Russell White walked the halls of Crespi High, suddenly a player bereft of his moves. Charging linebackers were easy to elude compared to the feeling of isolation that hounded him.
White knew that a deft head fake and subtle shift of the hips would leave a defender lunging at air. But the moves he now needed had yet to become part of his repertoire.
His classmates at the parochial, all-boys school in Encino were nothing like the youngsters he knew growing up in San Fernando. These boys were rich, from private schools, and they spoke a different dialect of English from the slang he used on the streets.
It didn't help that he saw nothing but white faces around him. He was new, black and scared. It would be a long time before he could say he was chillin' at this place.
"The first day I came here I was really confused," he said about his arrival at Crespi. "The other kids were from private schools and I thought they were smart and would find out I wasn't smart.
"I left all my friends behind and felt like I didn't want to be here. The teachers and students were friendly, but I felt out of place and lonely."
He wanted to quit but knew he'd get no sympathy at home: The decision to attend Crespi was at his mother's insistence. Besides, "I was brought up to finish what I started," he said.
Now, two years after his arrival at Crespi, that tentative 14-year-old has stepped aside to make room for the biggest name on campus. There's no strut in his step, but White no longer clings to the shadows. Two years ago, he feared attention. Now, he feels no shyness about wearing a $250 custom letterman's jacket that bears an embroidered image of the Big Five Conference's player of the year and announces to the world, "With the ball, I do it all."
Last year as a sophomore, White nearly did. A 6-0, 190-pound running back, he led Crespi to the Big Five Conference championship and a 13-1 record with an extraordinary season that managed to exceed the heady expectations that accompanied his arrival.
White led the state in rushing and scoring while barely breaking a sweat in most games. His 2,339 yards and 31 touchdowns led the state and are California records for a sophomore. Although he never carried more than 19 times in a game, he only failed to crack the 100-yard mark once. He averaged 12 yards a carry and 10 of his touchdowns came on plays of 61 yards or longer.
Coach Bill Redell admits he has exaggerated the quality of Crespi football to promote the program but insists his predictions of greatness for White are well-founded. Before taking the field for the first game last season, Redell turned to an assistant and said, "We may be looking at one of the great players of all time."
A year later, Redell's enthusiasm has not waned.
"I didn't mean he was one of the great players right now, but he has the potential to be one of the best," he said.
White appears on no college prospect lists, which are reserved for seniors. But only his age prevents him from being rated among the best prospects in the nation.
"If he were a senior, he'd be a first-team All-American," said Max Emfinger, who runs a recruiting service from Houston, Texas. "There wouldn't be any negatives to put in the computer. Most everything would be a plus: speed, height, weight. He would rate off the map. I've had people tell me he's the best running back on the West Coast as a junior and some are saying he was that last year as a sophomore."
With accolades such as those, it's easy to see where White gets his confidence. But there is more to his development than football glory. Those closest to him say his victories in the classroom have been just as important.
"When he came here he was shy and tentative," Redell said. "But you can see the confidence he has by the way he handles himself. This is the right place for him to be."
That wasn't the word two years ago when people questioned whether White could handle Crespi's college-preparatory curriculum. Those suspicions were fueled when his mother, Helen, kept him out of a freshman game because she was dissatisfied with his grades.
It got so that the only question White heard on campus was, "How are your grades, Russell?" At one point, he complained to his mother, "Mom, they don't even say hi, they just ask about school."
But the idea of White as a below-average student is a myth, according to Crespi officials.
"Russell struggled because he had to adjust to the college-prep classes," Vice Principal Greg Gunn said. "I don't think he had the academic background some of our kids have. It took him a year to get acclimated and by his sophomore year, he was a B student. He's a real sharp kid."
White, who has worked with tutors since he enrolled, carries a 2.8 grade-point average and has blossomed in the classroom, according to his teachers.