OCC's Betts separates from pack

When Domenic Betts breaks through a hole up the middle, or turns the corner on pursuing defenders, there are indications that the geometry of the game will interrupt his path to progress.

Just then, it seems, Betts accelerates, sparking the ignition on the kind of speed that has seldom, if ever, been seen in an Orange Coast College football uniform. It's this rare burst that distorts the typically successful triangulation of would-be tacklers and catapults the 5-foot-10, 195-pound freshman running back ahead of all who threaten to chase him down.

Three years removed from his last season — his senior campaign at Banning High in 2008 — Betts, 20, strives to outrun more than defenders. He is also sprinting away from a past that nearly put the brakes on his dream of playing football in college and, perhaps, beyond.

"I'm looking to score," Betts said of his foremost thought on every carry. "Whatever way I can score, however I can do it, I'm looking to score."

Having been clocked at 4.31 seconds over 40 yards and boasting strength that allows him to squat 745 pounds, Betts is once again accumulating yards and points on the football field. But in reality, the end zone is merely the foreground to his ultimate destination.

"[Banning] was bad, really bad," said Betts, who realized at an early age that there were more promising soft spots in the neutral zone than on the streets of his home town. "Football was the only good thing in the city. I knew the only way I could be anything successful was football and school.

"Just seeing my friends; that they didn't go to no school and they didn't play no sport," said Betts, who leads the state community college ranks in total rushing yards (718 on 82 carries), and rushing yards per game (179.5). "I didn't want to go down the road they wanted to go down."

That road included gang violence, drugs and, for some of Betts' childhood friends, incarceration and death.

And while Betts said he managed to avoid the gang activity that sometimes brought police investigators to his high school football practices, the opportunity to make bad choices proved more difficult to avoid than charging linebackers.

Betts rushed for more than 1,500 yards as a sophomore at Banning, but spent his junior year at a continuation school, after marijuana use, depression and feelings of isolation temporarily diluted his focus on his football dreams.

"I was smoking too much marijuana then, just being by myself and just being lonely," said Betts, who instigated that loneliness by walking away from friends after the Riverside County district attorney's office charged 14 people with two counts of murder and special circumstances, and with street-gang participation in connection with two shooting deaths in Wilmington. It was the largest murder case in Riverside County history.

"They were my friends, but the best thing to do was to move away from them," Betts said. "It was hard, but you get over it after a while. You make new friends. You've got to make new friends."

Betts worked hard to straighten up and return to Banning for his senior year, when he generated more than 1,600 yards of total offense (rushing and receiving) and scored 20 touchdowns. He received scholarship offers from Oregon and UCLA.

But academics prevented him from matriculating to the Division-I ranks. He instead landed at College of the Desert, a community college in Palm Desert.

A shoulder injury in preseason practice sidelined him for the 2009 season and what he called turmoil in the program led him to leave without playing for the school in 2010.

Betts said being without football for three of the last four years has helped him mature and strengthened his resolve.

"It has been hard," said Betts, who cited bible classes, as well as the unyielding support of his father, Charley Ellison, for helping him persevere through all the adversity. "But it has all made me more focused and more hungry to play. I don't take anything for granted and I don't regret anything. I'm happy I'm at Orange Coast. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I wish I had come here straight out of high school."

Betts said he learned about Orange Coast from a former COD teammate and roommate, Josh Harris, who had come to Costa Mesa to join the football program. The two now share an apartment across the street from the OCC campus.

"I had never heard about Orange Coast, but Josh said he liked it here and the coaches were great," Betts said. "When I came, coach [offensive coordinator Jack] Wigmore showed me some love. [Head coach Mike Taylor and running backs coach Steve Fullmer] were also great. They really helped me and brought me in."

Fullmer, formerly a Huntington Beach police officer for 20 years, said he read up on Betts' past. And, after meeting him, Fullmer agreed to help Betts pursue his dream of playing major-college football.

"I went online and looked everything up," Fullmer said. "When we talked, I told him the past is the past. He came here to get a clean slate and I think one of the beautiful things about JUCO is that it gives guys a second chance. I told him he could go back to the corner of walk and don't walk and stand with some friends and see what happens. Or, he could stay here, play football and see where that takes him."

Betts, a veteran offensive line, and Wigmore's fondness for the smashmouth double-wing offense, have helped OCC (1-3) rank No. 1 in the state in rushing.

Betts, who is quick to credit his blockers, said he wants to contribute to greater team success this season, beginning with Saturday's 6 p.m. contest at San Diego Mesa . But he still has his individual goals.

"I want to continue to do what I'm doing," he said. "I just want to stay in college, play football. I have a lot of D-I schools calling."

Fullmer said Betts has the kind of skills Division I coaches covet.

"He's fast, but he's also very quick, very elusive and he has great balance," Fullmer said. "When you see him in the weight room, he's as strong as an ox. He has work ethic and he wants to get better. He's improving on a lot of levels and I'm proud of that. He wants to be a good teammate, a good player and a good student-athlete, the whole package. He has a vision to get to the next level and if he stays focused on the field and in the classroom, he has a great opportunity to get there.

"The beautiful thing is, he just wants the football," Fullmer said. "And, the way he is on fire right now, that's probably not a bad game plan."

Giving the ball to Betts, who is on pace to break the school single-season rushing record of 1,457 set by Ray Holley in 2009, has led to seven touchdowns this season and plenty of highlight video of him running away from defenders.

Betts, hoping also to leave his past in his wake, was asked if he had ever been caught from behind.

"Not yet," he said. "And I don't plan on it, either."


Twitter: @barryfaulkner5

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