Keiaho Gives an Effort Far Beyond His Years : Football: Buena junior sets a Ventura County record with 415 rushing yards in 42-30 victory over Westlake in opener.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Though some have thought otherwise, George Keiaho is not a man among boys.

Not yet, anyway.

To those who have seen him run with a football, break tackles, carry linebackers on his back--and even sport a stubble of beard--Keiaho, a 5-foot-9, 205-pound running back for Buena High, seems simply too good to be true. At times, too good to be on the same field with his padded peers.

On Friday night, Keiaho made a dazzling season debut by rolling up 415 yards in 29 carries and scoring five touchdowns to lead Buena to a 42-30 nonleague win over Westlake.

The performance established a Ventura County record for yards rushing in a game--breaking the mark of 358 yards set by Oxnard's Laurence Burkley in 1984--and placed Keiaho's name seventh in the Southern Section record book.

The scene was all too familiar: Keiaho charging off-tackle, bouncing off one tackler, bowling over another, stepping on a face mask and bursting the length of the field.

By halftime, Keiaho had rushed for 300 yards and had bolted for touchdown runs of two, 92, 73 and 84 yards. In the second half, Keiaho added a 19-yard scoring run.

Last season, Keiaho rushed for 1,443 yards and scored 21 touchdowns and was named Cal-Hi state sophomore player of the year. The year before, as Cal-Hi state freshman player of the year, Keiaho gained 1,134 yards to become the first freshman in state history to rush for more than 1,000 yards.

"Each year he's improved his strength and his speed," Buena Coach Rick Scott said. "The thought is always there that George will break one."

Sure, everyone expected big things from Keiaho this season, especially since he is the lone running back in Buena's new offensive scheme. But this ?

Where did he come from? The islands of Fiji, actually. Keiaho moved to the United States with his mother and step-father when he was 9 and settled in Ventura without ever having hugged a football.

On the playground, Keiaho was introverted. On the practice field, he has remained the same.

His chiseled build and perpetual 5 o'clock shadow have made people wonder. His overwhelming talent has made them wonder even more. Was this man-child really a man?

"People ask me all the time if I'm older," Keiaho said. "I tell them I'm a junior. I don't really have a beard. It's just a little scruff."

Keiaho added to speculation last season when he listed the year of his birth as 1972 for a reporter, although he later explained that he had done so inadvertently. Keiaho, who turned 17 two days before suiting up against Westlake, says he was born in 1975.

"I meant to put down a five instead of a two," Keiaho said simply.

Scott said school documents confirm his age and that Keiaho's birth certificate is on file. Maybe Keiaho is becoming convinced he is something more than what he is: an exceptionally talented athlete for his age.

"He looks like a man playing against boys," Hueneme Coach Ed Knight said. "He plays like one, anyway. He killed us last year."

Derek Swafford, a senior tailback for Ventura High, said he was among the first to befriend Keiaho--at the time, a shy fourth-grader but already obviously a step ahead on the playground.

"I grew up with him, so I know what his age is," Swafford said. "He's always looked pretty big for his age, and he's always been a pretty hairy guy."

Keiaho first handled a football when he was 14, playing a single season in a youth league before joining the Buena varsity the following year.

His outstanding freshman season immediately made Keiaho a player to watch among college scouts. With every carry, Keiaho--whom Scott likens to durable running backs such as Marshall Faulk of San Diego State and Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions--undoubtedly moves closer to a college scholarship and, perhaps, a professional football career.

Or a teaching career.

Football is fine, Keiaho said, and he is willing to keep carrying the football and see where football carries him.

However, children mean more right now to Keiaho. And he admittedly has long aspired to become an elementary school or kindergarten teacher.

"I like working with little kids and I want to become a teacher," he said. "I would just rather be around them than adults. I like to look at them. They do funny things."

Keiaho often spends his free time at a neighborhood youth center, organizing basketball games, coaching, joining in games and generally playing the role of big brother. At home, the role comes naturally. Keiaho has three brothers (ages 13, 10 and 3) and two sisters (14 and 8).

"When he's around adults, he kind of shells up a bit," Scott said. "The first couple of years have been a real challenge for him socially. But when he gets around those kids, he's a character. He gets around my own kids and he's dynamic."

With every Friday night, Keiaho becomes more of a marquee player and, somewhat reluctantly, more of a role model. Keiaho can see in the young faces of the children he befriends that he is being looked up to in more ways than one.

The feeling admittedly makes Keiaho uneasy. Perhaps it makes him feel like an adult.

"They know who I am and what I do, but for now I just want to act like a regular friend," Keiaho said. "I just want to act the way that I do and try to keep everybody happy."

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