A SHY STAR : Vista's Booker Takes His Success in Stride

Times Staff Writer

The Big Man On Campus here is big Tommy Booker, who--on this particular day--is being followed everywhere by two girls.

He says one of them "is going to be my girlfriend," (though it's not official yet), and the other girl is there to serve as a liaison between the two. She asks Tommy a question, giggles, gets her answer and goes back to tell her friend what Tommy said.

It's lunch time and now Booker excuses himself from the girls so that he can do an interview. He's wearing shades and a red cap, and he seems uncomfortable. During the interview, several of his classmates come over to listen. One friend says, "Tommy, got any money? I want to buy some fries." Tommy shakes his head. A girl comes up and says, "I saw you on TV this weekend, Tommy. I've seen you on TV 50 times."

Eventually, Booker becomes more comfortable and starts talking.

"Sometimes, when I'm home, I think of all the recognition I'm getting, and I can't believe it," he says.

Tommy Booker is a 6-foot 1-inch, 195-pound running back for Vista High School who may soon break the San Diego County record for most yards rushing in a season. The record is either 1,732 yards set last year by Sweetwater's Terry Rodgers or 1,777 yards set last year by Vista's Roger Price. The San Diego Section record book says that Rodgers holds the record, but Vista Coach Dick Haines says, "I don't care what the record book says. My guy gained 1,777 yards last year."

Anyway, Price was blunt last spring when he wrote on Booker's football locker: "Book, 1,777 . . . Roger Price."

Apparently, this was Price's way of challenging Booker to break the record, and Booker loves a challenge.

After eight weeks, Booker, a senior, has 1,303 yards.

Vista (8-0) probably has five more games, including playoff games.

"Funny," Booker said, "if I hadn't been challenged by different people all my life, I'd probably be an average football player."

Booker grew up in Burlington, N.C., with his grandparents and five female cousins. (His parents divorced and he chose to live for a while with his grandparents.) He went out for the Pop Warner team, but the coach put him on the offensive line, which wasn't what he had in mind. One of his good friends was the star running back. So Booker quit.

"I didn't want my friend to be it (a running back) and not me," Booker said. "I guess that's being greedy, but I didn't want to play."

He still played football at the playground, but he hated to be tackled. They called him "sissy."

"Living with girls, I wasn't used to all the wrestling that guys do," Booker said. "We'd play pickup football and, no, I didn't like to get tackled. I'd get mad, and they'd tease me. Now, I think it's kind of funny. If those people (in North Carolina) saw me now, they wouldn't believe it. They were better than me then. If they heard what I'm doing now, they'd say, 'BS.' I hated getting tackled. I probably got fast that way--running away from tackles. See, I don't like seeing my blood."

So that's how Tommy Booker was when he moved from North Carolina to Vista in 1981. His grandparents had died and he came to California with his father and stepmother. He became fast friends with Roger Price, and when Booker got to the ninth grade Price asked him: "Aren't you going out for football?"

Inside, Tommy Booker was saying, "Yuck, football."

But a challenge is a challenge, so he went out for the ninth-grade team. At practice, Coach Marlo Gudmunnson called the plays.

"We're going to run a 45 Quick Trap," Gudmunnson would say.

Booker, who had never played organized football and didn't know what a 45 Quick Trap was, became thoroughly embarrassed when he was sitting on the bench and decided to quit. He had a friend drop his uniform off on Gudmunnson's desk.

"Guys were teasing me," Booker says now. "I can't cope with getting teased. I hate losing in anything. I quit. But I couldn't take the uniform in myself. I knew I'd get this speech. Coaches always give speeches. I'm not gullible or anything, but I knew I'd listen to the coach before I'd take my own advice. I was brought up that way--to listen to adults."

Gudmunnson saw Booker's uniform on his desk and went to find him. Maybe Booker didn't know it, but he had talent. He ran the 100 meters in 10.7 seconds, and he was big. So Gudmunnson said to Booker, "Son, we'll make it simple for you. We'll run only four basic plays while you're in there."

Another challenge. Booker blossomed, and he was soon ready to play on the varsity.

Haines, the Vista coach, is a gentle man who is adored by his players.

His pregame pep talks go something like this:

"Guys, I watched a bunch of NFL games last weekend and, yes, even they fumble. So mistakes will happen. And, guys, I might yell at you. I might curse. And you can get mad at me, but say it under your breath. Anyway, a lot of times it'll be my fault. I'll call the wrong play or something. But, just remember, I'm lucky to be with you guys."

Because Booker is the kind of player who needs to be patted on the back, this was perfect. Booker still hasn't mastered football totally and says, "If you watch the films, I'm always going the wrong way or something."

Haines was nice enough to give Booker uniform No. 29. Booker had asked for it because his idol, Eric Dickerson of the Rams, wears No. 29.

Booker runs similar to Dickerson--that straight-up running style with great acceleration. He even watches taped Dickerson highlight films before games to get motivated, and he has two pictures of Dickerson on his locker.

When he looks at football magazines with his friends, he always says, "There's Dickerson! I'm going to be just like him."

Though Booker is a BMOC, he is not arrogant about it. This year, before a game at Torrey Pines, T-shirts were being circulated in the stands that said: "Cook the Book!"

So right before Haines' pregame pep talk, Booker said to his teammates: "They don't have to stop me to beat us. They have to stop Vista. Anybody can stop me. This is a team."

Booker is a leader. In one game, he told his offensive linemen: "Block somebody or don't play."

One of Booker's friends, Charles Jordan, said: "He did that, and nobody talked back."

College scouts like him. He watched a USC game with two of his buddies and was pampered afterward by the Trojan coaches. Coach Ted Tollner was doing a TV interview at the time, but some assistants were saying, "Tommy, please wait. Coach Tollner would like to talk to you."

Booker was so shy and nervous that he kept telling Jordan and the other friend, David Herrington, "Let's get out of here."

Eventually, one of the assistants told Tollner that Booker was standing there, so Tollner stopped the TV interview to speak with him.

"I mean, he stopped right in the middle of it with all the cameras around," Booker said. "I was all nervous. Sheesh, I would've waited for him to finish his interview. He didn't have to stop."

USC is high on Booker's list, but so are Arizona State, Washington and Nebraska. Haines loves Nebraska (his offense is patterned after it), and Vista's nickname is "Big Red," like Nebraska's. But Booker seems to be leaning toward Arizona State.

Of course, there's one more challenge--the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Booker wants to play college football right away and he needs to score 700 to be eligible as a freshman.

He said he didn't score high enough the first two times he took the test but took it again Saturday.

"Tommy never really hangs out," said Booker's friend, Jordan. "His dad is real strict about grades. Booker has to come (to school) every day and go to class. And we don't see him at night, because his dad wants him studying. And every night, he studies for the SAT. Even on weekends. I'll call sometimes on a weekend and ask to talk, and his stepmother will say no. She'll get mad when I call because he's studying. They don't want his mind on anything else but books."

"Passing that (SAT) test is my main goal," Booker said. "I'm not too good on the math part. That's what hurts me. Plus, I don't like taking tests. Yeah, my folks get on me. Night and day, they're on me. When I want to go out, they pop the question, 'Did you study for the SAT?'

"But I want to pass it so bad. When I do, that'll be something off my mind."

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