Earl Rhodes is a classic example of a big frog in a little pond. The only question in his mind--and that of his coach--is how big a frog Rhodes can be in a bigger pond.
At 6-foot-1, 210-pounds, Rhodes is almost as big as Indianapolis Colts’ star Eric Dickerson. And with 4.6-second speed in the 40-yard dash, he’s almost as fast. And even his coach and mentor--Dan Pride--has to admit that if he turned Rhodes loose in every game this season, the big tailback probably would have gained about 3,000 yards.
It’s no wonder that nobody wants to tackle him.
Rhodes is a proven, powerful runner. He’s also an exceptional linebacker. But since he attends Coast Christian--a provincial Redondo Beach school with an enrollment of only 60 prep students--the brand of football Rhodes plays is 8-man.
Eight-man is scaled-down football. It means smaller fields, smaller teams and smaller players--that is, except for Rhodes. Because in the little world of 8-man football, Rhodes is as big as they get.
In 1987, en route to being voted CIF 8-Man Player-of-the-Year, Rhodes ran over linebackers and defensive backs for 2,038 yards. He’s the main reason that the Saints (11-0) have won 23 straight games--a state 8-man record--over the last two years. And Rhodes and his teammates will be aiming at back-to-back Small Division championships when they take on unbeaten Bloomington Christian Saturday night at 7:30 at El Camino College.
Coast Christian is coming off last week’s 56-26 semifinal victory over St. Margaret’s. Rhodes gained 311 yards and scored 4 touchdowns in that game.
“After Earl ran for a couple of touchdowns, St. Margaret’s didn’t want any part of him,” Pride said.
It was his biggest game of the year. Nevertheless, Rhodes--the Dickerson of the 8-man world--has spent his share of time on the sidelines this year. Pride thinks Rhodes can be too much of an overwhelming force in some games.
For example, against little Antelope Valley Christian, Rhodes only carried the ball twice because Pride was afraid Rhodes “would hurt somebody.” And in a 3-game span--against Los Angeles Lutheran, Pilgrim and Antelope Valley Christian--Rhodes handled the ball a mere 11 times. The 267 yards he piled up on those 11 carries is testimony to his dominance.
This year, Rhodes has rolled up his 1,567 yards on 148 carries--an average of yards per play. And the scariest thing for the rest of the 8-man crews scattered across Southern California, is that Rhodes, 17, is only a junior. Like the Dodgers’ Orel Hershiser, Coast Christian’s tailback is almost too good for the league he’s in.
But even though Pride concedes that Rhodes is an 8-man football player in a Division I player’s body, there is almost no chance that his protege will transfer to another school to play for an 11-man team during his senior year.
The decision comes down to loyalty.
“I’ve certainly thought about transferring,” Rhodes said. “But I guess wherever Coach Pride goes, I’ll go.”
It goes back to three years ago, when Pride discovered Rhodes in a roughneck area of Pasadena. The 15-year-old Rhodes knew about football, but had never played.
“He knew all about dodging the law, and the drugs and the gangs and the gang members,” Pride said. “He was in the wrong element.”
Pride, who played outside linebacker alongside Dick Butkus with the Chicago Bears in the late ‘60s, figured that all Rhodes needed was a change of environment. He helped Rhodes enroll at Coast Christian, got him to buckle down on academics, and taught him Bears-style football discipline. And he drove Rhodes to and from school every day--a 40-mile commute from Pasadena to Redondo Beach.
“I wasn’t the greatest kid on the block,” Rhodes said. “I got into the wrong crowds. But at the time I didn’t like what I was doing. I just needed somebody to encourage me and convince me that I could change. Coach Pride gave me the opportunity to change and I took it.”
Today, Rhodes carries a 3.2 grade-point average along with more than his share of footballs.
“Sometimes, I see my old friends . . . the ones that aren’t in jail,” Rhodes said. “Some of them get kind of jealous. I come home and show them my write-ups, and they get all mad and call me a goody-good. But I don’t pay any attention to that. I don’t want to mess up what I’ve got going here. I know that the outcome could be getting into trouble. The handcuffs-and-go-to-jail kind of trouble.”
Pride credits the Christian environment for Rhodes’ turnabout. Rhodes found Coast Christian, where football assumes a cathedral-like quality, to be a far cry from the streets of Pasadena. At Coast Christian, prayers come before practices, and if a player falls to injury during a game, the team kneels and prays for his safety.
“Instead of hearing negative things, he’s hearing positive things,” Pride said. “Earl feels blessed to be in the element he’s in now. He goes home with some of the other kids on weekends, and he’s found his values have changed quite a bit. He sees athletics as a stepping stone to a better life.”
Now Rhodes is hoping football can catapult him to a college education. Even though he plays 8-man football, he’s gotten his share of queries from colleges. Oklahoma, California, and Virginia have all mailed questionnaires to the big junior. In the age of Proposition 48, it’s hard for universities to ignore Rhodes’ combination of size, speed, strength, and smarts--regardless of the size of his program.
“It would be really ridiculous and stupid for college coaches not to look at Earl,” Pride said. “Earl and I made a pact. After this season is over, I’m going to try to talk to some schools. He’s a product that some school should be sold on.”
Pride said that a lack of 11-man football experience shouldn’t be a strike against Rhodes. Pride coached Toi Cook at Montclair Prep in 1982, when that school fielded an 8-man team, and Cook is now a free safety and special teams player with the New Orleans Saints.
Pride said Cook--like Rhodes--was an outstanding athlete and a good student. Cook went on from high school to Stanford, where he led the team in interceptions for three straight years. He was also the right fielder and cleanup hitter for the Cardinal team that won the 1987 College World Series.
Pride figures Rhodes could be a similar success story. Although he’s said all along that Rhodes could be an outstanding college linebacker, he’s recently readjusting his thinking.
“Earl is just now blossoming as a running back,” Pride said. “At first he was just running on brute strength. He had no clue of how or when to cut, or how to read blocks. Now, he’s nifty and light on his feet for his size. And he’s got excellent moves. He doesn’t just go into the secondary and power over people anymore.”
This year, he has enough finesse that even quick and strong 8-man teams like Chadwick School (182 yards on 28 carries) and Camp Kilpatrick (180 yards on 18 attempts) couldn’t stop him.
“Coach Pride taught me the game, period ,” Rhodes said. “When I came down here, I didn’t know anything.”
Despite his success at running the ball, Rhodes would rather play linebacker in college. “I like doing the hitting,” he said. “I don’t like getting it as much. I’m pretty sure nobody does.”
For her part, Rhodes’ mother doesn’t mind what position Rhodes plays in college. She’s just thrilled about his future.
“My family is real proud that I turned around for the better,” Rhodes said. “They share the good things with me. They’re not really concerned about the level of football or what position I’m playing. My mom thinks they’re all the same thing anyway. To her, a touchdown is just like a first down.”
Three years ago, Pride got a first down by bringing Rhodes to Coast Christian. Credit Rhodes with the touchdown.