Lamont Lovett would much rather absorb the sting of a linebacker's hit than relive the pain he felt when he saw the nickname his teammates had taped to his locker.
The sign read "Fumbles Senior," referring to the Franklin High tailback's tendency to give up the football at crucial points in a game. His younger brother, Lamar Lovett, was dubbed "Fumbles Junior," more because of his bloodlines than a propensity for turnovers.
"It was tough on me," said Lamont Lovett, who will start Friday night night when the Panthers play at Jordan at 7:30. "I would get up high and stick the ball up. People began to notice that and were socking at the ball."
Though Lovett gained 983 yards in 175 carries last year, maintaining the confidence of his teammates was even more difficult than gripping the football.
So when he felt the ball squirting out of his arms in a game against Locke, sheer determination took over. He trapped the ball between his legs and waddled 15 yards into the end zone.
"I said, 'No way am I going to fumble this one,' " Lovett said.
He didn't and thus began his turnover turnaround.
"Fumbles Senior" is long gone. Franklin players now call Lovett "Dickerson," after the Indianapolis Colts' back Eric Dickerson. Lovett has a library of Dickerson videos that he studies in order to perfect a "bounce move."
"A lot of times I've been running and I've bounced outside and stiff-armed a guy for an extra 15 yards," Lovett said. "I don't realize I've done it until I watch the film."
In fact, Lovett has revamped his entire running style. He shies away from trying to juke defenders, a method he relied upon heavily until the last few games of last season.
"When you dance around, sometimes you get away but you get ripped a lot," he said. "If you get caught up high dancing inside, it's not a good feeling."
Now, instead of trying to spin, chatter and high-step his way out of trouble, he punishes people who stand in his way.
"My coaches told me I don't know my own strength," said the 6-foot, 2-inch Lovett, who bench presses more than 300-pounds--a 75-pound increase from the end of last season. Lamont and Lamar have lifted weights nearly every day of the summer with assistant Jose Aguilar. And the Lovetts' progress hasn't gone unnoticed.
"I'd give them the written workout and they'd do the whole thing," Coach Armando Gonzalez said. "Most kids would get the workout, cut it and corner it. Those two would do the whole thing. And if they thought it wasn't enough, they would do something else."
As a result of his work ethic, Lovett no longer questions his physical prowess. In fact, he has no qualms about downplaying defenders.
"I don't respect defensive backs," he said. "If one gets in my way on a sweep, I can wipe him out. But if it's one of those 200-pound stud defensive backs--a linebacker with speed--I'll find a way."
But don't think that Lovett talks down opponents on the field. He rarely says a word while playing.
"When I run somebody over and he's on the ground talking--he can talk," he said. "He's on the ground and I don't care if he's talking."
The emergence of Lovett should complete a restructuring of the Franklin offense. The Panthers won their second consecutive City Section 3-A Division championship last season behind the strong arm of quarterback Ronnie Lopez, who will play this season for Pierce College. That leaves junior Santiago Alvarez at the controls.
The quarterback situation will shift a large part of the Franklin offense to the ground game, giving Lovett an opportunity to show his mettle.
Said Gonzalez: "I try not to pressure him. But I can't wait to turn him loose. We haven't had a big back like that in a long time."
Lovett has lofty expectations for the season.
"My ultimate goal is to get 2,000 yards this season," he said. "It's a big one but I'd love to get it."
A big season would push Lovett's college stock even higher. He has been recruited by several Division I schools but no recruiting letter was more thrilling than his first.
"In tenth grade I got a letter from Stanford," said Lovett, who maintains a 3.0 grade-point average. "To me, it felt like a letter of intent."