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‘Eight Ball’ of Poly High: Nation’s Most Coveted Back

Times Staff Writer

He has burst onto the national scene because of a marvelous ability to run with a football, this fellow named Leonard Russell but known to almost everyone in his rugged neighborhood--since the day after his birth 17 years ago--as Eight Ball.

Eight Ball was practicing for the new season last week on a field at Poly High School. He ran with effortless power and grace against the backdrop of Monroe’s Pit Bar-b-q, which sat across a colorless street and identified itself in red letters.

Beyond the high fence, which keeps outsiders along Martin Luther King Drive from the school grounds, cars, with their radios turned up loud, cruised through the late afternoon. People milled on a corner. A young man, who had been watching the practice, saw them milling there and said, “They’re selling rock (cocaine).”

From inside his face mask, where only the whites of his eyes were visible, Eight Ball saw it too, as he does every day. And he kept practicing.

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“All they do is sell that stuff,” said Eight Ball, who has always resisted this inner-city neighborhood’s shadier temptations. “You look over there and it don’t make sense. You’re glad you’re not in it.”

All Eight Ball has ever been into, really, has been football. And now, pursued by some 70 colleges, his picture is in Sports Illustrated, which calls him the “most coveted high school senior in the country.”

This recognition has come because last season, as a junior, Russell gained 1,399 yards and scored 14 touchdowns to lead Poly to the Big 5 Conference co-championship.

“He has a lot of heart, he refuses to let a guy bring him down,” said Merle Cole, who coaches the Poly running backs. That determination was so great that Millikan High Coach Dave Radford said, “I don’t think anyone is going to tackle him.”

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Eight Ball’s heart is inside a lot of hard body--6 feet 3 and 210 pounds. A hard, swift body--he runs 100 yards in 10.2 seconds.

He is a newcomer only to the nation.

“That’s all you hear in Long Beach, ‘Eight Ball,’ ” Cole said. “Everybody in the community has known about him, he’s no surprise to us. He’s been breaking touchdowns since he was 8 years old.”

That was back when Eight Ball was playing in the Pop Warner leagues and thinking about the day he would play at Poly.

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There were kids from those leagues practicing near the Poly players last week. One of them, Richard Bonds, 11, who came up to Eight Ball’s waist, was proud to accept a hand clasp from him. “He my idol,” said Richard.

Earlier, the Poly co-head coaches, Jerry Jaso and Thomas Whiting, had shown the magazine to Russell in their cramped office, where a fan rattled and photos of former Poly stars in college and pro uniforms hung for inspiration on the walls.

“It’s all right,” Eight Ball had said in his low-key manner.

The magazine photo shows Russell smiling behind a pool table lined with 8-balls at a nearby bowling alley. But normally, his face sits atop a thick neck and wears a serious, almost brooding look that belies his polite personality.

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“He’s a good kid, down to earth,” said Cole. “His mother and father did a great job of raising him.”

“He is less interested in his own personal status than the team’s,” Whiting said. He is very pleasant for us as coaches. He doesn’t ask for special-type things. He works as hard as anybody.”

The recognition does not surprise Russell.

“I think I earned it,” he said. “I work hard. If I keep working hard, I can go to college and someday to the pros.”

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He said those who know him do not treat him any differently now that he has been judged an all-American.

“My friends don’t make a big deal about it because they don’t see me making a big deal about it,” he said. “But they get to brag when they see other players (on other teams). They say, ‘Eight Ball is our running back, how you gonna beat us?.’ ”

Poly’s football tradition is so rich that from an early age neighborhood youngsters aspire to a Jackrabbit (the Poly mascot).

“Our kids look at the guys on the wall who have played here--they’re great role models--and see football as a means to an end,” Jaso said. Of the temptations on King Drive, Jaso said, “They’re too darn busy with football to get involved.”

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Football and his studies--he has pulled himself up to a “B” student--consume Eight Ball.

