As a freshman at Bishop Amat High School in La Puente, Eric Bieniemy idolized the team's star running back, Randy Tanner.
"He was like all-world to me," Bieniemy said of Tanner, now a wide receiver at USC. "Watching Randy run, you learned a lot."
Three years later, the 17-year-old Bieniemy has a lot of teammates looking up to him--well, in a manner of speaking.
He is only 5-foot-8, but with his muscular, 190-pound frame and 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash, it would be foolhardy to judge Bieniemy on height alone.
"There are a lot of guys that are big and a lot of guys that are fast and a lot of guys that are strong," Coach Mark Paredes said. "But when he gets the ball, he is just so explosive. It's like he's being shot out of a cannon."
Then there is Bieniemy's intensity on the field, the opposite of his quiet, easygoing personality when he is not playing.
"He is soft-spoken when you talk to him but he isn't when he plays," Paredes said. "He's one of the most intense players I've ever been associated with. When he's on the field, he is all business."
That may help explain how Bieniemy, just two games into his senior season, is within 26 yards of the school's career rushing yardage record, 3,205, held by Pernell Taylor, who starts at fullback for Notre Dame.
In his third year as a starter for the Lancers, Bieniemy has rushed for 3,179 yards and 33 touchdowns in 532 carries. In two games this season he has rushed for 298 yards and five touchdowns in 42 carries. At that pace, Bieniemy will surpass most of Bishop Amat's rushing records this year.
Some recruiters doubt that Bieniemy has the size to play big-time college football, but he uses that opinion to motivate himself.
"It makes me work that much harder. I want to prove that I can play with bigger people."
Apparently Bieniemy has convinced a lot of recruiters, because he has received letters and phone calls from many of the top football schools, including UCLA.
"The schools that seem interested are not worried about height or size," Bieniemy said. "They say if you can play football, you can play football. They don't care how big you are."
Bieniemy even uses shortness to his advantage: "A lot of people don't expect you to do much because you're little. They underestimate you. But I don't worry about it. I look at it more as a challenge."
What separates Bieniemy from most running backs of his size is his enormous strength. Not many other 5-foot-8 running backs can bench-press 320 pounds. Not many match his fervor for lifting weights, either.
"I work out every day. I try to hit the weights a lot so I can make up in strength what I lack in size. I think the weightlifting has improved the strength of a lot of our players this year."
That may explain how Bieniemy can carry 20 to 25 times a game. Last season he averaged 25 carries in 12 games.
"He puts his time in the weight room and that helps him in games," Paredes said. "He seems to get stronger as the game goes along. In reality, he's better off when he's fresh. But the more he carries the ball, the stronger he looks."
Bieniemy also benefits from a big, strong offensive line. Two of the biggest are tackle Richard Garrick (6-3, 270) and center Ken Szalonek (5-11, 250).
"I have a lot of confidence in the line," Bieniemy said. "There's no running back who can do well without a good line. Our line is smart, strong and quick. That helps me a lot."
The oldest of three brothers, Bieniemy was born in New Orleans and started playing football as a 7-year-old. After moving to Covina at age 10, he developed into an outstanding running back for the Covina Vikings. He rushed for 1,300 yards for the Vikings in his final season before high school.
It did not take Bieniemy long to succeed at the varsity level after playing for Bishop Amat's freshman team.
In 1984, he rushed for 1,184 yards, the first Lancer to run for more than 1,000 in a season. Then there was Bieniemy's brilliant junior year when he rushed for 1,824 yards and 28 touchdowns in 304 carries.
His consistent success is even more impressive in light of the fact that he has played for three coaches in three seasons. Jim Patricio coached the Lancers in 1984 and Don Markham in 1985 before Paredes became coach after last season.
That has forced Bieniemy to make a few adjustments along the way.
"The biggest adjustment was last year because we totally changed our offense," he said. "This year it's more a combination of both coaches. It's part from Patricio and part from Markham.
"I have great respect for all the coaches we've had. The coaching changes haven't affected our success. We just go out and play the same way as usual."
No, winning has not been a problem. Bishop Amat finished 8-3-1 in Bieniemy's sophomore year and 11-1 last year, reaching the CIF Big 5 Conference quarterfinals both seasons, and is off to a 2-0 start heading into its non-league showdown with CIF power Long Beach Poly at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Long Beach.
After tasting the success of last season, when the Lancers were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the state before a shocking playoff loss to Marina (33-12), Bieniemy is hoping that this year will have a happier ending.
"It was a real emotional letdown for us," Bieniemy says of the loss. "Last year we had the talent. This year we don't have as much. We just have a lot of guys who play well together."
But the Lancers do have Bieniemy, a little back who they hope will take them a long way.