With a tug and a sigh, Jason McGehee pulls his black-and-red football helmet off his head. Practice is over.
In the twilight gloom of the practice field at Huntington Beach High School, McGehee, a senior fullback for the Oilers, looks a mess.
His long blond hair is matted with sweat, and he shakes his head from side to side to get it out of his eyes.
His hands and arms are cut and bruised, the result of numerous collisions with worn football fields across Orange County--or maybe from an angry opponent's cleat?
McGehee's white No. 9 practice uniform is an equipment manager's nightmare. It is beginning to turn gray from grass and dirt and blood stains.
As he slowly ambles from the field, helmet dangling in one hand, McGehee looks as if he has just carried a great weight. And he has. If you're looking for one reason why the 6-4 Oilers are in the Big Five Conference playoffs, in which they will meet Servite tonight at Anaheim's Glover Stadium, McGehee is it.
McGehee, regarded as one of the Sunset League's top players, has gained 1,328 yards, ranking him second among Orange County rushers. He had his best game last week, netting 211 yards in 31 carries in a 7-6 loss to Edison.
"He's had a big game every week," Edison Coach Dave White said. "He just keeps on going forward. We had some people on him, but we tried to arm tackle him, and you can't do that.
"He had a pretty good year last year, but we shut him down. This year, we were worried about him all year."
Although McGehee runs to impress, he has done so quietly, with little fanfare. That appears to be his style: Grind it out, hit the opposition enough times in the right places, and it will eventually break.
During a scrimmage one day this week, McGehee took a handoff, cut through the line and hit a hard-charging defender head-on. Shoulder pads popped, the defender fell backward and McGehee ran over him, stepping on his chest and continuing onward.
The play brought muffled laughs and cheers from the players watching from the sidelines. McGehee just trotted back to the huddle. There was another play to be practiced.
"He's one of those kids who likes to work," said George Pascoe, Huntington Beach coach. "He wears on you."
There is little alternative for McGehee. Ever since tailback Skip Murray dislocated his ankle in the first quarter of the Fountain Valley game a month ago, the burden of the Oilers' offense has fallen to McGehee. Murray had about 500 yards went he was lost for the season.
McGehee has rushed for 100 or more yards in nine of the Oilers' 10 games this season. He has averaged 132.8 yards and 20.1 carries a game. Only Ocean View, in a game played on a muddy field, held McGehee to fewer than 100 yards.
Pascoe said if he had known at the time that McGehee would fall short of 100 yards, he would have given him the ball a few more times late in the game. As it was, McGehee gained 95 yards in 24 carries as the Oilers won, 13-6.
The week before, against Marina, McGehee bullied his way through the Vikings for 196 yards and 3 touchdowns in 19 carries in a 35-6 Huntington Beach victory.
"The more I get the ball, the better I like it," McGehee said. "(After the Edison game) I was kind of sore, but it was worth it."
So, too, were the long hours of weightlifting and running McGehee did over the summer.
McGehee and his senior teammates agreed that the Oilers would not go 3-7 as they had in their junior season. They took on extra lifting and running to prepare for this season.
In McGehee's case, the reasoning was simple.
"I wanted to play in more than 10 games," he said. "I'd never been to the playoffs."
The work paid off. Huntington Beach was 6-4 this season and placed second in the league with a 3-2 mark.
McGehee, who gained more than 10 pounds and lowered his 40-yard dash time by 2/10ths of a second during the summer months, has seen the dividends, but not in the manner he expected.
When the season started, the spotlight was firmly placed upon another Sunset League running back. Across town at Edison, Kaleaph Carter was named a preseason All-American in at least one publication. Carter was to be the star. McGehee had more modest goals. He just wanted to try to match Carter's rushing totals.
However, Carter was injured before the Chargers' first game and he never fully recovered, gaining just 467 yards. McGehee said that with Carter out of action, his league-leading rushing mark didn't mean as much.
"That was kind of my goal, to be the leader in rushing in our league," McGehee said. "But when he got hurt, I just moved on to other goals like being up there with other backs in the county."
Said Pascoe: "(You) knew he was going to be good. He's the kind of guy who doesn't sneak up on you, because if he does, he'll bloody your nose."
McGEHEE GAME BY GAME
Opponent Score Yards Carries Avg TD Corona del Mar 27-7 152 22 6.9 1 Bishop Montgomery 28-8 100 11 9.1 0 Newport Harbor 7-12 101 17 5.9 0 LB Wilson 16-13 101 15 6.7 1 Mater Dei 13-30 153 19 8.1 0 Westminster 20-3 109 23 4.7 0 Fountain Valley 27-31 110 20 5.5 1 Marina 35-6 196 19 10.3 3 Ocean View 13-6 95 24 4.0 0 Edison 6-7 211 31 6.8 0 Totals 10 Games 1,328 201 6.6 6