Readings about leadership contain a continuous thread of debate about whether individuals are born with leadership traits or whether they develop them. There’s an analogous debate with athletes, isn’t there? Whether people are born with athletic ability or can become great athletes through work, experience and practice. Many believe it’s a combination, that to be a good leader and a good athlete you need to have the natural ability, but also must put in the work and the practice.
Fergus Falls football and basketball player Isaiah Lemke exemplifies both components of a good athlete and a good leader. He has natural leadership and athletic abilities and he has put in the preparation, hard work, practice and study to be a leader and highly accomplished in both his sports. He was the quarterback for a successful football team (7-2 record) this last fall, and the point guard for his highly-ranked basketball team this season (21-4 at the time of this writing).
Experienced coaches can spot natural athletic ability right away. Leadership qualities become more evident over time, but coaches can spot that in certain individuals also. Assistant basketball coach Derek Abrahams recalls coaching Isaiah in 7th grade, “I immediately saw someone that had natural instincts you can’t really coach. We knew right away Isaiah had point guard intangibles such as leadership, instinctive actions and reactions, helping his fellow players with advice and getting them into the right spots. He would mold his game to the needs of the team, preferring to distribute the ball to others and make them successful, but scoring and taking charge when he felt the team needed it. He studied and learned from the varsity point guards and picked up on things quickly. He’s a very efficient player.”
Prior to 7th grade, Lemke had lived, and played youth basketball, in Breckenridge where he played various positions. But Coach Abrahams quickly put him in the point guard position, and in 8th grade the coaches moved him up to be the point guard on the 9th grade team. As a freshman, he started the season playing JV, but soon earned more varsity time with his steady and smart play and finished the year as the first player off the bench for the varsity. He became the starting point guard for the Otters his sophomore year and he hasn’t looked back.
Otter basketball coaches Matt Johnson and Derek Abrahams both acknowledge Isaiah’s abilities as a “smart player,” “has the game figured out,” and is “a coach on the floor,” they say.
“He’s not a loud rah-rah guy, but he communicates a lot with his fellow players on the floor, in the huddle and on the bench and he’s so well respected that when he talks, the other players pay attention,” says Coach Abrahams.
Coach Johnson states, “Isaiah’s a very cerebral player; he sees the game unfolding and what needs to be done. His natural tendency is to distribute the ball to make his fellow players successful, but he will put the team on his back and score or do whatever he has to do to win a ball game. We coaches and the players have a great deal of respect for him.”
Johnson adds, “When I first came here, I talked with Activities Director Gary Schuler about the team and about Isaiah and he used the old-school term of ‘he’s a gamer’ which is hard to put in words, but means basically he’s got the skills, he’s got the knowledge of the game, and he’s got that intangible thing of hating to lose that makes him give everything he has to win.”
When asked about Lemke, the first words the Otter football coach Steve Olson had to say were exactly, “He’s a gamer.” Coach Olson went on to explain, “He’s intelligent, he sees things quickly as they develop, and like a coach he can spot weaknesses in the other team’s defense. Because of that we gave him the freedom to pull the ball away from a called play and keep it based on his own read.” Olson continued, “Many of his running touchdowns this past season were from an instant decision to change the play based on his own read and keep the ball, exploiting an opening in the defense. He had numerous passing and running touchdowns (he ran for 8 and passed for 16 TD’s) that were run-pass options where he made a decision on the field about what to do. Conversely, we could count on one hand the times all year he may have made the wrong read.”
Coach Olson went on to note that Lemke was an excellent team captain, is a natural leader, and that teammates respected him. “He’s more athletic than you would first observe and deceptively quick when he sees the hole to run through,” stated Olson. “Great credit goes to him for his preseason preparation in the weight room and for his pre-game preparation during the season.”
