant and really emphasize the basics of Carroll’s defense to underclassmen.
“He offered to keep me around and help out at practice,” Cech said. “It kind of turned into a pretty big honor.”
Van Diest has looked for guys who aren’t far removed from football to join his staff in the past. In one instance, he’s seen player assistants rise from limited responsibilities to taking over the reins for the secondary during his tenure at Carroll. Mike McMahon came to Carroll after knee injuries plagued him at Capital High School. He worked his way up coaching the secondary, and eventually went on to become a secondary coach and then defensive coordinator at the University of Mary.
Van Diest said each week Cech adds a little more to his plate, and he hopes he will come back for another season next year.
“That’s up to him,” Van Diest said. “I’d love to have him back. I’d like to turn some things over to him.”
Cech said it was weird at first to be coaching teammates, some the same age or older. But he said his role right now isn’t to coach those upperclassmen, as much as it is to communicate with them and act as a liaison. The players understand where Cech is coming from, and most understand his concussion history and can empathize.
“It’s hard when some of them are older them you,” Van Diest said. “He does a great job. He’s great on game day. He’s got a good calmness about him. He really knows the linebacker position. He was well-coached by Scott Evans at Helena High. He’s well versed.”
A game day for Cech means he’s on a headset, usually relaying information to coach Alex Kastens. Cech said he probes players for what they’re saying on the field, and then talks personnel and formations with Kastens. Communication is a huge part of the job, and it’s one he enjoys.
For now, Cech will continue to emphasize concepts to younger players, echoing Van Diest’s words. He’s only a few years removed from his freshman year, and he knows the overwhelming feeling that can come with it.
And the change in roles doesn't mean offenses should stop worrying about Cech. He's still very much a threat to their plans.
He’s simply gone from laying the wood to laying the word.