BOZEMAN — Isaiah Ifanse’s football career began where everything else does with him — a conversation with his mother.
“My first year playing football she was signing up my (older) brother and (he) asked her if she should sign me up,” Ifanse recalled. “And she said, ‘No, I don’t think he’d like it.’ When they got back home and told me about it I told her I wanted to play, so the next day we went back and she got me signed up to play football.”
A decade later, Ifanse – then an undersized but enthusiastic youth player and now a star running back at Montana State – is still barreling through defenses. And his mother, Jennifer Ifanse, is still there offering all the support she can. “She always wanted to be at as many games for all of us as she could.”
Bobcats head coach Jeff Choate recruited Ifanse out of Bellevue (Washington) High School in the Seattle area, long a successful hunting ground for Big Sky rivals. He has seen the source of Ifanse’s strength since the beginning.
“I would say it’s clear that a lot of his drive and toughness comes from his mom,” Choate said. “She is a fighter and an inspiration for him.”
She is also the last voice from outside the MSU program that he hears before Bobcat games. '
“After the pregame meal we have a little break to do whatever, so I usually talk to her for 10 or 15 minutes, talk about the game, things like that, positive (messages), and no matter what she’s proud of how far I’ve made it," Ifanse said. "She says no matter whether we win or lose to stay the same.”
The road has not been always been easy for Jennifer Ifanse. She married as a teenager in her native Nigeria and moved with her husband and first three children to southern California before Isaiah was born. Her marriage ended not long after that, and while raising her young family attended Cerritos College and San Diego State University.
After graduating she moved her four children under the age of 9 to Northwest because “she heard good things about (the area), especially when it came to raising younger kids.”
Jennifer Ifanse’s strength and perseverance was not lost on her youngest son.
“I think that she’s one of the strongest people that I know,” he said. “She’s been through a lot. When we were younger she used to work three jobs while going to school to provide for the three of my siblings and me.”
Over the course of a decade or so, Jennifer Ifanse had moved from Nigeria to southern California to the Seattle area while raising four young children and begun her career as a nurse. But Isaiah said that upon settling in Bellevue his mother “wanted to switch up her career path, so she’s been working at the men’s maximum security facility (in Monroe, Washington) for 10 years, going on 11.”
All the while, Isaiah said, she has driven home the same values to her four children: “Respect your elders and always be nice to everyone, try never to have an attitude with people, and try to help everyone you can.”
Bobcat running backs coach Jimmy Beal, in his first spring on the job, said Jennifer’s value system shines through her youngest son every day.
“It’s been a pleasure to start building a relationship with Isaiah and his family,” Beal said. “You can really see that his mother means a lot to him and his family and he is doing everything in his power to make her proud.”
While Isaiah Ifanse has never visited Nigeria, Jennifer keeps him and his siblings rooted in the culture.
“We always had family friends (from Nigeria) that my mom knew when we were growing up, so we were always based in the culture. And we have family (in Africa) that we talk to every week.”
Jennifer competed in track and soccer growing up, and his brothers both chose basketball as their athletic paths. Isaiah found a home on the football field.
He was Washington’s Gatorade Player of the Year at Bellevue, rushing for nearly 2,500 yards. At Montana State in the fall of 2018 he became the first freshman in school history to rush for over 1,000 yards.
While Ifanse made the transition to college football look easy on the field, that wasn’t necessarily the case. “It was a big adjustment,” he said. “I’m normally really quiet, so getting acclimated to everything and also living on my own kind of took a toll on me. But my mom helped out a lot with that and made it way better. The first thing that she did was telling me never, ever to lose my confidence, never give up. I feel like I wasn’t a very confident player coming in because of the speed and everything, but she helped me adjust.”
Battling mid-season injuries as a sophomore, Ifanse was clearly a difference-maker for the MSU offense when healthy. He rushed for 813 yards in 11 games, gaining 114 yards early in the season against nationally ranked Southeast Missouri, gashing the Grizzlies for 171 yards and three touchdowns, and rambling for 196 yards in the quarterfinal win against Austin Peay to boost MSU to the FCS semifinals for the first time since 1984.
Through it all, Jennifer Ifanse has been there for Isaiah, in spirit but also physically.
“She bundles up,” Ifanse says of his mother’s attendance during some of the colder games in Bobcat Stadium. She’s missed only a couple of 2018 road games and the contests last fall when Isaiah was injured.
“I talked her out of (driving over) because I wasn’t playing and because the weather looked bad,” he says.
Jennifer Ifanse has also extended her support to Isaiah’s teammates.
“Last year she met Travis (Jonsen) at a game, so she was always like, ‘Are you going to bring him back,’ ‘Are you going to bring him back?’ So the summer before the season I said, ‘Hey Trav, you want to come with me to Bellevue?’ And ever since then she’s been asking who I’m going to bring back next.”
Ifanse’s devotion to his mother is visible to everyone in the Bobcat program – “His mom is everything to him,” says Cole Moore, assistant athletic director for football operations – and her words shine through every time he carries the football.
“She always emphasized working hard, especially if you have a goal, never giving up, and being confident in yourself,” Ifanse said.