Justin Stallings wasn’t exposed to many sports growing up in the Bronx, where drug use and crime were the favorite pastimes.
“It’s much better here,” said Stallings, a Hawthorne High senior whose family moved to Southern California in 1987. “My parents moved here to give us something better.”
Although he is considered a can’t-miss college football prospect, Stallings never played organized sports until he moved West. His interests were in other areas.
“I was into karate,” he said. “I tried it once and it didn’t work. I got my butt kicked.”
These days, it’s the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Stallings who dishes out beatings as a wide receiver and strong safety for Hawthorne, which opens the season Saturday night against Loyola at Glendale High.
After watching Stallings help Hawthorne win the 1992 Southern Section Division III title, Coach Dan Robbins compared the player to one of the school’s all-time greats.
“As an overall athlete, I would put him on the same scale as Curtis Conway,” said Robbins, referring to the former Hawthorne quarterback who played at USC and is now a rookie with the Chicago Bears. “He doesn’t have the same speed as Curtis, but Justin can get his elbow above (a basketball) rim and he can long jump 23 feet on a good day.”
Stallings put his athleticism to use in 1992, leading Hawthorne in receiving with 28 catches for 378 yards and two touchdowns, and ranking among defensive leaders with 46 tackles and three interceptions. He was named to the Bay League first team and The Times’ South Bay second team as a defensive back.
His combination of speed, strength and jumping ability have caught the attention of scouts and recruiters. SuperPrep magazine rated Stallings the nation’s 11th-best receiver in its preseason issue.
“I like him a lot,” said Dick Lascola, director of the Fallbrook, Calif.-based Scouting Evaluation Assn. “He should be one of the premier players in the state. He’s got all the tools.”
Stallings lists Washington State, Texas, Colorado, Syracuse and Illinois as his top college choices. So far, his only planned visit is to Washington State on Nov. 6. Accompanying him on the trip will be Michael Jackson, the highly regarded tight end-linebacker from Santa Monica High. Stallings said he plans to visit Illinois with his cousin, Hawthorne tailback Eric Chaney, a transfer from Bishop Montgomery.
Additionally, Stallings said he plans to take unofficial visits to USC and UCLA, but is leaning toward attending college outside California.
“I’m really interested in SC, but I want to get away,” he said. “I can’t stay here because my mom will spoil me every day of the week.”
Robbins said Stallings’ parents, Larry and Judy, have provided a supportive home for Justin and his younger sister.
But even kids from good homes occasionally run into trouble. That was the case last year when Stallings got all Fs on one report card, rendering him ineligible for track. He has since improved his grades and vows to keep making strides during his senior year. His grade-point average is just above 2.0 and he has an NCAA-qualifying score (770) on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
“He’s a 3.0 student who has been lazy in the past,” Robbins said.
Whatever problems Stallings has experienced, he usually doesn’t bring them to the football field.
“He’s the joker of the team,” Chaney said. “He jokes around so much that sometimes other people don’t take him seriously. But when it’s time to play, he gets serious.”
Among Stallings’ more memorable stunts, Chaney said, was when he snuck up behind assistant Mike Davis during practice and pulled down Davis’ shorts.
Stallings has also become adept at imitating Robbins when the coach loses his temper at practice.
“There are times when I say things that are extremely white and he’ll imitate that,” Robbins said. “I’m OK with that. He keeps things extremely loose, but he’s also extremely competitive.”
Said Stallings: “I try to keep spirits up. When coach gets mad, he talks real proper and pronounces every syllable. I have to laugh because he gets so serious.”
However, there was no joking around last season when Hawthorne trailed Simi Valley, 14-0, midway through the fourth quarter of a second-round playoff game. The Cougars rallied for an 18-14 victory with three touchdowns in the last six minutes.
Stallings played a big role in the game, catching a career-high seven passes for 73 yards, including a 21-yard reception in the final minute to set up the winning touchdown.
Recalling how he felt during the comeback, Stallings said, “I was scared.”
A year later, he hopes to throw a little fear into Hawthorne’s opponents.