First impressions when meeting Isaiah are that he is an unassuming guy. He appears pretty reserved, answers in a quiet voice, makes no big deal out of his accomplishments, and doesn’t know or remember any of his basketball or football stats regarding points, assists, touchdown runs or passes. Even though he plays the high profile positions of quarterback and point guard, where the ball is constantly in his hands, Lemke simply says, ”I’m not real comfortable being the center of attention but on the other hand, I feel comfortable being in the team leadership position and really like that challenge. I’m just doing what I can to lead our team to victory.” It’s apparent watching his games and from the coach’s comments that he embraces the challenge of figuring out what the other team is doing and coming up with winning solutions. Sounds like the definition of a leader.
Isaiah came up the ranks in the usual way, playing youth basketball and youth football since third grade. His father, Matt Lemke, a former Otter basketball star in the early 90’s, helped coach him in both sports along the way. “From about 5 years old I could tell Isaiah was athletic,” explains the elder Lemke. “He actually liked T-ball and baseball early on and it was quite evident he didn’t like to lose.” Isaiah would constantly challenge his dad to one-on-one basketball games and his dad says, “I didn’t let him win, I wanted him to embrace the challenge and he really did that, again hating to lose.” He continues, “By 7th grade, Isaiah was starting to win those one-on-ones and I was proud of how he would never give up, got better, and met the challenge.” Since that time there have been many football and basketball contests where Isaiah’s parents have proudly sat on the sidelines as he has taken on challenge after challenge on the field or court.
“I feel I’ve put in the practice time, weight room time, and preparation time that I don’t mind the pressure at either quarterback or point guard,” states Isaiah. “I enjoy the decision making, have confidence in myself and my teammates, and I expect the best outcome.” With both the football team and basketball team, Lemke says, “The team chemistry has been great, it’s fun playing with your friends who are dedicated to doing their best.” He likes the current motto for the basketball team, “All In”, and as a captain, he works each day to ensure he and all his teammates live by that motto.
Lemke was happy with the run-pass option offense that gave him the opportunity to use his creativity and decision making on the football field, and especially enjoyed the freedom to call a fade route pass to wide receiver Tosten Mann, one of his best friends, whenever they saw a defensive weakness. The two of them hooked up for a team high 11 pass combinations for touchdowns this past season. In basketball, the team plays a wide open full court defense and motion offense that also fits Lemke’s decision making abilities. “I like distributing the ball, keeping everyone involved, and like the pressure of finding the right opportunity at the right time for a successful score for the team.” Lemke credits both the football and basketball coaching staffs, “They are passionate about what they do and want the players and the program to be better.”
He’s spent his spring and summer months in the weight room, noting “Coach Ratz is the best at getting us strengthened.” Isaiah has also attended some football camps and spends much of his time doing summer basketball two or three days a week, as well as many weekend tournaments. “I think the basketball team was like 26-4 or something this summer, so we were really looking forward to the season this year.” He agrees with the coaches who have stressed that the work you put in during the offseason determines how well you’ll do during the regular season.
Lemke also is strong in the classroom with a 3.3 GP. He enjoys his English and public speaking classes, citing teacher Mindy Christianson as a favorite, saying, “She makes the class fun and we learn a lot at the same time.” He knows he will go to college but hasn’t made a decision yet. He’s had contacts from some area colleges for both football and basketball, including M-State in Fergus Falls, where he would play both football and basketball if he attended. He expects he would want to go into teaching and would really like to be a coach, which sounds quite natural considering that he already thinks like a coach on the field and court.
Isaiah is involved in his church group and Young Life and enjoys all his school activities, including his being the master of ceremonies for the Homecoming show this year. Coach Johnson noted, “I see Isaiah being involved around the school and always with a group of kids and that’s great for the younger kids who look up to him to see. It’s just another example of his unassuming leadership.”
When asked if there was anything that most people wouldn’t know about him, Isaiah had to think for a moment but finally came up with “I like to play sports video games and I’ve never lost to anyone in the Xbox game NCAA 14 Football.”
Sounds like someone who hates to lose … and who loves to be …