“It (football) keeps me away from all the bad things,” Russell said. “There’s a lot of trouble a guy can get into. On the street everybody knows me. They say, ‘C’mon, man, let’s do this.’ I can’t be messin’ around. I’ve seen a lot of people go down. I see people who were really good at Poly on the corner now, drinkin’ beer, not doin’ nothin’. And they give all the advice--I get advice from everybody. It’s pretty sad sometimes. It’s good advice, so you wonder how they let themselves go down.”

Russell recognizes the scope of his talent. “I like to suit up on Friday night, go out and keep the crowd excited, give them a little show,” he said with a hint of a smile.

He was so big, man,” Leonard Russell Sr., 43, said, remembering the day when his son was born. “I always knew he’d be a football player because he looked like one when he was born. When he was 6 months old, he was playing catch with a toy football.”

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On the day Leonard Jr. was brought home from the hospital, his father bought him a sweater that had an 8-ball and a cue stick on it. Leonard Sr. liked to play pool. When the baby’s uncle saw the sweater, he immediately called not-so-little Leonard “Eight Ball.”

“It was a long time before he started telling people his name was Leonard,” Leonard Sr. said. “When he was 8 or 9, I said to him, ‘Look, your name is Leonard, you have to sign your papers Leonard, not Eight Ball.’ ”

Leonard Sr. is proud of the way Eight Ball has grown up. “He’s always been quiet, by himself,” he said. “He’d come home, go up and study. He’s never been any trouble, never been in a fight. It’s always been, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ or, ‘No, sir.’ We kept him in church, he spent a lot of time in Sunday school. He didn’t have a lot. He he understood that and made the best of what he had. Now that we got ourselves financially able, we can give him the things he deserves.”

Leonard Sr. is a mechanic for the U.S. Borax Co. in Wilmington. He and his wife are separated, and Eight Ball often stays at his grandmother’s house near Poly.

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“The kid had determination,” Leonard Sr. said. “He was always the biggest of the kids his age. Each year he had to lose weight so that he would be allowed to play Pop Warner. He’d take a plastic bag, make a jersey out of it and run run all day, down to the beach, over to Cherry Avenue, through downtown. He’d come home soaking wet, but he’d make the weight.

“He practiced football from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., that’s all he’d be doing, playing football. We were worried about that, so my wife took him to a doctor but the doctor said there wasn’t anything wrong with him, he just loved to play football.”

Despite all his hard work as a youngster, there was a time a few years ago when Eight Ball wondered if it would ever pay off.

“Barnett (former Poly Coach Jom Barnett) said he wasn’t good enough,” Leonard Sr. said. “I told him not to get discouraged. His pastor (at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church near Poly) told him, ‘If you want to be good in athletics, ask the Lord for it.’ He’d get on his knees, say prayers and read the Bible before he’d go to sleep.”

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After practice, Eight Ball walked home, out past the Pop Warner kids, out a gate and onto King Drive, then up Pacific Coast Highway and down Orange Avenue, which has a good view of Signal Hill. He wore a gold necklace, a Raiders cap and sandals over his socks. The chalk of the football field was still on his calves.

“Hey, Eight Ball,” men on a sidewalk called over to him. Eight Ball greeted them but didn’t stop.

He passed an empty park. “That’s where I used to play,” he said. “Our street would play other streets.”

He turned down his grandmother’s street, Wesley Drive, his back to the low 6:30 sun. He walked by children, who want to be like him, and a dog with a threadbare coat. An ice cream wagon passed.

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“You couldn’t walk down this street without people asking you if you wanted to buy cocaine,” Eight Ball said of a time a few years ago. “My mom wanted me to walk around it.”

“They’re probably on another street now,” he said of the drug dealers. “All my friends I grew up with are either out on it or selling it. I talk to ‘em, ask ‘em if they’re going to school, they don’t say nothin.’ ”

He arrived at a little pink house. The hedge that flanked the sidewalk was neatly trimmed. The hedge was neatly trimmed and the small patch of lawn, losing a battle to stay green, freshly watered.

Sitting on the porch, Gloria Miller greeted her grandson, a celebrity on this street and now known by a nation as Eight Ball. She called him Leonard.

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