Leaford Hackett lives down the street from Sylmar High, a two-time City Section 4-A football champion and a program that has sent the likes of Durell Price, Tyrone Crenshaw, London Woodfin and Derrell Daniels to NCAA Division I-A schools.
So how in the name of common sense could Hackett decide to attend Poly in Sun Valley? In three years of varsity football, Hackett played on Poly teams that went 4-7, 2-8 and 2-8.
"Everyone left, but I stayed," Hackett said.
In this era of open enrollment, there is not a top player around who would have stuck it out at Poly.
Not wanting to abandon friends, going to the school his sister attended, satisfaction that he was gaining attention as a top wide receiver--those are the reasons Hackett never left Poly. He also ignored claims he would be passed over by college recruiters.
"I never had a doubt in my mind," Hackett said. "I knew I could play Division I football."
Hackett has made it on his terms. He spent two years at Valley College, then received a scholarship to Washington State. After two games, he was the Cougars' leading receiver. Last week, he caught nine passes for 94 yards and one touchdown against Boise State.
He had two receptions for 15 yards Saturday in a 24-16 victory over Idaho.
Hackett is the best football player to come out of Poly since running back Craig Ellis in 1978.
"I'm proud of myself," Hackett said.
Hackett is proof college recruiters will find a talented athlete whether the player is on a winning or losing team.
Hackett didn't obtain a scholarship out of Poly--his SAT score wasn't high enough. But he became a top receiver and quality student at Valley.
Hackett said he never had a grade-point average above 2.7 at Poly. At Washington State as a criminology and sociology major, he said, "I'll be disappointed if I get anything less than 3.0."
Football means a lot to Hackett, but maturity has taught him to take advantage of his college education.
"I do love football," he said. "In high school, I loved football so much I wanted to go to the NFL. Once you get into a university, it's a reality check. There are so many good athletes. But it helped me focus on school."
Gary Barlow, Valley's football coach, is the one who convinced Washington State Coach Mike Price the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Hackett could contribute to the Cougars.
"He's a fierce competitor," Barlow said. "When the ball is thrown his way, he thinks it's his. On top of that, he has immense speed and on game day, it doubles."
Poly Coach Lee Jackson, determined to revitalize the Parrots' football program, is using Hackett's success as a positive influence on his players. He has designed a "Leaford Hackett Update" presentation in the Parrots' P.E. office.
"It's exciting," Jackson said. "The kids are into it. 'Hey, we saw Leaford on TV last week.' It gives them inspiration."
Looking back on his decision to attend Poly, Hackett said, "I don't regret anything. I had fun in high school. I don't like jumping around. It was fun seeing myself develop."
Hackett is a football player who believed in himself, went against conventional wisdom, refused to transfer and ended up achieving his goal of landing a college scholarship. . . .
Kevin Malone, new Dodger general manager, used to throw batting practice for Chatsworth High when he was an Angel scout in the 1980s. He knows how to identify not only talented players but individuals with big hearts. And here's some friendly advice for Malone: Draft right-handed pitcher Jamie Shields of Hart when he becomes available in 2000. . . .
J.J. Todd of Chaminade, a 6-10 1/2 senior center who played sparingly last season, has improved so much that Cal State Fullerton, Brown and Loyola of Chicago are among the schools hoping to sign him to an early letter of intent on Nov. 11.
"He's gone from being 2 1/2 minutes a game to a scholarship kid," Eagle Coach Jeff Young said.
Chaminade's Scott Borchart, recovering from summer knee surgery, was listed at 6-7 last season but he's closing in on 6-9. He's a 15-year-old sophomore and is much stronger in his upper body. He'll soon be the region's best player--maybe as early as this season. . . .
Is there a better guard combination than B.J. Ward and Nick Jones of Santa Clara High? Both are expected to end up at UC Santa Barbara. That tells me they are exceptional students besides being good players. . . .
Center Rafael Berumen of Simi Valley has a recruiting visit to New Mexico next weekend. . . .
Arizona, DePaul and Kansas State have emerged as strong contenders to sign All-City guard Gilbert Arenas of Grant. . . .
Kudos to Coach Dean Bradshaw of Simi Valley for adding Grant to his basketball tournament this season. Having Arenas on hand to fire away from three-point range ought to bring out plenty of fans. . . .
Outfielder Chad Redfern of Chatsworth is trying to decide between Pepperdine and USC. . . .
Softball pitcher Maureen LeCocq of Chaminade is being recruited by Stanford, Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan and Oklahoma. She'll sign with Stanford if she is admitted to school. . . .
If you can't figure out what sports gift to buy, Thanks Coach Unique Gifts could be your solution. The West Hills company is a sports merchandise retail company featuring memorable gifts for sports team coaches and sports enthusiasts. Information: (818) 346-6201. . . .
Matt Phelan, from Paraclete High, made his first start for UCLA at guard Saturday against Houston. . . .
As running backs go, sophomore De'Andre Scott of Alemany is the real deal. He's the guy who said he was the best freshman around last season. He might as well shout to everybody that he's the best sophomore this season because he is.
Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422.