From the start, Jamey Chadwell knew he liked the kid. It was just hard to keep him on the field — and for a very strange reason.

When Isaiah Likely landed at Coastal Carolina as a freshman, even the coaches who recruited him were surprised. He was faster than they thought he was. He had strong hands, which allowed him to pull down contested catches. He had the best leaping ability on the team (though, former head coach Chadwell notes, somehow Likely never won the football team’s dunk contests).

But those leaping grabs, that’s when Likely got into trouble. He would soar above the coverage, pull the ball in with his iron grip ... then tumble from the sky in the worst possible ways.

“It was like he didn’t know how to land,” Chadwell said. “He’d fall on his shoulder or fall on his neck and hurt himself. I thought, ‘He’s not gonna make it even though he makes these unbelievable plays because he gets hurt all the time.’”

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Now the football coach at Liberty, Chadwell was watching on TV last weekend when Likely leapt, reached over 6-foot Derek Stingley Jr. and glided down on his feet, softly as a cat.

Also tuned in was Likely’s former quarterback Grayson McCall. So was one of his Everett High School coaches, Chris Miller, and his high school athletic director, Tammy Turner — and a seemingly endless fount of supporters from his past who have been waiting for the world to see how brilliant Likely can be.

When I reached a receptionist at Everett and said I was reporting a story on Likely, who graduated nearly six years ago, she responded with an appreciative sigh.

“He is so loved here,” said Turner, calling from Everett recently. “You just couldn’t get mad at him.”

It might seem uncanny that Likely’s path is intertwined with team success, from his senior year title, to historic seasons for the Chanticleers, to now playing (and perhaps starting) in the AFC championship game with the Ravens on Sunday. But it isn’t coincidence. Those who’ve known Likely have learned, sooner or later, he always finds his footing — and when he does, his teams just seem to win.

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Was he overlooked at times? Sure, Likely told me recently. But the path he took, in his eyes, was the one that led him to the cusp of a Super Bowl.

“I’ll never try to look at why — everything happens for a reason,” he said. “God had me at the end of the day and put me in the best position to showcase my talent.”

Here’s the pattern that has emerged.

1. Get overlooked

Isaiah Likely makes a catch for the Everett Crimson Tide against Xaverian Brothers in a 2017 football game. Likely was among a handful of Everett alums to earn a football scholarship, and last year ran a youth football camp at his alma mater.
Isaiah Likely makes a catch for the Everett Crimson Tide against Xaverian Brothers in a 2017 football game. Likely was among a handful of Everett alums to earn a football scholarship, and last year ran a youth football camp at his alma mater. (Courtesy of Everett Public Schools Athletics)

You could say Likely’s believers saw his football future before he did. Originally, he thought he would be a star in a different sport.

Likely was a key piece of a storied basketball program at Everett, his senior year playing under legendary Massachusetts prep coach John DiBiaso. At 6-foot-4, you’d think he’d be a center. But, as a senior, he was the Crimson Tide’s point forward.

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“He was like LeBron James out there,” Miller said. “If anyone gave him space at all, he was like a freight train coming down. If he had any kind of shot, he would have had a future there.”

Aside from a questionable jumper, Likely realized – after hitting a 4-inch growth spurt right before his senior year – that he was more likely to hit the big time playing football. “It’s a lot easier making it to the NFL than the NBA, so just taking it from that aspect, just locking into I could really just do this football thing for a long time.”

Likely’s best gifts have always been obvious to those who have watched him play. Long before he made a splash in Ravens camp with one-handed catches, that was a frequent occurrence at Everett High practices. Considering his basketball roots, it’s no surprise that Likely has always been able to outleap the competition for catches.

“And then he’d land like a sack of potatoes,” Miller deadpanned. “But he always brought the ball down with him, too.”

Miller knew that, in a tight spot, his team looked to Likely as “the bailout guy.” In the run-up to the second of Everett’s back-to-back championships, the Crimson Tide faced St. John’s Prep, one of the Catholic League powerhouses at the time. Likely scored two touchdowns to lead the team to a 49-14 win during an undefeated season.

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In school, he was a constant presence around the gym and P.E. program. Besides being a football and basketball star, Likely was frequently in the crowds for other sports, especially the girls basketball program. Most who know him say his personality is lovably goofy — something they see to this day with his end zone dances.

“He brought that Everett edge with him,” Turner said. “When he does those little shimmies, you can tell he’s doing it with fun. He loves being a part of a team.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that such a successful program has spawned plenty of talent. Likely’s friends and contemporaries include Minnesota Vikings safety Lewis Cine and Michigan Wolverines standouts Mike Sainristil and Josaiah Stewart — all of whom won NCAA championships in undefeated seasons. Winning seems to stick to Everett alums.

Likely never reached the lofty recruiting ratings his teammates did. But that didn’t stop him from making some history.

2. Start overachieving

Those ratings — that was something McCall used to wonder about. When McCall saw Likely’s grab against Houston last week, his first thought was, “That’s a routine play for Isaiah.”

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He’s seen Likely make one-handed grabs, make catches in double and triple coverage. Against Arkansas State, Likely made a 99-yard touchdown reception, outrunning a much smaller defensive back down the field even though he’s not exactly known for his speed. That was a prelude to a 232-yard, four-TD performance, one of the greatest in Coastal Carolina history.

