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THE FANN CLUB : With Admirers Galore, Prized Northridge Back Returns Loyalty to School and Family

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Go ahead. Join The Club. But before sending in that application, there are a couple of things you probably should know.

Keep this confidential, but Albert Fann, captain of the Cal State Northridge football team, has been known to pull hair and chew on ears. Worse, he stands over his prey laughing heartily afterward, then scampers away.

No, no, no. Not in the huddle. Not even in a pileup. Fann knows better than to go public with his antics. It might soil his squeaky-clean image. Such actions wouldn’t be acceptable for an All-American tailback with aspirations of a professional football career.

They are, however, typical of an All-American big brother.

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Fann, it seems, relishes both roles.

To Casey, 11, and Scott, 8, the Fann family’s adopted children, Albert is simply “Jocko"--friend, teacher, role model and notorious prankster.

“He gets around them and he’s like a little kid,” says Fann’s mother, Barbara. “He’ll sneak in a room and just scare the life out of them, just teases them to death.”

“And,” Casey chirps, “he eats your ears.”

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Casey and Scott have been part of the Fann family since Christmas Eve, 1986. Four months after their arrival Fann surprised almost everyone and signed a letter of intent to play football for the hometown school. What did one event have to to with the other?

Plenty.

Albert Fann is 6-foot-2, 215 pounds and runs 40 yards in 4.6 seconds. He is handsome, muscular and has a girlfriend whose looks could cause a freeway pileup.

His father, Al, is an actor. His mother is an actress. Both own and operate acting schools. They have connections and are willing to use them.

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Albert has been pampered from the start--literally. As an infant, he was shown, bottom up, in print advertisements for a national brand of disposable diapers.

Later, he was in numerous television commercials and appeared on such shows as “Starsky and Hutch.”

Fann loves acting. He just loves sports more.

At Cleveland High, he twice was an All-City Section selection in basketball. He played football only after Coach Steve Landress goaded him into trying out.

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“Why don’t you use that body for football, a real man’s sport?” Landress would say.

Then, as he was preparing to leave school one day, Landress spotted Fann slumped by a pay phone at Cleveland. Fann had sprained his ankle during basketball practice and there was no one at home to pick him up.

“I saw Albert there and said, ‘Oh, no, here we go. Gotta go to 109th and Main or something,” says Landress, who incorrectly assumed that Fann had been bused to the Reseda school from Los Angeles. “But I was the last guy there and I could tell he wasn’t having any luck on the phone, so I said, ‘Jump in the car, Al.’ ”

It would be an eventful ride. Landress headed for the San Diego Freeway. “Where are we going?” Fann inquired. “I’m taking you home,” Landress said. “I live in Northridge,” Fann said. U-turn.

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Imagine Landress’ astonishment when he pulled up at Fann’s home and saw a Rolls-Royce parked in the driveway.

“He was pretty surprised,” Fann says. “They say the best athletes are the ones who struggle through life. I guess that’s what he thought it was like for me.”

The charitable act paid big dividends for the coach. After listening to Landress’ sales pitch on the way home, Fann, then a sophomore, promised to try out for football the following season.

In the first practice he was placed at receiver. His stay lasted one play. He caught a pass, sprinted away from one defender and ran over the next.

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Fann quickly was moved to running back. His first carry: touchdown. In two plays, Fann had become the tailback Cleveland would build its offense around.

Fann’s junior season lasted only four games before he suffered a broken ankle during what was supposed to be a non-contact practice drill. He returned for his senior season and broke loose for 273 yards against Chatsworth in Cleveland’s opener.

That effort is still Fann’s single-game rushing best, but Landress was more impressed by one later in the season against Crenshaw.

“He carried the ball 30-something times for right around 200 yards,” Landress says. “I remember him looking at me on the sidelines in the first half and holding his hand up to come out and I says, ‘You ain’t coming out, man! You got it? Stay in there!’

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“Well, he stayed in there and took his lumps, but he delivered a lot of lumps too. In the second half, he took charge and broke their backs. (Fann said,) ‘Give me the ball. Give me the ball.’ That’s the attitude great backs have and he showed it right there.”

And many times since.

In Northridge’s final three games last season, Fann accounted for 874 yards in rushing, receiving and kickoff returns and scored six touchdowns.

“If there’s a better running back around, I don’t want to see him,” said Cal State Sacramento Coach Bob Mattos after Fann carried 28 times for 251 yards and two touchdowns against the Hornets. “Not unless he’s in my backfield.”

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Coach, welcome to The Club.

Naturally, Fann often ponders what might have been. In three seasons at Northridge, he has gained 5,446 all-purpose yards.

He has silently asked, “What if . . .” many times.

