Russell White is finished with the game. Cut by three NFL teams in as many years, he is said to live in Northern California with an unlisted number.
His friend and former agent promises to pass along a message but doubts White will agree to an interview.
“I think he’s a little bitter,” the friend said. “A little mystified.”
Mystified, perhaps, at not living up to the hype that began a decade ago when White entered his final season at Crespi High as one of the most-heralded players in state history.
A preseason All-American, he had run for more than 2,000 yards in each of the two previous years. Everyone expected even bigger numbers his senior season.
“Everyone expected the world,” a former Crespi coach said.
But White could not deliver. Perhaps no one could have. Now, if he would talk about that season, he might have some advice for a successor who is generating comparable excitement.
Justin Fargas has the look of a leading man. He is lean but strong, a bundle of quick bursts.
As a junior at Notre Dame High last year, he put together the third-best season for a running back in state history, rushing for 2,970 yards and scoring 38 touchdowns while leading his team to a section championship game.
For good measure, Fargas won the state 100-meter dash last spring.
Street & Smith’s magazine lists him among the nation’s top 50 seniors. SuperPrep magazine calls him the best back in the land, noting: “On one play last year, Justin hit a wall at the [line of scrimmage], flipped completely, and kept running for a score.”
All of which means Fargas can expect crowds of defenders at the line and crowds of recruiters at his doorstep. Reporters will ask questions while photographers snap pictures of this soft-spoken young man who bears the good looks of his father, actor Antonio Fargas.
Notre Dame opens the season tonight with a home game against Alemany that will be televised live on Fox Sports West 2.
“I know there is going to be a lot of hype,” Justin said. “A lot of people are talking about the pressure for me to come back and do as well as I did last year.”
And they are comparing him to White.
Fargas was just a kid living in Rhode Island in 1988. He has no idea what happened to White that season.
Back then, the Crespi star exuded confidence.
A nephew of Heisman Trophy-winner Charles White, he had a way of grinning from beneath a wisp of a mustache. On the field, he combined natural-born quickness with the strength to bull through tackles.
“In the year of the running back, Russell is the top dog,” one recruiting magazine wrote.
But the Crespi offensive line was weaker than in previous years and Coach Bill Redell anticipated additional problems. He and assistant Joel Wilker worried about off-the-field distractions.
It was Redell’s job to handle the press, to intercept reporters from local newspapers and USA Today and ESPN, asking them to wait until after practice to speak with White. Wilker’s job was to run interference for White when college recruiters showed up on campus.
“Everybody was coming after the kid,” said Redell, now at St. Francis. “We had to guard his time.”
But they could not guard against lofty expectations. And they could not protect their star on the field.
Days before the season opener, White neglected to wear his ankle braces in practice and was injured. Hobbled, he ran for only 39 yards as the nationally ranked Celts were embarrassed by Redlands, 28-6.
“I got off to a very disappointing start and it is all my fault,” White said at the time. “I was very irresponsible in taking care of myself.”
Injuries hounded him all season. He would rush for 100 yards one week, only to get pounded and leave the game early the next.
After a couple of mild concussions, questions arose about his durability.
“That one really bugged me,” he said. “I don’t like hearing about me not being tough.”
Meanwhile, in Anaheim, Servite’s Derek Brown was contending for the title of state’s best running back. At midseason, he out-gained White, 312 yards to 81, and Servite beat Crespi by two touchdowns.
In a playoff rematch, White won the rushing duel, 162-130, but Servite won the game. White’s prep days were over.
By normal standards, he had a stellar season with 1,379 yards and 25 touchdowns. He finished his three-year career with state records of 5,998 yards rushing, 94 touchdowns and 568 points.
But, as Wilker said, “There were some ups and downs to that season . . . obviously some stresses.”
White left feeling dissatisfied.
“This was not a great year,” he said.
Every team on Notre Dame’s schedule this season will stack its defense against the run. Mindful of this, Fargas has prepared on the track and in the weight room.
“There is no question in my mind that Justin is going to have a great year because he has worked so hard this summer,” Coach Kevin Rooney said.
The senior back has similarly girded himself for the recruiting onslaught. After a number of unofficial campus visits, he has pared his list of potential colleges to USC and Michigan.
That should make for less worry and fewer phone calls from recruiters this fall.
“Between training and homework and games, then he has to be answering calls?” Antonio Fargas asked. “Yes, we will limit things.”
The elder Fargas is best known for his role as “Huggy Bear” in the 1970s television series “Starsky and Hutch.” He believes performers must develop a strong ego, but must temper their pride with humility.
So when Antonio attends Notre Dame games, he does not cheer too wildly for his son because, “You have other parents whose kids are trying just as hard but not getting as much of a result.”
He coaches Justin to be magnanimous in interviews.
“People are going to want to talk about him, him, him,” Antonio said. “He’s got to say, ‘Well, my fullback really opened that hole.’ Or, ‘This guy did this and that guy did that.’ ”
A similar philosophy prevails at Notre Dame, where Rooney is uncomfortable elevating any player, even Fargas, too far above the rest. Both father and coach want to envelope the running back in a team concept so he does not feel so alone in the glare of attention.
Fargas toes the line.
“I have personal goals,” he said. “But the main goal is to get to the [Southern Section] championship and win.”
His humility has its limits, though. In an eerie parallel to White’s saga, Antonio Fargas goads his son to wear extra padding on the field.
“Elbow pads and rib pads,” Antonio said. “But he won’t. He’s all about style and grace.”
The younger Fargas shrugs off any mention of injury.
“That’s just negative energy,” he says. “I try to keep a positive mind-set.”
Fargas will need that attitude and perhaps some luck to get through this season, Redell said.
“There’s so much media attention given to someone like a Fargas or a Russell White,” he said. “The notoriety that the kids receive is out of balance.”
Hype followed White to college. At Cal, he learned he has dyslexia and accused Crespi of passing him through classes for the sake of football. Later, there were well-publicized spats with his coaches.
These controversies shadowed his All-American play as he rushed for a school-record 3,246 yards in three seasons.
After college, White bounced around the NFL, spending a lackluster season with the Rams, then getting cut by the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers. He retired amid reports that he was out of shape.
“He got heavy and he got a little lazy,” said Angelo Wright, his former agent. “I haven’t heard from him in a while and that tells me he’s a little embarrassed.”
Wilker, coaching in Michigan, sees another side to the story.
“Everyone thought he would have a long-term career in the NFL, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a successful person,” the coach said.
Maybe White learned a valuable lesson during his tough senior season, Wilker said. Maybe White learned the determination necessary to overcome his learning disability and finish classes at Cal.
“He set out to graduate from college and he did that,” Wilker said. “I’m proud of him.”
Likewise, Antonio Fargas hopes his son will profit regardless of what transpires on the field this fall.
“The discipline and the passion,” Antonio said. “You can use your experience in sports as a benchmark for other things in life.”
The younger Fargas is not thinking so far ahead. He is dealing with all the hype and expectation by distilling them into a simple formula.
“Of course I like receiving attention,” he said. “But the main thing for me is to focus on what’s important.
“I love being on the team. I love football. That’s why I play.”
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By the Numbers
A year-by-year rushing comparison of Russell White and Justin Fargas
RUSSELL WHITE, Crespi
Year G Rushes Yards Avg. TDs 1988 12 221 1,379 6.2 20 1987 12 224 2,269 10.1 34 1986 14 196 2,354 12.0 30
JUSTIN FARGAS, Notre Dame
Year G Rushes Yards Avg. TDs 1996 14 284 2,970 10.5 34 1995 12 74 532 7.2 7