Diamond Life

Talent may get you so far, but you need tenacity to go all the way. Just ask Isaac Keys. The former NFL player has been creating a buzz with his portrayal of ex-con Diamond Sampson in the gritty new Starz series Power Book IV: Force, but his Hollywood rise hasn’t been overnight.

“I’ve been out here 14 years,” he says. “It’s a process. And I would tell anyone out there, you may not always enjoy the process, but you’ve got to go through it. And you’ve got to try to find your moments in the process where there is enjoyment in it. Life’s a journey, so you’ve got to make the best out of it.”

Even his six years in pro football—curtailed by injury—reinforces his message of making the most of what’s in front of you. Because the game in which he made his name actually wasn’t his first love as a kid. That was baseball, where he showed a lot of promise before others’ expectations burned him out.

“Football was kind of my escape,” he says. “It was an outlet: If I’m having a bad day, I’m going to hit you harder. It was a place of therapy for me… I wasn’t the best athlete, but that just made me want to work harder. I continued to develop that work ethic because I knew I had to be twice as good as any of the other people.”

In addition to determination, you also need adaptability: going into the NFL, Keys switched from defensive end to linebacker. “It was a huge learning curve for me,” he admits. “They threw me in the fire quickly and I didn’t really know what I was doing. But over time I was able to develop, and I appreciate them giving me some time to be able to do that.”

His can-do and will-do attitude earned Keys spells with the Minnesota Vikings, the Arizona Cardinals and the Green Bay Packers, plus the Edmonton Eskimos in the Canadian Football League. Initially, Keys didn’t know what to do when his football career came to an end at age 30. “I didn’t leave football; football left me,” he says. “I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do with my life.”

Paying his dues
Professional athletes live with the awareness that getting hurt could bring their career to an end at any moment, but that offers a life lesson, he says. You need to come to a place where you accept, “If I get hurt, I get hurt.” He explains, “You’re going to have challenges, but it’s how do you deal with them? Do you have the tools to be able to deal with them, the support group, whatever it may be, and the mental capacity to be like, ‘Oh, I’m hurt, but I’ll be back,’ or ‘I’m just coming back in a different way’?”

Having enjoyed his time in front of the cameras while a player, realizing he was comfortable there, he decided to pursue acting. He got an agent, took lessons and went to auditions while working in a group home and as a security guard “just to sustain and fund the dream.” It wasn’t easy—he spent time on a cousin’s couch—but he hung in there because “I was filled with passion and I loved the creativity of it, finding the authenticity of the character and telling the story.” Determination opened the door for some opportunities—credits for parts in shows like Criminal Minds, The Rookie and Get Shorty—that paved the way for Power Book IV: Force. Keys plays alongside lead Joseph Sikora, who starred in the original Power series, one of cable’s most-watched shows.

Keys draws on all his experiences—from growing up in St. Louis (“which gave me a great experience of diversity and well-roundedness”) through studying at famed Morehouse College and making the NFL—in his roles. “As I’m playing Diamond, I’m pulling things from my life or from people that I’ve met or from places I’ve been and applying them to how he is as a person, which I feel helps make him more authentic.”

Knowing what he does now, what advice would he give his 20-year-old self? “Continue to learn who he is as a person and not to have to feel like he has to be someone he is not.” Also, learn to be patient and understand that “the process is there for you to learn and to grow. And I would tell him, ‘Keep going, kid, keep going for what you want. Whatever you want, you can obtain. And if you don’t attain what you want, it is going to lead you to something else that you deserve.’”

Finding his way
Keys remembers his student days at Morehouse with great appreciation. The school “gave me a sense of pride in being a Black man,” he says. He enjoyed being around people who challenged him to better himself. “Seeing people from all across the world going to this one school all trying to become better and develop a career path,” he recalls. “That gave me a sense of community and family, and I think that’s important. That’s why I give a lot of praise to HBCUs.”

Candidly, he admits that the lasting lessons are more about world wisdom than classroom smarts. “As we get older, the books don’t stay with you,” he says. What stuck with him was what he learned about “how to network, how to make something out of nothing.”

He tells of needing help to get registered for some classes but not wanting to wait in the line of other students that wrapped itself all the way around the building. “So, I learned how to network.” Noticing that the woman at the front of the registrar’s office drank Diet Coke, he went and got a can. “I came in and I said, ‘Excuse me, how are you doing? My name is Isaac, but I just wanted to give you this because I see that you drank it.’”

When she smiled and asked him what he needed, Keys told her he was having some problems with his registration. “And she’s like, ‘Go and sit over there.’ And once I sat over there, I became friends with everybody in that office. Now they’re all my Morehouse moms; from that first day, all the way through graduation, they’d been by my side and even now they’re still my Morehouse moms.

“So that was part of the networking and building relationships that I felt was very important outside of the books, you know, making something out of nothing. A lot of times you don’t have the things that you necessarily need, but you’ve got to find a way to get that class done, you know?”

There were others at Morehouse that made an impression, including a professor, Coach Wilson. When he was struggling in one of his classes, Keys’ friends told him to go and talk with Coach Wilson who might change his grade. But when he got there, the professor asked how changing Keys’ grade for the better would “transform the rest of your life.”

“I’m sitting there speechless,” Keys recalls. “I had no rebuttal whatsoever. From that point on, it made me work harder. It made me want to do better, and it made me take responsibility for everything I do. And he’s still in my life as well.”

From an interview with Louis Carr