Very little about Sean Hampton seems soft or gentle. The Sylmar High running back packs 190 muscular pounds onto his 5-foot-10 frame. And he packs a philosophy that's nearly as hard.
"When you play running back you're open for shots, but I want to punish people," he says. "It's hit, hit and blood. I want them to feel it before I do.
"I prepare for a game like a linebacker. You know, your eyes get all big, you get crazy. You don't care what's going to hit you. You got to think very little."
Primitive thinking, perhaps, but effective. The approach works for Hampton, a senior who was the leading City Section rusher in the Valley area last season. In nine games, he gained 1,306 yards on 193 attempts, averaging 6.8 yards per carry. He also scored 13 touchdowns and earned ample attention from college recruiters.
"It's early in the season yet, but we're very high on him," said Dick Laguens, USC's recruiting director. "He's on our list, and we'll probably see him three times this year. We think he's one of the best in the state."
Sylmar Coach Tom Richards entered his 29th year of coaching this season and said Hampton rates as the toughest player he's seen.
"I've never had a kid that wanted to win as much as him. He's the most fierce competitor I've had. I coached John Elway when he was a sophomore at Granada Hills and he was a hell of a competitor. Sean's like that, too," he said.
The other side of Hampton suggests a gentle, sensitive nature. When a distant relative of his, Sylmar assistant coach George Green, died last year from an accidental gunshot wound, Hampton asked Richards if the team could wear the number 11 on their helmets in honor of Green, a former Sylmar player.
Having dedicated the season to Green and with scholarship offers imminent, Hampton brought plenty of motivation to the 1986 season. He set his goals high: 1,800 yards rushing and a trip to the playoffs for Sylmar. But this year has been a disappointment.
Sylmar is 1-3, 0-2 in Pac 8 League play, and Hampton has yet to get rolling. In three games, he has rushed for 315 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers are deceiving. On his first carry of the season he bolted 85 yards for a touchdown. Since then, he has averaged only 3.5 yards a carry.
After rushing for 149 yards against Van Nuys, he's been held to fewer than 100 yards the past two games, including 60 yards on 17 carries in Friday night's 21-14 loss to North Hollywood. Stacked defenses and an inexperienced offensive line have slowed Hampton, but the biggest problem has been his health.
Hampton missed the first game of the season after bruising his ribs and collarbone in a preseason scrimmage. When he returned, he had to wear a flak jacket to protect his ribs.
"I was running, trying to protect my ribs," Hampton said Saturday. "I was tentative, but I hated that jacket. I took it off at halftime last night, and I'll never wear it again. It made me run stiff and made me fumble twice. I couldn't run the way I wanted to."
Frustrated by opposing defenses and the injury, and having thrown off the flak jacket, Hampton begged Richards to let him play defense. It was time to start punishing people again. In the second half Friday night, Hampton moved to free safety. He intercepted a pass and then recovered a fumble and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown.
"I like going both ways," he said. "Defense is fun. You just find the ball and hit. Besides, I don't like sitting around, getting cold. I want to be in the game."
Playing on defense may have allowed Hampton to relieve some frustrations, but the cure is only temporary. Running the ball is what he lives for.
His cousin, teammate Michael Hampton, insists he will regain his form.
"Since we first started playing football when we were 6, Sean has been a leader," he said. "He's kind of stubborn, and he's a perfectionist. He takes the game very seriously and he wants to win. He'll get everyone motivated. He always has."
Sean remains equally confident, although he admits the injury and frustration have worn him down.
"I wake up in the morning and I'm sore, and it hurts when I hit sometimes," he said. "I think I'll have to have surgery after the season on my collarbone. It gets frustrating, like my last year is ruined.
"But I'm not getting down. To me it's like the beginning of the season. I haven't been able to lift weights, but I'm going to start again Monday. I'm ready to play."