Going into his final high school football season, Russell White had been considered the state’s top prep running back and one of the country’s best since his sophomore year.
In only two seasons, he was close to breaking state scoring and rushing records. He had been named to numerous All-American teams and had been voted California player of the year.
His statistics for his first 2 seasons are remarkable. He rushed for 2,339 yards with 31 touchdowns as a sophomore, leading Encino Crespi to a 13-1 record and the Big Five title. Last season, he gained 2,280 yards and scored 38 touchdowns.
But this season, after 8 games, his Crespi team has only a 4-4 record, and White is hearing whispers.
He has gained 855 yards in 119 carries and has scored 17 touchdowns, certainly not bad statistics. They aren’t up to the standards White set for himself, though, and some people have questioned White’s toughness, his ability to play hurt, even his heart.
In fact, some people have been saying that White is not the best high school back in Southern California anymore, that Anaheim Servite’s Derek Brown is, since Brown out-rushed White in their game, 312 yards to 81.
Comparisons aside, though, when you watch White play, the talent is obvious. He breaks tackles, he makes defenders miss. It is as if his destiny on every carry is the end zone.
At 6 feet and 185 pounds, White runs with grace, power and speed. Trouble is, White has not run as often as he had hoped this season. He has been hampered by an assortment of injuries, and he says he has only himself to blame.
“I got off to a very disappointing start, and it is all my fault,” said White, who was slowed by a badly sprained left ankle in the first 5 games. “I was very irresponsible in taking care of myself. I was not wearing my braces at practice a couple days before our first game, and I got hurt.”
White, who has had weak ankles since arriving at Crespi, is supposed to wear ankle braces whenever he plays.
But there also have been other injuries, resulting from hard hits.
He suffered a slight concussion and played only in the first quarter--gaining 65 yards in 8 carries--of Crespi’s loss to Pasadena Muir early in the season. And in last week’s loss to Santa Ana Mater Dei, he missed the entire second quarter with a similar injury.
This season, however, Crespi’s offensive line is not as strong as it was the last 2 seasons. White cannot gain yards up the middle on trap plays, as he did in the past, so Crespi has resorted to different ways of getting him the ball. His rushing statistics may be down, but he is catching more passes, 29, for greater yardage, 414. And he has done well enough to set state career records for rushing with 5,473 yards and scoring with 518 points.
The Mater Dei game exemplified White’s season. In the first quarter, White was unstoppable, gaining chunks of yardage on shovel pass sweeps.
With White rolling, Crespi rolled, too. Then he was injured late in the first quarter. Without White, Crespi became an average team, hardly able to move the ball on the ground. His presence alone had brought hope to his teammates and fear to opponents.
White played in the second half despite the injury, gaining yards as he had in the first quarter, but Mater Dei controlled the ball in the fourth quarter and won, 42-28. White finished with only 24 yards rushing in 13 carries but gained 151 yards receiving.
“Russell may have hurt himself more by trying to help the team when he should have stayed out,” Crespi Coach Bill Redell said. “He gave it a heck of an effort when he was hurt, but you never know when you are hurting yourself when something like that happens.”
Redell is definitely not among White’s critics. Redell and White arrived at Crespi the same year and Redell has been an admirer ever since.
“Physically, Russell could have started for us when I was in the USFL, and we had (former Oklahoma star) Marcus Dupree,” said Redell, who was a coach with the Boston-New Orleans Breakers of the United States Football League for 2 years.
The meeting of White and Redell, whose son Ron is the team’s quarterback, came about through Coach Redell’s friendship with offensive backfield coach Kermit Alexander, an All-American running back at UCLA who went on to play for the Rams and San Francisco 49ers.
Alexander is White’s cousin, and he urged White’s mother, Helen, to send White to Crespi.
Crespi, a predominantly white private school of small enrollment and high academic standards, was not White’s choice.