Likely’s performances were not in the shadow of anonymity, either. After moving into FBS football in 2017, by 2020, the Chanticleers reeled off an 11-1 season, topping out at No. 9 in the Associated Press poll. In Likely’s junior and senior campaigns, when he was first-team all-conference, Coastal Carolina went a combined 22-3 and hosted “College GameDay” — an epic come-up for a program that had never been much of a football powerhouse.

“When you go back and look, you wonder. Why didn’t more schools offer him scholarships?” McCall said. “How did so many people not see his potential? He was a steal for us — an absolute mismatch.”

The gifts that were obvious — the hands, the leaping ability — were complemented by gifts that were not on the surface.

Likely had played receiver in high school, so he was a good route runner. He understood leverage and releases, and emulated players he saw in the NFL such as Travis Kelce and George Kittle. During games, if a drive went awry, Likely would be on the sideline asking his quarterbacks how he could run better routes.

“There wasn’t a learning curve,” Chadwell said. “Most people are talented but they don’t know the game, so it takes longer to get them there. Isaiah picked it up right away.”

McCall was a redshirt freshman in 2020 but learned quickly what Everett had known — Likely was a bailout guy, the outlet when you had no other plan but to throw it to the best target. Likely had a knack for making a big play. His 20.03 yards per catch led the conference that year.

Off the field, Likely was easy to, well, like. He was a jokester, someone who made the locker room air a little easier to breathe. But he also pushed people and wasn’t afraid to challenge the underclassmen — even the one throwing the ball to him.

“He pushed me to be better,” McCall said. “His energy is very contagious and travels well. He was always really positive. If I had a bad ball or an interception, he’d tell me to pick my head up.”

Losses those last two seasons were few and far between. But, as a senior when the team dropped a midseason game to Appalachian State on national TV, ending its hopes of a perfect record, Likely stood out with his voice. After the team spent a few days moping, he told the players it was time to move forward — the Chanticleers would finish 11-2.

“There’s a confidence that he has that he believes he will be able to help a team be the best version of themselves,” Chadwell said. “There was a frustration with him when we weren’t winning and building the program. ‘We can do more’ — that was his mindset — ‘this will happen, and I want to be a part of it.’

Chadwell believed Likely’s confidence came up in interviews and probably drew the attention of the Ravens, who selected him 139th overall in the fourth round of the 2022 draft. He knew it would be tough for Likely to surpass Mark Andrews on the depth chart in Baltimore, but he knew patience would be wise.

“I said, if Isaiah ever gets his shot to do his thing, he’s gonna blow them away,” Chadwell recalled. “The Ravens aren’t gonna know what they got.”

3. Win a lot of games

Baltimore Ravens tight end Isaiah Likely (80) extends his arms to score a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, December 31, 2023. The Ravens won, 56-19, to secure the best record in the AFC.
Baltimore Ravens tight end Isaiah Likely (80) extends his arms to score a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, December 31, 2023. The Ravens won, 56-19, to secure the best record in the AFC. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

As Baltimore braces to find out if Andrews will be healthy to play Sunday, everyone knows it would be a luxury to have one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the NFL. But the stakes seem considerably lower than they did in Week 11, when he was injured against Cincinnati.

Likely has filled in more than capably. Since becoming a starter in Week 12, he’s had 21 catches on 28 targets, 322 yards and five touchdowns. He’s second among tight end in yards per catch (15.3) in that span and first in expected points added (0.86).

But it’s not just the stats — it’s the style. Likely was on the receiving end of one of the most memorable plays of the season, as Lamar Jackson squirted out from a sack in Jacksonville and hit the tight end downfield in double coverage. Likely also made a one-handed touchdown grab against Miami, beating his man in coverage, then turning a corner and running down the sideline for a 36-yard score.

Jackson is famous for his trust in Andrews, to whom he’s thrown more passes than anyone else in his career by far. But the rapport with Likely has been easy to build, too. He started believing in Likely last season, when he would win one-on-ones against safety Kyle Hamilton.

“Iron sharpens iron, and I’ve been seeing [Likely] competing, going back and forth,” Jackson said. “He’ll win one, then [Kyle will] win one. … And I’m like, “We’ve got a dog in Likely,’ and it’s showing up on film, and it’s showing up on game day.”

Even though Andrews may return Sunday, teammates see great things in store for Likely. Hamilton said, “He has only scratched the surface of what he can be in this league.” Odell Beckham Jr., citing his own prowess as a talent evaluator, called Likely “special,” noting his many tools. “He’s got hands; he can run routes; he’s smart.”

Does Likely have deceptive speed, as other coaches have said?

“Nah, man,” Beckham said with a grin. “He’s slow.”

But amid the jokes is real admiration for what Likely has done, helping the Ravens withstand the absence of one of their most important playmakers. Likely is only one of many reasons Baltimore has lost only a game (when most starters were resting) since Andrews got hurt, but he certainly has been a reason.

He may have been overlooked in the past, but now Likely can see firsthand how his fan base has grown. Last May, he hosted a youth football camp at Everett High with friends — all of whom hope one day to be as established in the NFL as he is — and tried to help the next generation of Crimson Tide success stories.

Through those children, Likely said, he can see just how high he’s climbed. He’s offering a hand to help them take a leap, too.

“Seeing them kids back home look up to me like a superhero, that’s definitely the aspect you wanna leave [behind],” he said. “Because you’re not gonna be in the NFL forever. So the impact you leave on the field is for them to see it, to let them believe in themselves.”