LONG BEACH — He has burst onto the national scene because of a marvelous ability to run with a football, this fellow named Leonard Russell but known to almost everyone in his rugged neighborhood--since the day after his birth 17 years ago--as Eight Ball.
Eight Ball was practicing for the new season last week on a field at Poly High School. He ran with effortless power and grace against the backdrop of Monroe's Pit Bar-b-q, which sat across a colorless street and identified itself in red letters.
Beyond the high fence, which keeps outsiders along Martin Luther King Drive from the school grounds, cars, with their radios turned up loud, cruised through the late afternoon. People milled on a corner. A young man, who had been watching the practice, saw them milling there and said, "They're selling rock (cocaine)."
From inside his face mask, where only the whites of his eyes were visible, Eight Ball saw it too, as he does every day. And he kept practicing.
"All they do is sell that stuff," said Eight Ball, who has always resisted this inner-city neighborhood's shadier temptations. "You look over there and it don't make sense. You're glad you're not in it."
All Eight Ball has ever been into, really, has been football. And now, pursued by some 70 colleges, his picture is in Sports Illustrated, which calls him the "most coveted high school senior in the country."
This recognition has come because last season, as a junior, Russell gained 1,399 yards and scored 14 touchdowns to lead Poly to the Big 5 Conference co-championship.
"He has a lot of heart, he refuses to let a guy bring him down," said Merle Cole, who coaches the Poly running backs. That determination was so great that Millikan High Coach Dave Radford said, "I don't think anyone is going to tackle him."
Eight Ball's heart is inside a lot of hard body--6 feet 3 and 210 pounds. A hard, swift body--he runs 100 yards in 10.2 seconds.
He is a newcomer only to the nation.
"That's all you hear in Long Beach, 'Eight Ball,' " Cole said. "Everybody in the community has known about him, he's no surprise to us. He's been breaking touchdowns since he was 8 years old."
That was back when Eight Ball was playing in the Pop Warner leagues and thinking about the day he would play at Poly.
There were kids from those leagues practicing near the Poly players last week. One of them, Richard Bonds, 11, who came up to Eight Ball's waist, was proud to accept a hand clasp from him. "He my idol," said Richard.
Earlier, the Poly co-head coaches, Jerry Jaso and Thomas Whiting, had shown the magazine to Russell in their cramped office, where a fan rattled and photos of former Poly stars in college and pro uniforms hung for inspiration on the walls.
"It's all right," Eight Ball had said in his low-key manner.
The magazine photo shows Russell smiling behind a pool table lined with 8-balls at a nearby bowling alley. But normally, his face sits atop a thick neck and wears a serious, almost brooding look that belies his polite personality.
"He's a good kid, down to earth," said Cole. "His mother and father did a great job of raising him."
"He is less interested in his own personal status than the team's," Whiting said. He is very pleasant for us as coaches. He doesn't ask for special-type things. He works as hard as anybody."
The recognition does not surprise Russell.
"I think I earned it," he said. "I work hard. If I keep working hard, I can go to college and someday to the pros."
He said those who know him do not treat him any differently now that he has been judged an all-American.
"My friends don't make a big deal about it because they don't see me making a big deal about it," he said. "But they get to brag when they see other players (on other teams). They say, 'Eight Ball is our running back, how you gonna beat us?.' "
Poly's football tradition is so rich that from an early age neighborhood youngsters aspire to a Jackrabbit (the Poly mascot).
"Our kids look at the guys on the wall who have played here--they're great role models--and see football as a means to an end," Jaso said. Of the temptations on King Drive, Jaso said, "They're too darn busy with football to get involved."
Football and his studies--he has pulled himself up to a "B" student--consume Eight Ball.
"It (football) keeps me away from all the bad things," Russell said. "There's a lot of trouble a guy can get into. On the street everybody knows me. They say, 'C'mon, man, let's do this.' I can't be messin' around. I've seen a lot of people go down. I see people who were really good at Poly on the corner now, drinkin' beer, not doin' nothin'. And they give all the advice--I get advice from everybody. It's pretty sad sometimes. It's good advice, so you wonder how they let themselves go down."
Russell recognizes the scope of his talent. "I like to suit up on Friday night, go out and keep the crowd excited, give them a little show," he said with a hint of a smile.