What if . . . he originally had been eligible to accept a major college football scholarship? What if . . . he had waited and been available when offers started flowing the second time around? What if . . . his college’s call letters were USC or UCLA instead of CSUN?

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Fann wonders such things every autumn Saturday afternoon as he watches college football games on television. “I could have gotten through that hole too,” he says to himself.

As a senior at Cleveland, Fann failed to complete a geometry class and was deemed academically ineligible to accept a Division I scholarship. He had been considered a blue-chip prospect and was recruited by dozens of top schools, all of which backed off when they learned of his classroom troubles.

The day before the high school recruits were first allowed to sign letters of intent, Fann was approached by Landress.

“Ever thought about talking to CSUN, Northridge?” the coach asked.

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“You mean Cal State Northridge . . . up the street?” Fann replied.

Northridge was able to offer a scholarship to Fann because academic requirements to play Division II football (which since have been changed) were not as stringent as the standards for Division I.

“I’ll listen to anybody,” Fann said. He met with Northridge Coach Bob Burt the same afternoon.

Less than 24 hours later, against the advice of many, he signed with the Matadors. And, less than a month after that, major colleges suddenly renewed their recruiting interest.

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“What a lot of people don’t know is that Albert took that geometry class over again in a 10-week course at continuation school and got an A,” Landress says.

Actually, Fann says, it was a B, but the result was the same--the grade made him eligible at the Division I level again. But he had already given his word--and signature--to Northridge.

“There were about 15, 20 schools that came back after him, but he’s a tremendously loyal young man,” Landress says. “He said he already made his choice.”

A choice, Fann says, he has never regretted.

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Al and Barbara Fann moved their family from New York to Northridge almost 10 years ago, but Albert still vividly recalls strolling through the projects of Harlem with his mother and three older sisters.

There was a lesson to be learned in each alley and on every street corner.

“My mother would take us out on the street and show us junkies,” Fann says. “She’d point right at them and say, ‘You see that? That’s a junkie.’ I had friends who were maniacs, but we seemed to stay on a good path.”

His mother’s example drove home his father’s words.

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“He always said, ‘I don’t care if you decide to go out and do something, but don’t let your friends entice you to do it,’ ” Albert says. “He said, ‘That’s weak.’ He preached that, ‘Don’t be weak.’ ”

Those words have helped Fann whenever he has been faced by temptation.

“I’ve never been a follower,” Fann says. “My father instilled that in me. ‘Don’t be weak.’ That stuck with me and that’s why I am my own person and will stay my own person.”

After gaining 882 rushing yards and earning All-Western Football Conference honors as a freshman, Fann says, he was again approached by representatives from Division I schools who urged him to transfer. He had the same experience after his sophomore season, in which he rushed for 973 yards.

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“I thought about it, but it didn’t take too long for me to stick with my decision,” Fann says. “They’d say, ‘Just think about it.’ But I told them right on the spot, no.

“I was happy at Northridge. People said, ‘But you could be playing for SC . . .’ I know you have to think of yourself, but to me that’s exactly what I was doing. I did what was best for me--stay at CSUN.”

Those very same Division I schools, Fann points out, could have saved him a scholarship. “They didn’t want to take the chance,” he says. “Then they came back and wanted me to break my contract. Uh-uh. That’s not me.”

Albert, the youngest of the family’s four natural children, asked his parents to adopt years before they were able to oblige.

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“Him and I, it was our thing,” Barbara says. “We talked about it and we even gave the little boy a nickname, Muffin, years before he came.”

It was widely assumed that Fann chose Northridge because he wished to retain star status on a smaller scale rather than run the risk of being relegated to a bit part in a full-scale production.

“I heard that big-fish-in-a-little-pond stuff every day,” he says. “I never thought of it like that. Circumstances made my choice and the biggest circumstance was that I wanted to stay home and be with my brother and sister.”

The results of his attention have been striking.

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When Scott first came to the family he was withdrawn and often stared blankly into space for long periods of time. Casey, the more mischievous of the two, had trouble in school--particularly with reading.

“You wouldn’t even know him now,” Albert says of Scott. “He’s so bubbly now because he’s happy.”

And Casey? “She keeps getting notes home saying how good she’s doing in school,” Albert says. “They’ve both come a long way.”

Albert helped teach both children to swim and he often carted Scott along when working out at CSUN over the summer.

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“Scott looks like Andre Ware,” says Sherdrick Bonner, CSUN’s quarterback. “I told Albert I was going to teach him how to throw the ball and we’d make sure he went to Northridge.”

The help Scott and Casey receive from their brother they return in the form of inspiration.

“That’s part of my drive as far as wanting to be in the NFL and be successful in everything I do,” Fann says. “I want them to have somebody to look up to. I want them to be able to say, ‘Look at what my brother did’ and strive to be successful too.”


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