“I didn’t like Crespi for the first year and a half,” he said. “It was difficult going from a public school to a private school. It was weird because all of my friends went to a different school. I was only able to relate to a couple of people at first. It was a major adjustment.”
White, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, was prepared to enroll at a local public high school before the decision was made to attend Crespi.
“I would have gone to (Reseda) Cleveland, (Woodland Hills) El Camino or San Fernando, but they decided on here,” White said. “I was down at first because I didn’t want to go to Crespi. I had never even heard of Crespi. It was like starting kindergarten because I didn’t know anyone.”
White had academic trouble his first year, and his mother threatened to not allow him to play football if his grades didn’t improve.
“Now, when I look back at it, I don’t think that what she said was fair,” said White, whose grades have improved to a C+ average. “She didn’t really look at the background that I had, compared to the others I was going to school with.
“Now, I am comfortable with everyone, I just had to work hard in getting into the system around here.”
White, one of only a few blacks at Crespi when he arrived, said he was treated warmly on the Crespi campus and soon started making friends.
“Everyone made me feel very welcome,” he said. “A lot of people came up to talk to me to make me feel comfortable.”
Said Ron Redell, the quarterback: “When he first came here, he was a little shy. Now, he is just a regular guy and he has a great personality.
“In fact, you could say Russell is responsible for the big rap music craze here at school. His freshman year, he was the only one into rap and everyone kind of laughed, but now when you hear it, it is no big deal.”
White has also had to deal with being the nephew of Charles White, the former USC Heisman Trophy winner and current Ram. Charles’ older brother Roosevelt is Russell’s father. Russell, however, has not seen his father for several years.
“My father and mother made a pact when they separated,” he said. “If I started making it big, he would stay away, and he has done that.”
Russell said he rarely sees his uncle Charles, whose pro career, though brilliant at times, has been clouded by problems with drug and alcohol abuse.
“I don’t like being compared to Charles, because we are two different people,” said Russell, adding that he is proud of Charles’ accomplishments. But he also said: “I don’t do drugs, and if someone ever offered me drugs, they’d be lucky if I don’t knock them out.”
Russell said he would like to be recognized as a complete back.
“I would like to be like Marcus Allen, but I don’t idolize him,” he said. “He is an all-around back. He can run, block, catch and pass. That is how I want to see myself.”
It’s only November, but it has already been quite a senior year for White, what with the constant pressure from college recruiters and the media. White has tried to look at his situation positively.
“The phone used to ring off the hook nightly, but now it only rings maybe two or three times a night,” he said. “Sometimes, it can be distracting when I am doing homework or something.
“I really don’t mind the media attention. I like interviews, even though it does get boring. Sometimes, it gets to the point when I want to say, ‘Just let me breathe.’ ”
White has reduced the list of colleges he is considering attending to 10: Arizona, Arizona State, Bethune Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., Miami of Florida, Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State, Texas A&M;, USC and Washington.
“The deciding factor will be me,” White said. “My mother will not be a factor. . . . I will go to a school where I feel comfortable and (can) get an education.”
Russell’s football goal in college is to win the Heisman Trophy, as Charles did.
“I want to get that trophy and put it in my case at home,” he said. “That will make my collection complete.”
ON THE RUN SOUTHERN SECTION RUSHING LEADERS
Yards Player/School Years 5,473 Russell White/Crespi ’86-88 5,397 Ray Pallares/Valencia ’83-85 5,213 Craig Johnson/Whitter Chrs. ’73-75 5,181 Steve Tetrick/L.A. Baptist ’70-72 4,920 Mickey Cureton/Centennial ’64-66 4,882 Eric Bieniemy/Bishop Amat ’84-86 4,807 Aaron Emanuel/Quartz Hill ’82-84 4,597 Ryan Knight/Rubidoux ’82-83 4,553 Marvin Williams/Colton ’73-75 4,481 Carlos Adams/Atascadero ’79-81